SIDS & "Smothered" Infants in Slavery

One of the most interesting and frustrating collections of information I’ve perused lately is the U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules. These documents contain lists of the people who died within a certain period of time in a given locality along with the gender, race, marital status, free or slave status, cause of death, occupation, date of death, and how long the person was sick with whatever malady claimed his or her life. (There were some changes made to what demographics were collected for some census years.) What is frustrating about these records is that they’re not available but for certain years and the enumerator’s handwriting is often illegible or key words have been spelled incorrectly. Some errors could be attributed to the inaccuracy of information provided by the family during the census. These records are also not a complete list of deaths, it is estimated that up to 40% of deaths weren’t reported, so many people who actually died don’t appear in the Mortality Schedules.

As I read the various causes of death I noticed a number of children were reported to have died from being “smothered.” Commonalities among these smothered children were death in infancy and that they were mostly slaves. No surname was listed so I knew that trying to track down grave information about these children would be an exercise in futility, given the dates of the deaths and their status as slaves. If the graves were marked at all, it would most likely be with a simple field stone with no epitaph. 

“Persons who died during the year ending 1st June 1860 in Southern District of Pittsylvania County, state of Virginia, enumerated by me, Drury Blair, Ass’t Marshal.”

Amelia, 1 mo., Female, Black, Slave, Dec., Smothered, Suddenly
Baby, 1, Female, Black, Slave, Nov., Smothered, Suddenly
Infant, 3 months, Female, Mulatto, Slave, Jan., Accidental Smothered, Suddenly
Daniel, 2 (or 3) months, Male, Mulatto, Slave, May, Smothered, Suddenly
Willis, 6 months, Female, Black, Slave, April, Smothered, Suddenly
Infant, 1 month, Male, Black, Slave, August, Smothered, Suddenly
Joe, 4 months, Male, Black, Slave, June, Smothered, Suddenly

On this schedule there were 257 total deaths reported. There were 21 infants who died “suddenly” of “unknown” causes. One of those deaths had no race or slave status listed. There were other infants who died of unknown reasons, but those had an illness duration of several days or longer. 

These numbers were enough to make me research “smothering” as a COD for infants, particularly in the rural South in the 1800s. One statistic I found was that 98% of smothering infant deaths reported in Virginia between 1850-1860 were African-American. It is likely that that percentage was so high because due to the social stigma attached to smothering. Unexpected white infant deaths were reported as “teething,” attributed to a common illness, or simply listed as unknown. Smothering, in this sense, is what was known as crib death and what is referred to now as SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). It was also called overlaying because it was thought that the mother rolled over on top of the child while sleeping and suffocated him or her to death. Overlaying most often occurred in families of lower socioeconomic status and sometimes blamed on a mother’s ignorance of child-rearing or overcrowded living conditions. Many of the total deaths that were reported as “unknown” were also really due to SIDS but since autopsies on infants were rare, there’s no way to tell if these deaths were really SIDS or cases of infanticide. Savitt’s book claims that most of smothering deaths were SIDS even though there are reports of women in slavery killing their children to keep them from facing the horrors of slave life, among other reasons.

Jackson, Ron V., Accelerated Indexing Systems, comp.. U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules Index [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 1999.

Savitt, Todd L. (2002). Medicine and slavery: the diseases and health care of blacks in antebellum Virginia. University of Illinois Press.

One thought on “SIDS & "Smothered" Infants in Slavery”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: