Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Trainer Family Tragedy

Huron County Court House, Goderich
On April 8, 1870, Bernard Trainer paid a visit to the Huron County Court House. This should have been a happy occasion: he was going to register the births of his new son and daughter, born on March 16. But Bernard was also there to report the death of his wife, Louisa, just a week after the twins’ birth. Louisa was only 41 years old, and in addition to infants Isabella and Arthur, she was leaving behind eight other children between the ages of nineteen and four.

Sadly, the twins did not long outlive their mother. Isabella died in May 1870 and Arthur in July. The 1871 Canadian census, which also recorded the deaths that occurred in the previous year, gave “consumption”—tuberculosis—as the cause of death for both children. The tragic events that the Trainer family faced in 1870 make clear to us today what everyone in the nineteenth century knew: that childbirth was a dangerous time for women, and that the first year of life for infants was perilous.

In fact, Albert and Isabella were not the first children that the Trainer family had lost. Two years earlier, Louisa had given birth to another set of twins. Evelyna Euphemia and Herbert Patton were born on January 24, 1868. They, along with Alice and her younger brother William, were baptized at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Goderich on March 22. The Huron Signal reported that Evelyna died on July 25, 1868, but we don’t know exactly how long Herbert lived. Municipalities in Canada were not required to record births and deaths until 1869, and the microfilmed issues of the Huron Signal that I examined at the Library and Archives Canada were missing pages and sometimes very hard to read.


Justus von Leibig patented the first
commercial infant formula in 1865. By 1883,
there were 27 brands on the market.
It seems likely that Herbert also died in the summer of 1868. Summer was a particularly dangerous time for infants. Hot and dry weather meant that clean drinking water was in short supply and it was difficult to maintain sanitary conditions, especially in cities. If Louisa was unable to breastfeed the children or had to supplement with formula—a likely scenario with twins—the babies would have been vulnerable to a collection of diseases that historians identify as “weanling diarrhea.” 

Tainted milk, contaminated water, and unclean bottles all contributed to diseases of the intestines, malnutrition, and dehydration. Moreover, even those infants who survived bouts of diarrhea were nutritionally compromised and thus at increased risk of contracting, and dying from, other infectious diseases. Isabella and Arthur, too, may have been affected by weanling diarrhea, since they did not have a mother to nurse them. If they also suffered from tuberculosis, the effect of malnutrition would have been significantly multiplied.

Before she was seven years old, Alice had experienced the death of her mother and four siblings. We have no record today of what her feelings were, but it seems safe to say that it was something that affected her for the rest of her life.  Her particular concern for women’s and children’s health (memorialized today by the Alice T. Miner Center for Women and Children at CVPH) undoubtedly has its roots in that childhood experience, as well as the loss of her own child. 


We have no pictures of Louisa
Saunders Trainer. This photo of
her sister Ann may give us an idea
of what she looked like.
These events also clearly had a long-term impact on the other Trainer siblings, particularly Matilda, Bertha, and Louisa. Matilda, of course, was suddenly responsible for the care of nine younger siblings. When Bernard Trainer died in 1876, she effectively became the only parent. Fourteen-year-old Bertha must also have had to take on a new role, since Matilda continued to work as a teacher. One wonders if this early experience of the burdens of raising a family played into the sisters’ decision to remain unmarried. 

In 1930, Louisa Trainer endowed the Alexandra and Marine General Hospital in Goderich with $10,000 “to be used in giving hospital care and attention to the poor and needy of the Town of Goderich and vicinity.” This fund was to be known as the Matilda Trainer Endowment Fund. The hospital had come too late to help Mrs. Trainer, but perhaps other families would be spared thanks to Louisa’s generosity. And in naming the fund for Matilda, she honored the sister who became both mother and father.

Information about this chapter in the Trainer family’s history is drawn from the 1871 Canadian census, Huron County death and birth records, the Wesleyan Methodist baptismal registers of Huron County, and issues of the Huron Signal published between 1868 and 1870. Data about the causes of infant mortality in 19th-century Canada came from Larry A. Sawchuk and Stacie D.A. Burke, “Mortality in an Early Ontario Community, 1876-1885," Urban History Review 29, no. 1 (2000), 33-47.

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