Every year at this time, my thoughts turn to an aunt I never knew, but an aunt I heard plenty about as I was growing up; an aunt who died on February 11th, 1936, fourteen and a half years before I was born.
My Aunt Catherine was my mother's older sister by five years. She was born on May 4, 1920 but sadly, neither I nor any of my siblings ever got to know her; she died before her sixteenth birthday.
I was actually named after her -- my first given name is Catherine. It was my godmother (my mother's youngest sister) who chose Catherine as part of my name. My godmother would not have had much memory of her older sister since she would have only celebrated her second birthday the day after the funeral. My mother agreed to my carrying the name, but refused to allow me to be known as Catherine because she felt that it would be a harbinger of bad omens because of what had befallen her sister. Hence, I am forever known as C. Bonnie whatever!
It was fascinating for me to stumble across this baptism record a few years ago (I love those on-line indices!) and discover that my aunt's middle name was Brigid -- giving us both the same forename initials. The document also revealed that the man who was my paternal grandfather, Thomas Cherryholme, was her godfather -- another new fact for my genealogical records!
I guess it's because I was named after this person that I've always had a certain fascination for her story.
But details have always been very fuzzy; there's not even very many photos of her.
My mother witnessed the accident but she was only ten years old at the time. Following is her report of the incident, as she wrote to Uncle Ray and the Corner Cousins less than one month after the funeral:
1936 March 7: Another Beloved Member Goes to Far Country. "Dear Uncle Ray, This will be my fifth letter to your corner. Uncle Ray, I have some bad news for you about my sister. The day the king got buried, she broke her collar bone and was in the hospital for three days, then she came home. She had to go back to the hospital and after a couple of days she had an operation. She died February 11th. Her name was Catherine and she was fifteen years old. She would be sixteen on May 4th. Please take her birthday out of your page. Also take my big sister out of your page. Her name is Mamie.
I put a couple of riddles in my last letter and you put my letter in but did not put the riddles in. I will give you them now hoping to see them in your page.1. Which insect is best educated? The spelling bee.2. When is wood like a king? When made into a rule.3. When is a farmer mean to his corn? When he pulls its ears.4. When is a house like a bird? When it has two wings.Attention. Miss Mystery. Can Miss Mystery send me the song, The Man On the Flying Trapeze?Well, I guess I will be writing soon again. Your loving niece, DOROTHY SHARPE, 5 Bertrand Street, Ottawa."Uncle Ray responds: "It was a great sorrow to Uncle Ray to hear of the loss of his niece, Catherine, your sister, Dorothy. And all the corner cousins will sympathize very deeply with you and your family. It is with great regret that names are taken from our birthday book for such a reason. Such a shining band of our bright boys and girls have gone to the far away country since we opened our Mail Bag club almost nine years ago! ..."
You can see how quickly the ten year old child shifted gears in her thinking, going from news of her sister's tragic death to telling riddles to asking for words to a song. I know that my mother never forgot what she witnessed that day; nor did she ever forget her beloved sister, Catherine. The story she told me had a little more detail than that letter. But almost more intriguing to me today is that a ten year old child related the accident as having happened on "the day the king got buried" -- fascinating indeed!
There's no accounting for how errors occur in genealogical research but the following report is certainly one glaring example. The Citizen article is clearly talking about my aunt, whose name was actually spelled Catherine, and she had died on the 11th of February (not the 10th as claimed in the article).
1936 February 11 - Katherine Sharpe "The funeral of Katherine Sharpe, 15-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Sharpe, 5 Bertrand street, who died yesterday as the result of injuries received in a sliding accident on January 28th, will be held on Friday at 7:45am from her late home to St. Brigid's church for requiem high mass at eight o'clock. Interment will be in Notre Dame cemetery."
Following is a copy of the obituary notice that was in amongst my grandmother's papers, clipped from the Citizen at the time (sorry for the truncated copy, but I have to work with what I have):
There was even an inquest into the accident. It took a mere three days to report the findings and it continued the misspelling of her name!
1936 February 14: Finds No One To Blame For Death: Coroner's Jury Investigates Death of Miss Katherine Sharpe "That Katherine Sharpe, 15-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Sharpe, 5 Bertrand street, came to her death from pneumonia probably brought on by injuries received while playing on a slide at the end of Vaughan street on January 28, and that no blame could be attached to anyone, was the verdict rendered last night by a coroner's jury investigating the girl's unfortunate death. Dr. Harry Dover, coroner, presided at the inquest, which was held at the police station.Miss Sharpe suffered a fractured collar bone when she fell at the bottom of a long slide constructed at the end of Vaughan street. She was taken to the Civic Hospital where she was treated for this injury and on January 31, was discharged. On February 4 she was again admitted suffering from pains in the stomach. She was operated on on February 8th and died on the 11th.Dr. H. T. C. Whitley gave evidence to the effect that when admitted to the hospital the second time Miss Sharpe appeared to be in a "nervous" condition which could have been caused by the shock of her injuries. He said that he did not believe there was any direct connection between the girl's injuries and her death, however.Roland Bernard, 4 Putman avenue, a youth who was also playing on the slide, said that he had followed Miss Sharpe down the slide, sliding on his feet. He had waited until she had reached the bottom before starting. Half way down the slide he noticed that she was still standing at the bottom and shouted a warning. When he saw that he might strike her he sat down and slid to one side of her. He did not know she had fallen until he had turned around."
I enjoyed re-reading these documents. Finding my mother's letters to the Uncle Ray and the Corner Cousins column has certainly given me a renewed interest in the stories she told about the incident. Because now I can make sense of what she was telling me and what the documents I have had in my possession for over twenty years actually reveal (had I just sat down and really read them ...).
Also among my grandmother's papers were a series of letters addressed to my grandfather:
The first letter, dated February 17th, 1936, was from the City of Ottawa. That is my grandmother's writing in the upper right corner, "Our Inquiry into the Death of Catherine refusing her admission into hospital when we called them." The letter reads:
"Dear Mr. Sharpe: As promised you in our interview this morning I now beg to enclose herewith copy of letter which I forwarded to Doctor Robertson, Superintendent of the Ottawa Civic Hospital, and will again advise you as soon as I have his report before me.Thanking you for bringing this matter to my attention and assuring you it is receiving my careful attention, I am, Yours faithfully, (Signed) J. EDWARD McVEIGH, Controller"
The enclosure, also dated February 17th, 1936, reads:
"Dear Doctor Robertson: Mr. Samuel Sharpe, of 5 Bertrand Street, has requested me to call to your attention the case of the untimely death of his daughter, age sixteen years, who was admitted to the Ottawa Civic Hospital as a Public Ward patient on the 28th ultime with a fractured collar-bone and subsequently placed in a cast.The child was discharged on the 31st ultime and, after reaching her home, I am advised that she had a very violent reaction and vomited almost continually and suffered severe stomach pains.On the advice of a private practitioner her father appealed to the Hospital to re-admit the child but this was refused and finally, on February 4th, last, Miss Sharpe was again admitted from the clinic where she remained as a patient until her death on the 11th instant. I understand that pneumonia was designated as the cause of death.Mr. Sharpe has interviewed me with regard to the matter and requested me to call same to your attention as Superintendent of the Hospital since he feels that the Hospital authorities exercised poor judgment in prematurely discharging his late daughter and he feels that it is possible that all the facts in connection with the case as he outlined them to me have not already been presented to you.I should appreciate it, therefore, if you would communicate with me in writing on this subject after you have investigated this case.Thanking you for your usual courteous consideration and prompt action in this matter, I am, Cordially yours, J. EDWARD McVEIGH, Controller"
A mere two days later, February 19th, 1936, another letter addressed to my grandfather from the City of Ottawa:
"Dear Mr. Sharpe: In pursuance of my letter to you of the 17th instant with regard to the case of your late daughter, Catherine Sharpe, of the Ottawa Civic Hospital I am enclosing herewith copies of the report of the Superintendent, Doctor D. M. Robertson, together with copies of the reports of the Admitting Officer and the Nursing Supervisor of the Second Floor East in which part of the Institution your daughter was a patient.Trusting you will find this information in order, I am, Yours very truly, (signed) J. EDWARD McVEIGH, Controller"
Enclosed with that letter were copies of three reports:
1) Dated February 19th, 1936, from Donald M. Robertson, M.D., Superintendent, Ottawa Civic Hospital:
"Dear Sir: Attached are statements re admission of Katherine Sharpe. As you can see by these, she was not refused admission, but her father was asked to make the usual arrangements. As it was, he called up about 6:45 Monday evening, and patient was admitted Tuesday morning. Sincerely yours, DONALD M. ROBERTSON"
2) Dated February 19th, 1936, from M.R. Downey, Supervisor 2nd Floor East, Ottawa Civic Hospital addressed "To Whom it May Concern" re Miss Catherine Sharpe:
"MONDAY, FEBRUARY the THIRD, sometime after six P.M., Mr. Sharpe called me on Second Floor East stating that his daughter, Catherine, who had been a patient on the Ward January twenty-eighth to January thirty-first with a fractured clavicle, had been vomiting since the day following her discharge and appeared quite ill. He asked that we send Dr. Whitley, the Attending Surgeon, who set her fractured clavicle to see her, but we explained that Doctors were not sent from the hospital and advised him, if worried and anxious about his daughter to call the Doctor who had sent her to hospital at the time of her first admission. Mr Sharpe was also told that if his daughter's condition was not sufficiently acute to require immediate medical attention, he was to bring her to the fracture Clinic the next morning, as previously instructed and that Dr. Whitley would see her there.Following this conversation I then called Dr. Edwards, Admitting Officer, gave him the details of the case and told him of the possibility of it being referred to the hospital that night for admission.Miss Sharpe came to the Clinic the next morning and was again admitted under Dr. Whitley. Signed: M. R. DOWNEY Supervisor 2nd Floor East"
3) Undated, from W.M.J. Edward, Admitting Officer, Ottawa Civic Hospital:
"Dear Sir: Shortly after 6:30 P.M. on Monday, February 3rd, 1936, I was called by Miss Downey, Supervising nurse 2E, telling me of a conversation she had had with Mr. Sharpe, whose daughter had been in the Hospital.Miss Downey stated that Mr. Sharpe had called her and asked that Dr. Whitley be sent to his house. Miss Downey said that she explained to him that the Hospital had no authority to ask the Attending Surgeon on service to visit any home and advised him to call in a doctor (he being on relief it would not cost him anything) and ask him to make arrangements for admission, and if not urgent, to bring the girl to the Hospital the next morning where she would be seen at Dr. Whitley's Clinic.Miss Downey said she gave me this information in case I was called up regarding that patient. I do not remember having any conversation with Mr. Sharpe about the matter at that time.Miss Sharpe was brought to the Clinic the next morning, and after she was examined, I admitted her to the ward. W.M.J. EDWARD Admitting Officer"
Now, I am beyond amazed at how fast the wheels turned back then! This accident happened on January 28th, the child died on February 11th, the inquest was held, completed and had reported by February 14th; my grandfather requested an inquiry on February 17th and said inquiry was compete two days later.
Someone, somewhere could learn something today methinks!
Anyway, back to the story of my Aunt Catherine.
Also among my grandmother's papers was a most interesting document. And until now, I hadn't a clue of its import.
Clearly, from the description above, a bed was needed so Catherine was sent home. But just as is done in our hospitals today -- if your ride doesn't show up on time, you sit in a chair and wait until you are "called for" -- the child had to first sit and wait. She didn't get home until 8:30pm and she started vomiting within fifteen minutes. It would take my grandparents another four days to get their daughter the medical care she urgently needed; but by then it would be too late because ultimately she died as a result of her internal injuries.
My grandparents launched the inquiry into the hospital's failure to re-admit their daughter because they truly believed that she didn't have to die. I can read this file today and know that she would not likely have died today, if she presented at a hospital with a similar injury and/or symptoms. Hell, I'm not a doctor and I know what continuous vomiting means following a head / neck injury! But this is now, and that was then.
What I truly marvel at though is the speed at which both the inquest and the inquiry were held.
You see, the way I recall the story of my Aunt Catherine (and remember, I'm this person's namesake so I was enthralled; I listened very carefully, and I asked very often):
"She died as a result of an accident at a local playground where there was a huge ice slide. She had gone down and the boy who followed her, who was wearing skates, didn't wait for her to get out of the way before he went down. He ran into her back and knocked her over and she couldn't breathe. I ran home and got my mother. They went to the hospital and then she was sent home after a few days but she shouldn't have been. My mother tried to tell them that she was still really sick but they wouldn't believe her. My mother wanted to fight the hospital over it but we didn't have the money to fight them."
It all makes so much sense now that I've actually read the file!
But none of the official reports of the accident makes mention of the other child having been wearing ice skates. I clearly remember my mother including that point as a serious contributing factor to her sister's death (she always insisted that the skates had pierced her sister's back). She never left that point out when she told the story.
Did nobody ask her at the time of the incident? At the time of the "inquest" that took all of three days to deliver its report? She was a witness. They did talk to the other child who went down the slide; he admits to having gone down standing up and only sitting down when he realized that Catherine was in the way and at risk of being hit.
I've heard my mother tell the story so many times, sometimes I think I was there.
And I don't have to be a doctor to know that if a child is knocked to the ground by having been impacted in the back with enough force to have broken a collar bone, there may well be other injuries. Perhaps an internal bleed or two? But again, this is now and that was then. Since the hospital report makes no mention of any injuries other than the broken collar-bone, obviously the skates did not "pierce" her back as my mother had worried.
My mother often said that her sister might have lived -- if only they hadn't been so poor -- obviously echoing her own mother's sentiments, but I wonder now if what she was really saying was, perhaps someone might have listened more closely, if only they hadn't been so poor.
The photos below show Catherine as an infant with her father; as a six year old in the only "school" photo that my grandmother had of her; and as a fifteen year old, obviously in the summer of the year before her untimely death.