The Brontes then and Now ,post 2 The Brontes causes of Death

The causes of death in this article  from my  vintage booklet “The Brontes then and now ” A booklet that commemorated the Brontes 1947 Anniversary year.This article was short and by Mabel Edgerley.I have added recent research on the Brontes causes of death and my own musings ,for those better qualified than me to consider.

Causes of  Death  of the Brontes


C Mabel Edgerley reprinted from the British Medical Journal of April 2 1932

The introduction notes that it was only from 1837 that  cause of death had to be included on death certificates .It also notes that Mrs Bronte died of internal cancer ,though it doesn’t provide a source and that Maria and Elizabeth where described as having died of “decline ” by Patrick Bronte.(I have added a footnote  of my own at the foot of the page  on these deaths from other sources )

Then follow the details from the certificates that the writer had actually seen at the keighley  Registrars office and which I will  therefore include in full .


Causes of death as listed by the magazine 


Patrick Branwell Bronte

Chronic Bronchitis,Marasmus

Emily Jane Bronte

Consumption duration 2 months

charlotte Bronte

Phthisis duration 2 months


Patrick Bronte  Jne 7th 1861

chronic Bronchitius ,dyspepsia and convulsions duration 9 hours



 Phthisis is a term describing a general wasting away ,wasting disease, most often used for TB at that time

Marasmus is a form of severe malnutrition , severe sickness,that can  but doesn’t automatically include vomiting etc.



Causes of Death Maria and Elizabeth Bronte

The School at Cowen Bridge recorded both Maria and Elisabeth as having TB before being sent home .

A typhoid  outbreak also swept Cowen bridge and several girls died at the same time as Maria and Elisabeth either at the school of after being sent home .The generally unhealthy conditions ,harsh regime and poor diet may have caused either latent TB to become full blown TB in Maria and Elisabeth or some other child and made its spread much more likely. Its very possible that Both Emily and Charlotte developed latent TB at Cowen Bridge.Anne was fairly seriously unwell the year before Branwells death so perhaps at that stage she also had latent TB (see footnote below)


There is an assortment of ways TB can manifest itself ,or it can lie dormant either permanently or until some bout of ill health ,stress or deprivations cause it to become active .

Variouse medical articles have been published on the Brontes causes of death and a short summary of the most common findings are below.

Miliary TB, seems the most likely cause of death for Emily as Charlottes list of symptoms in her statement for Dr Epps is a classic description of Miliary TB,even today this can be hard to recognise early enough to  treat effectivily,By the time classic TB symptoms develope the infection has often spread throughout the body.So it seems like its advanced quickly but has really been stealithly undermining health .Its very possible Emily became fully aware she was effectively doomed and therefore refused all help its was a common cause of death and its symptoms well known.Keats reportedly said

“I know the colour of that blood! It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die.”

Miliary TB can cause acute respiratory failour ,sometimes occuring rapidly when the patient may not have seemed to have worsening symptoms.This is still sometimes fatal and cause multi organ failour .It often manifests in extreme  breathlessness and oxygen starvation ,and patients need to be incubated and given intensive care quickly  in order to survive.This sounds like Charlottes descriptions  of Emily being torn, breathless and panting from life ,it maybe why Emilys death caused such a trauma in Charlotte but could have had nothing to do with Emily being unwilling to die ,she was just reacting to being unable to breath .It could also be why she suddenly said she would see a docture ahe may have thought he could relieve the symptoms.

I read a couple of studies that said mid twenties and early 30s adults alomg with the elderly ,post 60s where the most common patients with Miliary TB.

Its also a cause of sudden death.

.Miliary  TB would also explain the mass of symptoms exhibited by Charlotte ,who while she seems certain to have  suffered severe morning sickness  which heavily contributed to her death ,and  was pregnant at the time of her death ( its hinted at by several people though never expressly stated on paper).She also showed clear signs of some other infection ,she had a fever and as she coughed up bloody sputum ,she was diagnosed as having  TB and therefore I imagine thats why its given as cause of death ,Excessive morning sickness was not a entirely unknown cause of death so it seems odd if a GP diagnosed something entirely different without some certain proof .

Charlotte Bronte and her pregnancy .

A doctor came and confirmed a pregnancy according to Mrs Gaskell  and Mrs Gaskell privately  wrote a veiled reference to wishing she could have been there during Charlottes last illness because she would have persuaded her to abort the pregnancy and thus save her life .It was felt by her and possibly Ellen Nussey that excessive morning sickness was the cause of her death not consumption/TB.Ellen referred to Arthur Bell Nicholls are the man who killed Charlotte,I personally feel that can only be because she felt the pregnancy was in some way  the cause of death


edition). One of the reasons for the controversy
was Mrs Gaskell’s description of
Miss Brontë’s death, which was thought
at the time to be indecently graphic.
Recently married, Charlotte Brontë was
She was attacked by new sensations of
perpetual nausea, and ever-recurring
faintness . . . A wren would have starved
on what she ate during those last six
weeks . . . Martha [her maid] tenderly
waited on her . . . and from time to time
tried to cheer her with the thought of the
baby that was coming.
From this it seems that she died
of hyperemesis gravidarum (BMJ
2012;344:e567), though her death certificate
said phthisis/

Tb infection. Who infected who ?

TB is  extremely infectious, Anne could well  have contracted TB from close association with Emily or  Branwell .Branwell could have  contracted TB from either a associate or perhaps even Emily ,while it was only noticed that she was ill after Branwell died ,in the general chaos caused by Branwell in his last months other peoples  ailments would be largely ignored  .I couldnt find any records of any of Branwells friends dying  of TB so I do wonder if Emily was the person to infect him as she surely must  be the person to have infected Anne .Anne never went to Cowen Bridge and was not in contact with TB as a governess at Thorpe Green so she couldnt have contracted dormant TB earlier.She and Emily could both have caught it from Branwell but she doesnt seem to have been noticeably ill as early as Emily was ,so it seems more likely she contracted it from her .

An unlikely possibility is that all the Brontes were infected by a pet animal.Or perhaps that one was and passed the infection around, in which case Emily not Branwell would be the person to introduce TB into the family.

Though theres an assumption that the Brontes in general and Emily in particular had poor health ,I think I would disagree,their age at death was well above the Haworth average  .

They had pets.

They lived in an extreemly unhealthy place.I  have read the Babbage report and the Brontes must have had quite strong constitutions,.The house was cold and exposed,

Winters were usually long and harsh

They lived in extreemly close proximity to an overcrowded graveyard.



Their well had not been cleaned for 20 years .They frequently exercised in bad weather.

The Brontes where in what we would now see as a high risk occupation.Whereas most people had a limited circle of friends and those friends were all likely to be from their own social class and area .The clergymen and their wives and daughters were regularly meeting people from different areas,occupations and classes.Though there is the impression that they never met or spoke to visitors Charlotte herslef mentions serving tea to guests, receiving visitors etc.


In some inner city parishes active clergymen died regularly from cholera, Typhus etc ,,(William Weightman died from a disease he contracted from a sick parishioner )Another high risk occupation was added to this,working around children (in Sunday School ),I have heard children described as bug spreading machines,,they touch their faces,hair,noses ,mouth much more than adults.are more likely to cough without covering their mouths ,more likely to wipe their noses on their sleeves or hand,much more likely to pick their noses and to forget to wash their hands after visting the toilet or handling mud,animals etc.The sisters all taught sunday school at some point as I think did Branwel. Emily I believe  discontinued her duties as teacher  but does seem to have taught at least briefly.

Lastly the Brontes travelled abroad and seemed to have been good travelers ,suffering from little sea sickness or the main trial  of travel even today,upset tummies .Traveling even to Europe wad something that could not infrequently result in tragedy , one of their friends died in Brussels .



About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
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