Friday, December 16, 2016

Mansion Myth Busters- Dead by Forty?

By Ian Mumpton

18th Century Memento Mori
Always a popular topic, this one was brought up last week by a visitor who asked us to tackle it in a post. So without further adieu, as requested...

The Myth: 18th century people died young all the time. People born into the 18th century were lucky to make it to the age of forty.

The Breakdown: On tours of Schuyler Mansion, many visitors express amazement at learning that Philip Schuyler died just three days before his 71st birthday. “That was so old for the time!” Despite frequent attempts by historians and historical interpreters to dispel this myth, it clings on with a tenacity born of long tradition and the fact that the statement itself is correct; 18th century people were lucky to make it to 40. While the numbers vary by region and decade, rough life expectancy in the 18th century was approximately 40 years. This sounds pretty dire, especially considering that the average American life expectancy was over 78 years in 2012; nearly double that of our 18th century forbearers. So what’s the catch? Is this a myth or not?

The myth lies in how people understand the statistics. A life expectancy of 40 doesn’t mean that 18th century people had hit premature old age by their late 30’s, or that they were dicing with death every year after that point. Forty years was the average life expectancy of an 18th century person at birth. Childhood, especially the first few months of infancy, was an incredibly dangerous time in a person’s life. Of the fifteen children born to Catharine and Philip Schuyler, seven died within their first year of life. Philip recorded the births, and all too often the early deaths, of his children in the family Bible:
1761 July the 29th in the morning were born our fourth and fifth children[,] one a son and the other a daughter. The son died unbaptized, the daughter was named Cornelia. Witnesses Colonel John Bradstreet and Judah Van Renselaer. Baptized by Domine Eliardus Westerlo, on the 29th of the following month this child died. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh, Holy is the name of the Lord.
The 40-year statistic takes this high rate of infant mortality into account, resulting in a distressingly low expectancy to modern eyes. However, anyone surviving the dangers of childhood could, upon arriving at the threshold of adulthood, easily expect to live to the age of sixty or seventy provided illness didn’t cut their life short. It can be extremely difficult to interpret age and mortality in the 18th century, but sometimes it can be enlightening to look in detail at a single family or household. To put this into perspective, let’s crunch some numbers for the Schuyler family, including Philip, Catharine, and their fifteen children.*

Let’s start with the ages of the Schuylers at the time of their deaths. Those who died at less than one year old are listed as age 0:
  •          Philip- 70
  •          Catharine (mother)- 69
  •          Angelica- 58
  •         Elizabeth- 97
  •          Margaret- 42
  •          Unnamed son- 0
  •          Cornelia- 0
  •          John Bradstreet- 0
  •          John Bradstreet- 30
  •          Philip Jeremiah- 67
  •          Unnamed child- 0
  •          Unnamed child- 0
  •          Unnamed child- 0
  •          Rensselaer- 74
  •          Cornelia- 32
  •          Cortlandt- 0
  •          Catharine (daughter)- 76

        Cumulative age: 615 years.

Margaret Schuyler, miniature by James Peale
Painted seven years before her death at age 42 in 1801
The average age of the Schuyler family at the time of their deaths was approximately 36.2 years old. In addition to the seven infants who died in their first year, two of Philip and Catharine’s adult children predeceased them as well; John Bradstreet Schuyler and Margaret Schuyler van Rensselaer. In 1808 their daughter Cornelia likewise died of illness, just four years after her father, at the age of 32. However, Philip was nearly 71 when he died, Catharine was 69, and their daughter Elizabeth lived to the age of 97! While their average lifespan was just below the average life expectancy for the period, their ages at time of death varied greatly. Many died young, but three of their children could have looked back on their seventieth birthday by several years (twenty seven in Elizabeth’s case).

These numbers can tell us quite a bit. For example, to understand just how dangerous the period of infancy was, let’s remove the seven children who died in infancy from the equation. In this case, counting Philip, Catharine, and their eight adult children, the Schuyler lifespan rises dramatically to an average of 61.5 years. Again, this includes three individuals who died before the age of 40. While below the modern expectancy, 61 isn’t terrible for a family plagued by poor health, as the Schuylers were.

Angelica Schuyler Church and one of her children, accompanied
by a servant. While the painting title identifies the child as her
son Philip, it is possible that it is actually her son Richard. If so,
Richard died less than a year after the portrait was made.
That is not to say that child mortality is the only factor depressing the average life expectancy for the 18th century, especially for women. Many people are aware of the dangers of childbirth in the early-modern era; one study of maternal death in childbirth for 16th-18th century England suggests an approximate rate of 27 out of 1,000. While the danger was statistically low for a single pregnancy, the high birth-rate of the time meant that many women ran this risk many times throughout their lives.  Pregnancy involving multiple children was significantly more dangerous, for both mother and child, yet Catharine Schuyler survived bearing twins and triplets. Sadly none of these children survived, however this further affects the numbers for the family. Had Catharine had single births for these pregnancies, even assuming that the children did not survive (which they may well have) the average lifespan of the family rises to the age of 47.3.

Status could also strongly affect a person’s life expectancy through factors such as nutrition, especially in childhood, and medical care. As much as 18th century medicine is derided as being “backwards” and utterly lacking in scientific rigor, the century saw an incredible variety of new theories and approaches to treating illness. Philip Schuyler, one of the wealthiest merchants and land magnates in New York, had access to a whole slew of treatments, both traditional and cutting edge. This was partially due to his wealth, but also because of his connections and the time he was able to devote to “staying up” on the latest scientific developments. For example, while Schuyler did receive medical treatment in the form of bleeding, purgatives, laxatives, and diuretics, he also bathed in and drank mineral water from the High Rock Springs at Saratoga, was treated for fever with Peruvian Bark (from which we get quinine), and was on an early oxygen machine in the 1790s.

Catharine "Kitty" Schuyler, age 15, the youngest
child of the family. She lived to be 76 years old.
The purpose of this hypothetical number play is not to discredit the oft-quoted average life expectancy of 40 years, but to put it in the proper context. On its own, the statistic can be misleading, but it can be used to gain insights into larger patterns of 18th century life when it comes to life-spans and mortality. It is true that a person born into the 18th century would have to be lucky to make it to the age of 40, mostly because they’d have to be lucky simply to make it through the first few years. Even after reaching adulthood, illness could cut a person down in their prime more readily than is the case today. However, as we can start to see here, those whom fortune and situation steered through these troubles could look forward to a lifespan much more in line with modern averages than you might think.

Speaking of lifespans, Schuyler Mansion has been around for 251 years at this point (255 if you count its age from the start of construction), and by October of 2017 we will have been open to the public as a museum for 100 of those years! Check back regularly to see posts detailing all of the fascinating and exciting restoration taking place in preparation for the 2017 season.

Interested in learning more about historical life expectancy? This link provides an interactive graph of 19th-20th century life expectancy for men and women at various ages. While it does not cover the 18th century, it is still a neat opportunity to explore the past through numbers.

*At the moment there is not enough concrete information available to compare statistics for the enslaved population of the Schuyler household, however it is estimated that infant mortality was at least 50% higher for the enslaved than for free women. It is hoped that continued research will give us a clearer indication of the life spans and life expectancy of these individuals.


  1. Thanks for the post - very interesting and helps better understand the average age issue! -

  2. Great post Paula! And a fun read.