The cause of death on John Henry Evans‘ death certificate is fairly laconic: “brain injury due to auto accident.”
Newspaper accounts detail a more complicated story. About eight o’clock on the evening of April 11, Evans and J.D. O’Neal, on whose land he lived, were driving wagons to fertilizer to O’Neal’s farm near Lamm’s School [today, near the intersection of Interstate 95 and U.S. 264.] The men stopped on the shoulder of the road to talk to O’Neal’s brother. Both wagons were lit with lanterns. Erwin Stewart of Durham smashed into other wagons in a Graham truck and flipped over in a ditch. According to witnesses, Stewart’s truck had only one headlight working and had drifted partly on the shoulder of the road. The wagons were demolished, one mule was badly injured, and John Henry Evans was first thought dead. He was rushed to the “colored hospital.” As his death certificate notes, Evans lingered for five days before succumbing to injuries to his head.
Wilson Daily Times, 12 April 1929.
For all the carelessness hinted at in the initial report, a month later, Stewart was acquitted of a manslaughter charge in Evans’ death.
“The worst had happened, Fields was dead,” and the Times penned a tribute to its loyal subscriber.
On 26 February 1903, James Fields, 52, of Wilson, son of Alex and Mary Fields, married Lucy Warren, 30, of Wilson, at her residence. Missionary Baptist minister E.P. Pearsall performed the ceremony in the presence of Charles B. Gay, Ella Gay, and William C. Barnes.
In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: James Fields, 49, odd jobs laborer, and wife Lucy, 32, laundress.
James P. Fields died 21 August 1911 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 58 years old; was married; lived at 213 Hackney Street; worked as a gardener; and was born in Boyton [Boydton], Virginia, to Elex Fields and Mary Smithering. W.B. Fields of Wilson was informant.
In June 1928, a Atlantic Coast Line railroad worker spotted a grievously wounded elderly man lying by the tracks. He flagged a train, and the “injured negro” was taken to the company’s hospital almost twenty miles north in Rocky Mount. He died. Two days later, the Wilson Daily Times reported the death of “Uncle Dortch.”
So did his death certificate.
Though he lived at the Wilson County Home, also known as “the poorhouse,” no one seemed to know Uncle Dortch’s surname. I regret that I have not been able to restore it to him.
“Fractured Skull (found by side of R.R. track near Wilson)”
Death certificates are the official records of death, but often tell us very little about how the decedent’s family understood or experienced their loved one’s final illness and transition.
Jesse A. Jacobs died 6 July 1926 of apoplexy (or, as we would now call it, cerebral hemorrhage.) “Hernia inguinal” was listed a contributing cause. “Papa Jesse” reared my grandmother Hattie Henderson Ricks. He died when she was 16; he was her great-aunt Sarah Henderson‘s husband. Though his hernia, which apparently had strangulated, did not directly kill him, his suffering and the blame cast within the family after his death deeply impacted her.
Here’s what she told me:
“[Papa] was ruptured from the time I can remember.
“… He was supposed to have an operation. He was ruptured, and [his daughter] Carrie [Jacobs Bradshaw], she claimed she didn’t know it. And I said, now, I was the youngest child was there, and I knowed that all that stuff that was down ‘tween his legs was something wrong with him. And I had sense enough to know not to ask no grown folks or nothing about it. And I didn’t ask Mama. I didn’t say nothing, but I was wondering, ‘What in the world was wrong with him?’
“… And Papa, he was a good person, and they want to accuse him of going with the nurse up there at Mercy Hospital. I don’t know whether she was married or not, I don’t think she was married, but she was real light-skinned lady, smaller lady, and he went up there for something, probably his rupture – I know he had to go to the hospital for treatments or something. Anyway, the last time, Carrie came down and she was fussing about if she’d known Papa had to have an operation, she’d have come down, and he’d have had it. Instead of waiting until it was too late. Now the last week they wasn’t expecting him to live. But, no bigger than I was, I knew he had it. And she was grown, old enough for my mother, and then she talking ‘bout she didn’t know he was ruptured? Well, all his tubes was, ah – And he always had to wear a truss to hold hisself up. And when he’d be down, I’d be down there sweeping at the school, and he’d be out there plowing a field he rented out there, and he’d come up, lay down on the floor and take a chair and he’d put his legs up over the chair like that, and I’d wet the cloths from the bowl where was in the hall, some of the old dust cloths, and hand them to him, and he’d put them down on his side, and you could hear it ‘bluckup’ and that thing would go back there.
“But see it had got, his intestines, that tissue between there had bursted, and the doctor told him he needed an operation. So he was gon get it, but he didn’t have money enough to get it. Didn’t save up money enough to have the operation. So none of the children – all of them know, as large as his – but leastways he couldn’t hide himself, ‘cause even from a little child, I could see that for years, and I wondered what it was. ‘Cause I know everybody didn’t have it, at least didn’t have all that in their britches. [Pause.] And Carrie come down there, and she fuss Mama out about him not having the operation and this kind of stuff. And [Mama] said, ‘Well, we never had the money to get the operation. We tried to go and get it, and we’d pay on it by time.’ But, naw, he wanted, he was gon make something off the crop, and he’d pay. Pay it and have it then. But he never got the chance. So when they put him in the hospital and operated on him — say when they cut him, he had over a quart of pus in him. I think it was on a Thursday, and he lived ‘til that Tuesday.”
Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, 1998; all rights reserved.
Newly arrived in Wilson, James McKeel fell over dead on his employer’s front steps.
“The deceased had only lived here a short time.” “We cannot get any information about the deceased at all. It seems that he was a recent employee of a mill here and came out and sat down upon the steps, and dropped over dead.”
The local registrar attributed the cause of Esther Atkinson Pridgen‘s miscarriage to recent long-distance travel. Though midwife Nan Best delivered the child in Wilson, it appears that Chauncey Pridgen was living in Atlantic City already, where he is found in the 1940 census.
“Supposed trip from Atlantic City N.J. the day before caused mother to miscarry.”
Household appliances created fearsome everyday hazards in early twentieth-century Wilson. A stove explosion shattered insurance agent Lee A. Moore‘s tibia and fibula at the ankle on 17 February 1948. The injury did not kill Moore, but doubtless undercut his ability to cope with chronic kidney disease. He died a week later.