Elizabeth Clarke: Teething Death

Knowing that the infant mortality rate was higher in the nineteenth century than it is now does not make the discovery of a child’s death any easier. I am curious as to what my ancestors’ children died of, and I have previously blogged about 4-year-old Agnes Owen, who died from measles.

Elizabeth Clarke was born on 10 March 1866 in Palgrave, Suffolk.1 She was one of my grandfather’s older siblings, and she was the fourth child born to Benjamin Clarke, an agricultural labourer, and Mary Ann Warby Hunt. The couple had their daughter, Elizabeth, baptised at the parish church of Palgrave when she was about one month old, on 8 April 1866.2

Less than a week after her first birthday, Elizabeth died unexpectedly.3 Her death certificate noted that she had died a natural death, but provides no further clues as to what led to her death. However, the certificate does not that information on Elizabeth’s death had been received from Fred B. Marriott, coroner for Suffolk, after an inquest that had been held on 18 March 1867.

The coroner’s records for this period in this part of Suffolk appear not to have survived.4 However, inquests were often reported in the local newspapers, and that was the case for Elizabeth Clarke.5

The newspaper report in the Norwich Mercury paints a heart-breaking picture. When Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Ann, put her to bed, she was well. However, when Mary Ann checked in on Elizabeth later in the afternoon, she found that her daughter had died.

As with all sudden, unnatural, or suspicious deaths, the coroner was obliged to investigate.4 Frederick B. Marriott, Suffolk’s coroner at the time, held an inquest into Elizabeth’s death at the Swan Inn in Palgrave. Elizabeth’s death was determined to have been caused by convulsions associated with teething.

While teething has now been shown not to cause death in infants or children,6 in previous centuries dentition was feared by parents as it was believed to cause fever, diarrhea and convulsions.6-7 A study of teething deaths among Utah pioneers attempted to link teething deaths to modern diagnoses such as SIDS, but found no trend.6 It is unlikely that children whose death was thought to be due to teething all died from the same condition, and it seems unlikely that we will ever know what it was that killed 1-year old Elizabeth Clarke.

On 22 March 1867, Benjamin and Mary Ann buried Elizabeth in the churchyard at Palgrave.8


  1. Day book of Hugh James Clarke, senior.
  2. Baptisms (PR) England. Palgrave, Suffolk. 8 April 1866. Clarke, Elizabeth. Original at Suffolk Record Office.
  3. Deaths (CR) England. Palgrave, Suffolk. 16 March 1867. Palgrave, Suffolk. Clarke, Elizabeth. Entry no. 209. Hartismere registration district. Vol. 4a, p. 333.
  4. Gibson, Jeremy and Rogers, Colin. (2000) Coroners’ Records in England and Wales. 2nd ed. Bury, Lancashire: Federation of Family History Societies.
  5. Norwich Mercury. (1867) Local News. Palgrave. Norwich Mercury. 23 March. p. 7d.
  6. Gibbons, Harry L. and Hebdon, C. Kent. (1991) Teething as a cause of death: a historical review. The Western Journal of Medicine. Vol. 155, No. 6., pp. 658-659. https://bit.ly/2Gvl0LE
  7. Grace, Maria. (2017) Teething: a leading cause of infant mortality? https://bit.ly/2IvuE37
  8. Burials (PR) England. Palgrave, Suffolk. 22 March 1867. Clarke, Elizabeth. Original at Suffolk Record Office.

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