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.