David Dickinson’s Very Unpleasant Demise

David Dickinson, father of John Dickerson, was born in North Carolina, some time before 1753. After really a LOT of sorting out of Wayne County, NC Dickinsons, I have concluded that he was most likely the son of Daniel Dickinson and grandson of John Dickinson, “Gentleman Planter” of Northampton County, NC.

David Dickinson died, without a will, in September of 1811. The first item in his estate file is a detailed bill from his doctors. It shows that David died as a result of some kind of accident (perhaps a fall from a horse?) and that the treatment itself was pretty harrowing. A rough transcription follows.

North Carolina Wills and Estates for Wayne County at Family Search.

Sep. 16th 1811

To attending sd Dec’d in his lifetime at Ephraim Daniels in the night & staying all night…replacing fractured arm being broke in two places and dressing wounds.

It sounds to me that a twice-broken arm was badly set, and that the doctor was brought in to “replace” or re-set it. There may have been other wounds as well that required treatment.

Anodyne pills No. 2 2/6

“Anodyne” is simply an old term for painkiller or analgesic. My guess is that these pills contained opium, the most widely used painkiller at the time. (“2/6” likely means 2 shillings and sixpence.)

Sugar of Lead 2/6

Lead acetate, or lead sugar, is a sweet-tasting, but highly toxic, compound that was used for various medicinal purposes until people figured out that it was, you know, poison.

Refrigerant powder (or mixture) for wounds

I believe that this was some sort of cooling poultice, possibly baking soda, to alleviate or “draw out” the heat of a badly infected wound.

Sep 18th

To attendance at Ephraim Daniels 30 Bark 7/6

“Bark” was likely willow bark, the original source of salicylic acid, now known as aspirin. Willow bark tea was a widely used pain remedy and fever reducer in early America.

Sep 22nd

Elixir Vitriol 2/6

Elixir of vitriol was a mixture of sulfuric acid and other more palatable substances. It was normally used to treat stomach disorders. Given that David had ingested both lead and opium over the preceding week, it would not be surprising that his stomach was upset!

Sep 24th and 25th

More opium

As the patient declined, clearly in great pain, two other entries are for some undefined “cordial” which was likely laudanum. Finally, “anodyne camphorata” was administered. This is now known as paregoric, another form of opium.

Blister plaster

The situation must have at this point been fairly desperate, as the doctors resorted to a blister plaster. This was not a bandage to soothe blisters! It may have been a simple mustard plaster, which, while it wouldn’t have done the patient any good, wouldn’t have been too unpleasant if it were removed before it could cause burns. But other substances were also used for these plasters, including powdered “blister beetles,” or Spanish Fly. Given that it is actually called a “blister plaster,” and that the doctors had clearly exhausted other available options, I think it was probably one of the stronger concoctions, and that it did, in fact, burn enough to cause blisters, in a truly medieval procedure that you can read about here, if you have a strong stomach!

So, poor David Dickinson sadly died a slow and very unpleasant death. But, how interesting that it was recorded in such detail in his probate file for descendants to read about–and to be thankful for modern medicine!

1887 advertisement for mustard plasters, from Pinterest.

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