Thursday, July 29, 2021

52 Ancestors - HEALTH: Death by Epaulus

Ague. Dropsy. Consumption. Apoplexy. Biliousness. Child Bed Disease. Teething. Grippe. Whooping Cough. If you lived in the days before modern medicine, you could die from any one of these conditions. They are among the causes of death found in mortality schedules and death registers, many of which include the names of my ancestors.

1870 Mortality Schedule Page Co, VA

I found my 3X great-grandmother Mary Ann Armentrout Jollett in the 1870 Mortality Schedule for Page County, Virginia. She was 75 when she died from “Epaulus.”

Try as I might, I have been unable to find this word in a dictionary or in a list of historic medical terms. However, I found a word that appears to be pronounced the same: EPULIS. If this was Mary Ann’s disease, we can conclude the census taker did not know the correct spelling.


Epulis is basically a tumor in the gums. There are different kinds, none of which are very pleasant to read about, so I’m leaving it at “tumor.” Epulis can result from loss of teeth, trauma, or any kind of irritation in the mouth that allows bacteria to enter.


Congenital epulis (epulides in the plural) can grow so large as to obstruct breathing and impede eating. That sounds pretty awful.

Just as bad, and probably more likely in Mary Ann’s case, is that a tumor or lesion that bleeds or produces pus is a sure sign of infection. Any bacteria from the mouth which can travel through the blood can lead to other diseases like cardiovascular disease.


There was another condition with many syllables that maybe Mary Ann’s husband Fielding Jollett mispronounced resulting in the census taker recording “Epaulus”: Erysipelas. This was a TERRIBLE skin rash caused by hemolytic streptococcus bacteria which is associated with a number of diseases including strep throat, ear infections, tonsillitis, and meningitis. It can cause toxic shock syndrome and the death of skin tissue.

Erysipelas caused affected areas of the skin to turn bright red and to swell. Usually lesions formed on the face, scalp, hands, and legs. They were hot to the touch and the patient would be feverish. In Mary Ann’s day, erysipelas epidemics caused severe and often fatal infections. Today penicillin usually takes care of it.


Another term for “erysipelas” was St. Anthony’s Fire. If Mary Ann died from erysipelas, “St. Anthony’s Fire” would have been easier to pronounce AND to spell!




Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.


© 2021, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. That is sad and interesting. Where in Page County were they living?

  2. One of my 3rd great grandfather's is listed in the 1880 mortality schedule as dying from erysipelas, and it was spelled correctly. When I first found his record and looked up the definition it really struck me how fortunate we are to have antibiotics. Thanks for sharing.