In March 2019, Heber City transferred a large batch of historical records to the State Archives. Although we were able to fully process and create finding aids for the bulk of the transfer that same year, the subsequent coronavirus pandemic interrupted our project. We are now eagerly wrapping up the final pieces, most of which are records from the Heber City cemetery.
These cemetery records document lot ownership, burials, perpetual care of cemetery plots, and more. Some of the most fascinating of this batch of records are those created by the cemetery sexton documenting burials in the Heber City cemetery. Known as the Sexton’s Reports, each burial is recorded on a standard, pre-printed form that includes information such as the name, sex, place of birth, and other biographical details of the deceased, the names of his or her parents, the place of death, cause of death, date of burial, and more. Thumbing through these records paints quite the picture of life (and death) in Heber in the early twentieth century.
Common causes of death are “old age,” or “general debility,” likely related to old age. Other frequently cited causes include those related to pregnancies, premature births, and stillbirths, as well as deaths in the workplace environment. John Treagea, only 35 years old, for instance, was crushed while working at a lumber yard. The Park Record, from neighboring Park City, reported on the accident, stating that Traegea had only been on the job for two days at the time of the accident, and left behind a wife and daughter.
Occasionally, uncommon causes of death can be found as well, such as that of John Peterson, aged 49. Peterson, a Swedish born Heber resident, died from “freezing,” on March 3, 1917. A quick search of local papers illuminates the story. A record-breaking storm had swept through the region that day, dropping snow throughout the Salt Lake valley and the Wasatch Back. In Salt Lake City, winds were recorded at 49 miles per hour, with snow drifts upwards of three and four feet high; in the mountains, it was likely much worse. While the local paper’s article on Peterson’s death is unfortunately mostly illegible, an article from the Park Record plainly lays out details about the storm itself, which stranded the Park City-Salt Lake City train for two nights in Parley’s Canyon. Peterson was apparently caught outside when the blizzard blew in.
Looking through these records can also give one a sense of appreciation for advances in the medical field over the past one hundred years. Several Heber residents reportedly died from diabetes, dropsy (edema), diphtheria, and other diseases which are still dangerous, but nowadays are mostly treatable and/or preventable. Even the available medical treatments meant to help at the time were dangerous and could themselves lead to death. This was the case for Helena Murri, or Hannah Helena Roberts Murri.
Helena, who was 29 at the time of her death, had reportedly “been a sufferer of various complaints,” for a long time, according to the Wasatch Wave. “Previous to the time of her demise,” the paper wrote, she had “undergone operations for her ailments,”and apparently never really recovered from one of them. Helena’s official cause of death was “acidosis of late chlorform [sic] poisoning.” The paper reported that she’d been on the operating table for appendicitis when she died. Chloroform was commonly used as an anesthetic and she was likely administered too much of it during the surgical procedure.
Also interesting is the unique perspective on public health emergencies such as the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. At least 50 million people died worldwide from the flu over the course of the pandemic, which lasted roughly from the spring of 1918 to the summer of 1919. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that a third of the population of the entire globe was infected with the virus at the time, with deaths and serious disease most common in the young and healthy, a reversal from many disease outbreaks.
Neither Utah as a state, nor Heber as a city, were spared the effects of the pandemic. In the book of sexton’s report documenting deaths between 1916-1920, a solid one-third of the entries are related to the flu. “Pandemic influenza,” “Spanish influenza,” “influenza,” “pneumonia,” and “bronchial-pneumonia,” all indicate that the deceased was a victim of the widespread and dangerous virus.
Between October 1918–April 1919, there were forty deaths attributed to these causes. At the time, Heber’s population was around 2,100, meaning they lost about 2% of their population in just seven months. Proportionally, this is a huge number. At 329.5 million people in the United States today, if we lost 2% of our population nationally, that would be over 6.5 million deaths. For comparison, heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, kills only about 697,000 people, or 0.2% of our population annually.*
Research through records like this, especially when paired with other resources such as local newspapers, can provide a rich understanding of life in Utah. The early twentieth century saw monumental change in workplace safety laws, medical advances, technology, and more, and evidence of each of these can be teased out of the historical record by those of us interested in historical discovery and detective work.
*“Heart Disease,” National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/heart-disease.htm, accessed January 27, 2022.