The science of vaccination advances by leaps and bounds in the last half of the 19th century, greatly reducing the chances of dying young from disease. At the same time, the Civil War takes away many in their prime, and the U.S. experiences a new kind of mourning when, for the first time, a president is assassinated.

Life Expectancy

The average life expectancy during this era was 40.


Joseph Lister's cleanliness techniques are dramatically reducing the number of deaths due to infection.


More and more people—children and adults­—are getting vaccinated against deadly cholera, anthrax, rabies and typhoid fever.

Pasteur & Koch

Thanks to Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, it is becoming firmly established that something called germs, and not “spontaneous generation,” causes the diseases that often lead the way to dusty death.


American newspapers avoid the subject of sex but trumpet the macabre details of dying, even among ordinary persons.

Civil War

The Civil War has created havoc with the popular idea of “the good death,” in which people die composed and at peace with God—ideally surrounded by loved ones at home.

Let's Take a Selfie

More and more portraits of grieving families, including the recently departed in his or her coffin, are now done as photographs.


There have been experimental proposals to make coffins of iron, clay, glass or even rubber, instead of wood.


Fewer people are being buried in churchyards and more are being laid to rest in city or town cemeteries, many of them as vast and scenic as a park.

Elmer McCurdy

The embalmed body of outlaw Elmer McCurdy has toured for years in fairground sideshows—and with patrons placing nickels in McCurdy’s mouth, he is earning far more in death than in life.

Gettysburg Address

The greatest American speech ever was delivered on a Pennsylvania battlefield with more than half the dead soldiers still unburied.

Notable Deaths

Among the most devastating deaths have been those of two American presidents: one martyred in a theater and another gunned down in a train station.

Garfield and Lincoln photos by Library of Congress

In the News

1851 - Herman Melville publishes Moby Dick

1855 - Armed clashes erupt between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas

1861 - Civil War begins in U.S.A.

1866 - Alfred Nobel invents dynamite

1876 - Native forces led by Sitting Bull defeat Gen. Custer at Little Big Horn

1886 - Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago kills seven policemen

1892 - Pinkerton guards and Pennsylvania militia put down steel workers strike in Homestead, Pa.