Maternal and Infant Mortality in Athens, 1919 - 1923


The stories of individuals who died in Athens from 1919-1923 provide a glimpse into what life in Athens, GA might have been like at the time. Forty-two women died during childbirth in those years, as well as 336 newborns. On their own, those numbers are hard to comprehend. While data provides a big-picture perspective to the events of the past, human understanding requires individual stories to comprehend the experiences of the countless number of those who lived and died in the past. Paired with data, the stories of the deceased can help to provide a more complete picture of Athens. Additionally, comparing the reporting of deaths to the data derived from death records reveals what newspapers in Athens believed to be important at the time. To that end, we searched obituaries and other articles from newspaper archives to uncover specific cases of infant and maternal death.

Infant Mortality

In terms of infant mortality, defined as death in the first year of life, newspaper entries were fairly sparse on details on the causes of mortality in infants under one year of age. For example, in 1923, Martha Sunbeam Wilson died of heart problems, and in the newspaper they simply list the information of her interment and funeral. In 1921, the Athens Banner-Herald had two articles in a row about infants who died of brief illnesses that again just give details of the funeral and their survivors.

In the 1920s, life expectancy in the United States ranges from the mid-50s to early 60s, but many weren’t lucky enough to reach that age. Due to the frequency of fatal illness, malnourishment, and overall lack of medical knowledge, plenty of babies died before they even had a life.

In 1924, an article was published in The Banner-Herald that claimed according to the American Child Health Association, Athens had an infant mortality rate of 84 infant deaths for every 1,000 child born in 1923 (Figure C). This was the third lowest rate, with the highest being Savannah with 136 deaths for every 1,000 children born. Brunswick had the lowest rate of 76 deaths for every 1,000 children born. These high rates could have to do with large populations with inadequate medical care.

At the time this article was written, they were “anxious to see” if other states would start to publish their infant mortality records. According to America’s Health Rankings, Georgia’s current infant mortality rate is 5.9 infant deaths for every 1,000 births. The real indicator of Georgia’s continually poor healthcare system is our maternal mortality rate of 40.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, the highest of any state.

Maternal Mortality

Maternal mortality defined life for women in the early 20th century as limited access to birth control and medical care increased the frequency and danger of pregnancy. The Athens death certificates demonstrate that numerous women died from childbirth; however, trying to piece together their lives through obituaries and other references in local newspapers is like trying to create a biography of the invisible. A lack of information must stand in for the individual women’s stories because, unlike their dead infants, the women's lives are only seen through the holes in the public record.

Like numerous other women who died of complications related to childbirth, Bessie E. Coleman never got an obituary in the Athens Banner-Herald. Her death record describes her as a 25-year-old white woman who died of puerperal septicemia on June 5, 1924 (Figure D). Puerperal septicemia is a bacterial infection of the gential tract caused by unsanitary conditions during childbirth. Although, Bessie E. Coleman is never directly named in the Athens Banner-Herald, she is referenced twice through the obituaries of her children. Her daughter, Janette Coleman, died from Colitis on July 20, 1921 at three months old. Janette Coleman’s obituary mentions Bessie Coleman as “Mrs. S. H. Coleman,” tying Bessie Coleman’s identity to her husband (Figure E). The last mention of Bessie Coleman comes from her son’s obituary. Fred E. Coleman died from Marasmus on August 22, 1924 when he was 3 months old. After describing the infant’s death, the obituary states that “the little boy’s mother died some time ago” (Figure F). In the media, Bessie Coleman was defined as a mother and wife, but she was never called by her own name. The fact that both of her infant children got obituaries while she did not highlights the commonality of maternal mortality and the lack of value placed on women’s lives.


Throughout the Athens area of the early 20th century, the details of a seemingly heartless crime circulated through the pages of local reporting–infanticide. The practice was representative of an extremely small proportion of broader infant mortality with less than five cases appearing in the record of death certificates and only four individuals being imprisoned in total. According to a 1912 report, the gruesome details of these murders, however, account for a more than fair share of fearful press. Reports would circulate widely in the decades from 1890 to 1920 of violent crime scenes, with despairing imagery of remains left adrift in rivers or hidden away in the woods. These particulars, however, make the factuality of these cases decisively less definite, and the memory of the victims painfully distant.

Perpetrators seem to have rarely been caught, as many cases entailed the similarity of anonymously and quietly deposited evidence. In some papers, however, the identities of perpetrators were alleged. In the case of black Athenian Ellen Hill, for example, the crime was “definitely fixed” on Hill, who pleaded innocence. Interestingly, despite the presence of victims of infanticide of both black and white race, the only woman reportedly tried and persecuted was black, positively indicative of trends in criminal justice leveled unfairly against black Georgians. Unfortunately, the truth of why Hill murdered the child, and why authorities were convinced of her guilt, is lost to time, the grim realities of this painful story, like so many others, culminating definitively only with the bleak “discovery” of a life lost before it began.


"Intro and Statistics," Gabriel Wilson; "Infant Mortality," Maggie Cavalenes; "Maternal Mortality," Emma Hale; "Infanticide," Peter Udall.

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