Alsford, Martha

Alsford, Martha                1888 January 14th

Deaths from Puerperal Fever in Salisbury

Important Inquest

On Saturday an inquest was held by Mr R A Wilson at a beerhouse in Highfield, occupied by Mr W Hayter, touching the death of Martha Alsford, who died on the previous Thursday from puerperal fever. Mr Albert Noyle was foreman of the jury.

The Coroner said that they would doubtless have no difficulty as to the cause of the death of this poor woman. The death was reported to him by the medical man who was called in. The latter seemed to think that there was some neglect on the part of the midwife who attended her, therefore he thought it a matter for inquiry so that all the facts of the case may be laid before a jury.

Charles Alsford, husband of the deceased, was then called. He said that he was a laborer. His wife was 43 her last birthday. She was taken ill last Sunday morning. He went for the midwife, Mrs Bunsell, about seven o’clock. His wife had engaged her before, but not very long previous to the time, he believed. Mrs Bunsell was at home and arrived in about half-an-hour. She had to come right up from the town and it took all that time. His wife was confined about three hours after Mrs Bunsell got there. Witness did not think that Mrs Bunsell staid more then an hour after the child was born. On the following Monday morning deceased said that she was in more pain than when the child was born. Witness went for Mr Kelland on Tuesday morning. His wife died at twelve o’clock on Thursday. Mrs Bunsell had attended his wife before – twice, he thought. Mrs Mitchell, a neighbour, came to witness’s wife on Tuesday morning.

James Kelland, medical practitioner, said that he was called to see the deceased on Tuesday morning and found her exceedingly ill. The symptoms were those of puerperal fever. He saw her again on Wednesday and did all that he could for her. He went up again on Thursday but she was dead before he reached the house. Puerperal fever was a pretty frequent complaint, and was frequently fatal. It might originate without their knowing how de novo or it might be conveyed from one to another.

The Coroner : With regard to medical men I believe there is a difference of opinion, is there not, as to the duties of medical men in cases of that sort – as to whether they should give up attending them entirely or only take precaution.

Mr Kelland : Yes, that is so.

The Coroner : Of course in all cases of contagion medical men and others have a great deal of risk?

Witness : Yes.

The Coroner : You know the midwife? Yes.

She has attended cases in which you have been called in? Yes.

Have you ever had any occasion to find fault? No.

Is there any other case in which you have been called in for puerperal fever? There are two other cases at present.

In what part of the town? In the Friary. The first case of puerperal fever that I came across was that of Mrs Smith.

She is alive? She is alive. She is recovering.

When was that? I saw her on Wednesday, December 21st.

Had she been confined then? She had been confined, I think, two days previously.

Did you understand who had attended her? Yes; the same person had attended her.

What is the other case you know of? The other is Mrs Elliott in Green Croft Street. I saw her only yesterday.

Was that the first time you had seen her? Yes.

She was attended? She was attended by Mrs Bunsell.

When was she confined? On Tuesday, three days previous to my seeing her.

It appears that Mrs Bunsell’s habit was simply to attend at the actual confinement and then leave? Yes.

If that was so had she any means of knowing? I think she looked in again afterwards. She knew the condition of Mrs Smith, in the Friary, I think. There is no doubt she knew of that; from enquiries made of the people Mrs Smith (Mrs Bunsell) had been in again and knew the woman was suffering from puerperal fever.

You never met her yourself? No.

Had Mrs Smith other children? Yes.

Was she a healthy person? Yes.

Had you known her before? Yes, I had known her for some years.

Do you think there was any neglect on the part of the midwife likely to cause the death of this woman? I think the neglect, or ignorance if you like to call it, is in her having gone to several confinements when she knew she had been to a case of puerperal fever and was very likely to carry it.

Medical men, as I said before, have frequently cases and there is always a risk in all these cases? No doubt medical men do convey sometimes, but I think we all make it a rule to abstain from attending cases for some time afterwards besides taking all precautions. As far as my experience in Salisbury goes we have to hand cases over to other practitioners when we are so unfortunate as to have cases of puerperal fever.

After a confinement when does this puerperal fever show itself? It shows itself in 24 hours, rather later, not earlier.

A Juryman : Can this be conveyed without your knowledge?

The Coroner : O yes! It is like any person who has a disease. If you go to see a person with scarlet fever or small pox you may convey it. (To Mr Kelland) You do not profess to say that she knowingly did it?

Witness : Certainly not.

Catherine Bunsell, the mid-wife, wife of Charles Bunsell, laborer, Green Croft Street, was asked if she would like to give her version of what occurred, and informed that she need not if she did not choose. She said that she would answer any question that the Coroner liked to put to her.

The Coroner : How long have you acted as a midwife? Twenty years, sir.

You were very much employed amongst the poor? Yes, sir, a great deal employed.

Generally with poor people who cannot afford a doctor? They cannot afford to pay the money. I do not charge them but a very reasonable price. — The witness subsequently observed that she attended very respectable people.

The Coroner : I suppose they vary, but what is your average? Do you ever go a week without being employed? Sometimes I go a week, but not very often. I have had as many as eight or nine in a week. I have had three of a night.

When did Mrs Alsford engage you? About a fortnight ago. I was going over the Gaol Ground and she came and spoke to me and asked me if I would attend her again.

You promised to go? Yes, sir.

What can you tell us about this Mrs Smith in the Friary? I could not say the day of the month exactly, but since her confinement, I was going to tell you, I have had 11 people and they have all done well.

How long were you with Mrs Smith? I should say four or five hours. I could not exactly say to an hour. I staid with her two hours after she was confined, for she was very weak.

Did you see her again? Yes, sir. I saw her several times.

How long after? I saw her next morning, early.

And how did she seem to be then? I said, “You had better send for Mr Kelland, the doctor.” She seemed very weak and bad, but I did not see any symptoms of fever about her. I sent the little girl to Mr Read for a doctor. I did not go out of the house until I knew she had the order for the doctor.

Did you see her again? Yes, sir, I saw her several times.

Did you know what she had been suffering from? No sir, I did not know anything of it.

Didn’t she tell you? No, sir. She said the doctor said she was feverish but she did not say she had any fever particularly. We have them very feverish sometimes and get better.

You never met Dr Kelland there? No, sir.

I suppose you have attended patients with puerperal fever? No, sir. All the time I have been out I have never had such a thing as this happen before.

Did you attend Mrs Lawrence? Yes sir, I was sent for on Sunday night between five and six, and she was confined just after seven. I went up next morning and she was getting on very nicely.

Have you heard she is dead? Oh Yes! sir.

When did she die? Monday, I think, sir.

Have you attended anybody else in Green Croft Street? Mrs Elliott.

And whom besides? I was sent for for a woman at Wilton. She was confined before I reached her, so I had nothing to do with her.

Mrs Tapper was with her? Yes, sir. I had nothing to do with her. There was no one there with her, poor thing, but a neighbour.

What about Mrs Elliott, in Green Croft Street? You attended her, you say. Yes, sir. She was a great deal better this morning.

Anybody in Castle Street have you attended? Yes, sir; the same day as I did Mrs Elliott – Tuesday.

Have you seen her again? Yes, sir.

Have you met any doctors on any of these occasions? Mr Gordon. I never met them at the house. Mr Gordon has been and seen her, but I never met either of them at the house.

You have seen Mr Gordon? Yes, sir. I have seen him two or three times. The day before yesterday I went to see him and he was out. He called and saw me. I told him I would not go out again. I think it was on Saturday. He said it would be the best way not to in these cases.

And you don’t intend to, I hope? O no! If I had been aware of what had been the matter I would not have gone to anyone.

Since you attended the person in the Friary how many have you attended? I do not know whether it is nine or 11. I could reckon up nine or 11, and they are all doing well.

But do you mean including the three dead? I mean those confined since Mrs Smith.

We want to know since you attended Mrs Smith in the Friary, how many have you attended? About 11, I think it is.

You say they are all doing well. Do you mean the five I have spoken of, three of whom are dead and two ill? I mean 11 who are doing well leaving out the five.

Surely you know that if a woman has puerperal fever it is very catching? Yes, I should have known. I had never seen this fever before as it is now. If I saw any danger I sent for Mr Gordon directly and he has attended them.

What is the length of time you generally stay with a woman after a confinement? I see them comfortable and after I see them comfortable I am not supposed to stop. Then I attend the next morning to see to the baby and see to the woman and whatever is wanted to be done I do it if I possibly can, but if I see any danger I send for Dr Gordon.

Mr Noyle : In the case of Mrs Smith the doctor knew it was the fever when he attended her.

Witness : He must have known it.

The Coroner (to Mr Kelland) : You said, Mr Kelland, that when you attended Mrs Smith two days after December 21st you found her suffering from puerperal fever? Yes.

Did you know then who attended her after her confinement? Yes.

Did you take any steps to inform her? I did not see Mrs Bunsell, but I sent a message for her through the people.

Through what people? I told the Smith family to tell Mrs Bunsell when she came again that Mrs Smith was down with puerperal fever.

You do not know which of the Smith family? No, there were several people present. I did not give the message to anyone individually.

A Juryman : If the doctor knew she was in a fever ought he not to have informed the woman? Don’t you think it was his place?

The Coroner : I won’t give any opinion upon it. We take it down that he did not do it. Mr Kelland says he left that with them.

A Juryman : About the message, we know what messages are.

The Coroner (to Mrs Bunsell) : You say you have attended other people in the Friary? A young carpenter’s wife with her child I have attended. I have been to young people about the country. I attended two in Thynne’s Court and they both did well.

Mr Noyle : I think in a case of this kind it is great neglect on the doctor’s part, because nobody knows where the message was left, and there was great risk to other families after it was known there was such fever and the midwife kept going night after night not knowing she was carrying fever about.

Mrs Bunsell : I went three times but I did not know I had fever about me.

Mr Noyle : I think there is great danger and neglect on the part of the medical man. The nurse ought to know something about it.

Mr Kelland thought that a person who had had 20 years’ experience ought to know the symptoms.

A Juryman : If he left a message for the nurse to be told I think he did his duty so far as that is concerned.

Another : I do not think there is any blame on the doctor. I think there was neglect on the part of the family.

Another : I do not think he ought to be obliged to run about to deliver messages.

Another : The same here.

Mr Noyle : There might be a note left in such cases.

The Coroner said why he held this inquiry was that it seemed to be rather a startling thing that three persons whom Mrs Bunsell had attended in the town had died. He thought that he should hold an inquiry to see if there was any neglect. He could not think that Mrs Bunsell was entirely devoid of blame in this matter. He could hardly believe that a person who had had 20 years’ experience as a midwife could never have attended a case of puerperal fever and that she did not know that she ought to take extra precautions in a matter of this sort. There was some blame attaching to her but it did not go any farther than that. There was no criminal neglect. It was a great misfortune but she did not do it knowingly or wilfully. It might have been that she ought to have been more careful and he hoped that this would be a lesson to her in future to make inquiries.

Mrs Bunsell : I shall know if I see anyone else like it.

A Juryman : I do not think she ought to be allowed to go to persons after this case if she knew it.

Mrs Bunsell : I did not know it.

The Coroner : Do not undertake quite so much, and be more careful.

A Juryman : I think there is great neglect on the part of the doctor. He ought to have cautioned the woman.

Another juryman said he would have thought that if the doctor left a message with the family the latter would have delivered it for their own sake.

A verdict was recorded to the effect that Mrs Alsford died by “the visitation of God from puerperal fever after childbirth.”

The jury and the landlady of the house in which the inquest was held decided that their fees should be given for the benefit of the family.

The deceased was, it seems, the mother of eight children, seven of whom are at home, the eldest being about 12 or 13. It also appears that one of the other unfortunate women who expired has left six children.


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