Death by paralysis

It’s a question asked by more than one person here and has appeared in more than one story.

I’m sure that after this, some qualified and knowledgeable individual will say that everything I write here is a load of rubbish.

But being the curious type, I’ve attempted to investigate a cause of death attributed so many times in Victorian and Edwardian Sheffield, that being “death by paralysis,” and even ‘death by creeping paralysis.”

Nowadays, the cause of death of an individual is more precise, largely due to the advance of science and medicine. Back then, paralysis might have been assigned to a death certificate for any number of reasons, unknown then, but common to us today.

“Death by paralysis” or “death by creeping paralysis” might have covered any number of causes – botulism, either caught through eating infected food or through an infected wound; multiple sclerosis; vitamin B12 deficiency as a result of alcoholism or eating disorder; cervical spondylosis; and even motor neurone disease.

However, the terms were often used to avoid family embarrassment, because death was caused as a result of syphilis or alcoholism.

Syphilis was extremely difficult to cure. Often patients would think that their disease had disappeared or been cured, only to have their bodies betray them with a resurgence of symptoms.

Concealment of the sexual disease was common, and women expected not even to show knowledge of the disease, with infection of families by men widespread across all classes.

Victorian case notes on venereal-disease patients, often follow a dishearteningly familiar pattern. Having responded well to treatment, many relapsed several months or years later. Stigmatising infections, lengthy treatments and uncertain outcomes took an emotional toll on patients.

Nineteenth-century doctors took seriously the notion that a diagnosis of syphilis could trigger acute despair and melancholia.

In fact, the final stages of syphilis triggered brain disease, characterised by dementia, progressive muscular weakness and paralysis. Unsurprisingly for the times, many ended up in mental institutions, diagnosed as “General paralysis of the insane.”

Oscar Wilde drew his last, laboured breath on November 30, 1900. He was only 46 years old. Ever since that moment, literary scholars, doctors and Wilde fans have argued about the precise cause of his death. The long-held theory was that Oscar Wilde succumbed to the ravages of tertiary, or end-stage, syphilis.