Eyewitness 1855: Rail and factory workers died on average at age 27

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News was grim in 1855 for men employed by the railroads.

Railway brakemen had a life span that ended on average at 27, according to statistics published in The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette's June 19 edition. The newspaper sought to put the best possible face on that disturbing number.

"Yet this must be taken with some allowance, from the fact that hardly any but young and active men are employed in that capacity," the report said. In other words, no one stayed long enough in that job to become an old brakeman. Many of the averages for other occupations likely would be similarly skewed as people who survived left for less dangerous jobs as they aged.

Working for the railroad would remain an especially deadly job for at least the next dozen years. It wasn't until 1868 that Pittsburgh inventor George Westinghouse received a patent for his railway air-brake system. His invention eliminated the need for brakemen to walk from swaying car to car each time brakes had to be individually applied.

The actuarial news, however, was similarly bad for factory laborers. They passed on at the same young age. The newspaper cited "the combined influence of confined air, sedentary posture, scant wages and unremitting toil."

The numbers in the story came from the June edition of Hunt's Merchant's Magazine and Commercial Review. The financial monthly was launched in 1839 by New Yorker Freeman Hunt.

Certainly the data would have been of interest to life insurance agents. They might have thought twice before offering policies to a railroad engineer, fireman, conductor, powder maker or well digger, "all of whom are exposed to sudden and violent deaths." They ended their lives at the average age of 35.

People in less seemingly dangerous occupations were not much better risks. "The Musician blows his breath all out of his body at 40," the story said. "The Editor knocks himself into pi at the same age."

Bakers died at 43 and butchers at 49, according to the Gazette story. Barbers lasted another full year, showing "the virtue there is in personal neatness and soap and water."

"Those who average over a half century among mechanics are those who keep their muscles and lungs in healthful and moderate exercise, and are not troubled with weighty cares," the newspaper said. They included blacksmiths, 51; builders, 52; rope makers, 54; ship builders, 56; and barrel makers, 59.

Parents in the 19th century would have been right to advise their children about staying in school or in professional apprenticeships. "Litigation kills clients sometimes, but seldom Lawyers, for they average 55." Doctors died on average at the same age while clergymen lasted until 56.

Supporters of temperancewould get little comfort from the statistics. Brewers and distillers, likely familiar with their own products, both lived to 64.

"Last and longest lived come Paupers, 67, and 'Gentlemen,' 68," the story concluded. "The only two classes that do nothing for themselves and live on their neighbors, outlast the rest. Why should they wear out, when they are always idle."

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.

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