Thomas Downs’s Death Certificate

Last Updated: 4 December 2018

Downs Grave
Grave Marker of Thomas and Anna Downs

In Orleans, Massachusetts lived a woman by the name of Clara Snow Crosby. Each year she would buy an almanac, which was not unusual, but Clara felt the urge to record events under the appropriate day in each of her books. She kept this habit from 1862 until her death in 1899. On 16 November 1879, she made the following entry:

“Ocean cable from France lands on Eastham beach.”[i]

The place that Clara was referring to was the beach by Nauset lighthouse, and it wasn’t long before the cable was in operation. Two years later, in 1881, a 22-year-old named Thomas Downs(#20) arrived here. He settled in Eastham and became an operator for the French Cable Company. After working four years at Eastham and living the bachelor’s life, his bride, Anna Watts(#21), came to America and would become Mrs. Thomas Downs. They settled in a house that the French Cable Company had built for them, and they began to raise a family.

Clara not only recorded the big historical events, but also the day to day happenings in Orleans. On 12 November 1872, seven years earlier, we find the following entry:

“Absalom Linnell Died.”[ii]

Even though many Cape men were lost at sea, most died at home of natural causes. When a man got to his later years, he could expect to die quietly at home in Orleans, surrounded by his family. Absalom was no exception. If we go to Orleans and look up his death record, we find that he officially died on 13 November at home in Orleans of brain fever. Brain fever was a term that included various maladies such as encephalitis or meningitis. He was 64 years old, and we can assume his wife Abba was by his side, along with other family members. Abba probably supplied the information recorded in the death record in Orleans. It further tells us that he was living in Orleans, he died in Orleans, and he was born in Orleans. His occupation was listed as “mariner,” but he was probably not still going to sea at 64 years old. We learn one last piece of information, that his parents were Edmund & Sarah Linnell.[iii]

What does this have to do with Thomas Downs(#20)? Well, we should expect since he was a 61 year old retired cable operator, living quietly with his wife in Orleans, that his end would have been similar. Just like Absalom, his death is recorded in the town records in Orleans Town Hall. Here is where the similarities with Absalom end. The Orleans record of Thomas’s death states:

Date of Death: 14 February 1921
Place of Death: Foxborough, Mass.
Name: Thomas Downs
Sex/Status: Male/Widowed
Age: 61 years
Residence at Death: Orleans, Mass.
Occupation: Cable Operator
Place of Birth: London, England
Spouse: (Blank)
Cause of Death: Arteriosclerosis
Parents: Cannot be Learned
Date of Record: 3 March 1921[iv]

I fully expected to find that he had died quietly at home with Anna(#21) by his side. Anna would have naturally supplied the information for the death record some days later and given a full and accurate account of everything, including the names of her mother-in-law and father-in-law. After all, Absalom’s parents are recorded there but according to this official record, Anna was already dead, and there was no one who knew her name, let alone those of his parents.

But was she dead? According to her grave marker in Orleans Cemetery, she died 15 April 1928.[v] This was seven years after Thomas died. The grave stone and the death certificate cannot both be right, and I have seen instances in which both types of records have had glaring errors. So which scenario do I believe? Was the truth as it was stated in the death certificate, that Thomas was a widower when he died in Foxborough in 1921? (Foxborough is usually referred to as “Foxboro.” Though seldom used today, the former spelling is still official and correct.)  This would mean that Anna died before February of 1921. Or should we believe the gravestone and she survived another seven years? If this is true, why is the death record in error? These questions need to be addressed before we move on.

My first clue in unraveling this mystery is a conversation I had with my father a number of years ago about his grandparents, Thomas and Anna. According to him, his grandfather died before he was born, but he remembered vaguely visiting his grandmother, Anna, when he was a small child. My father was born in 1922, after Thomas had died, but he would have been 6 in 1928, the year that Anna died if the gravestone is correct. This would support the “she died in 1928” scenario but can I use my recollection of a conversation many years ago with a man recalling his early childhood in order to validate in favor of one scenario or another? Probably not, but it got me thinking. Do any photos exist of my father with his grandmother? Do any photos exist of Anna after 1921 that I can accurately date? It didn’t take me long to find one, which I include here below.

Anna granchildren

This is a photo taken of Anna Downs and her grandchildren. We first need to identify the grandchildren present. Fortunately, this information was provided with the picture, written on the back and in the margins. The four standing in the back, from left to right are Eleanor, Barbara, Dorothy and Beryl. The next row is also standing with their heads even with Anna’s. They are John, (Anna), Harriet and Beulah. Finally, we have Win sitting in Anna’s lap.  We know Win was born in June of 1925, so we know that she was alive at that time. We can probably stop right here and say that she was definitely alive in 1925, four years after Thomas died. The death record is obviously in error and the grave stone is probably correct. But we can probably deduce more from this picture.

This picture was probably taken in the summer based on the clothing that the subjects are wearing. Win appears to be about a year old, and since he was born in June of 1925, I think we are safe dating this picture during the summer of 1926. It was taken in front of the Downs house on Tonset Road in Orleans. This would mean that my father, John, standing just to the right of his grandmother, was four and a half years old. That looks to be about right and we can see that my father’s recollection about his grandparents, discussed earlier, was probably correct. Here we have a picture of my father and his grandmother. The grave record is probably correct and she died in 1928.

Detail of the image above showing my father John and his grandmother in 1926.

We next need to decide what we can trust in the death record. Death records are very reliable concerning the details surrounding a death, which is what they are certifying. With this, we can accept that Thomas Downs died on 14 February 1921, in Foxborough , Massachusetts. The cause of his death was Arteriosclerosis. No other fact in this document can really be trusted. The death certificate information can now be corrected and reexamined.

Date of Death: 14 February 1921 [Accepted]
Place of Death: Foxborough, Mass. [Accepted]
Name: Thomas Downs [Agreed]
Sex/Status: Male/Widowed Married [Corrected]
Age: 61 years [Agreed]
Residence at Death: Orleans, Mass. [Agreed]
Occupation: Cable Operator [Agreed]
Place of Birth: London, England [Agreed]
Spouse: Anna Downs [Corrected]
Cause of Death: Arteriosclerosis [Accepted]
Parents: Cannot be Learned [Later discussion]
Date of Record: 3 March 1921 [Accepted]

My next question is why did he die in Foxborough? Was he there on business? Probably not, since he was a retired cable operator. Could family have brought him to Foxborough? I do not know of anyone related to him living anywhere near Foxborough. I know! He went to see a Patriots’ Game. No, that doesn’t work either, since the New England Patriots were 38 years into the future. What was he doing in Foxborough?

The following material contains conjecture; please read carefully.

Maybe I should let that be for now and concentrate on something else. Let’s look at the cause of death, arteriosclerosis. So it would appear that Thomas had heart disease, and the attending doctor felt confident enough that this is what killed him to state so for the record. He was a relatively young man, only 61 years old, who was vital enough to be away from his home in Orleans visiting Foxborough. I feel comfortable narrowing things down to two possibilities. Either he was being treated medically for this condition there, or he was visiting Foxborough and suffered a heart attack. Either of these scenarios would be consistent with arteriosclerosis as a cause of death.

In researching Foxborough in 1921, nothing seems to make me think that it might have been a place to travel in order to be treated for heart trouble. There were doctors, hospital, definitive care, etc., but nothing special. The only medically significant institution there was the State Hospital. I’m sure I would have heard if he were confined and died in a mental institution, so this can be ruled out. I also checked to see if the State Hospital treated cases of tuberculosis. They never did, but it didn’t matter anyway. I had no reason to believe that Thomas had ever suffered from such an affliction. It would seem that he was most likely there for another reason and was stricken by a heart attack.

Could he have been passing through when he had the heart attack? Where would he be going, or coming from, that would take him through this community? Could he have been visiting any of his six sons? Lionel lived in Brooklyn, NY and Cyril stayed on the Cape, so we can exclude them as possibilities. The other four all lived in the Boston area, two in Somerville and two in Arlington in 1921. Now we might be getting somewhere. Could Thomas have been going to, or coming from, the Boston area in order to visit his kids when he suffered a heart attack in Foxborough?

Studying the map of Massachusetts, we see that going through Foxborough would not be the easiest way to travel from Boston to the Cape. I was about to abandon the “visit to see kids in Boston” theory when something dawned on me. In 1921 driving a car along the roads would not have been the preferred method of transportation. I don’t even know if Thomas ever owned a car or learned to drive. But there was the railroad! It would have been an easy task to board a train in Orleans and get to Boston. That was in fact the most common way to get to Boston from the Cape in 1921.

I needed something to show me the railroads and a modern map wouldn’t do. I needed to see how they were in 1921. I located a topographical map published by the US Geological Survey, and it showed the rail lines. This map was originally published in 1893, but was reissued in 1929. In studying the railroads of southeastern Massachusetts, I noticed that there was one direct line between the Cape and Boston and it passed near Foxborough. If one was planning a trip, this would seem to be the easiest way to go. Any other route would require changing trains and would be even less direct. This line actually went through East Foxborough and the town of Foxborough looks like the only densely settled place around the area.

Detail, Foxboro Map
Small section of map showing Foxboro (Foxborough), the surrounding area and the rail line.

East Foxborough, would be a good place to remove a passenger requiring medical attention, thus transferring them to Foxborough proper. This is probably the same rail line that Thomas and Anna would have used to go to Boston. This is all just a theory of course.

These are the facts as we know them. Thomas Downs died in Foxborough on 14 February 1921 of heart disease. His wife Anna survived him and died on 15 April 1928. They are buried next to each other in Orleans Cemetery. The death record of Thomas Downs has some errors in his personal information indicating that Anna was not available to provide this when it was recorded on 3 March 1921 in Orleans.

But I have built a theory here that seems to fit the facts quite nicely, but it is only a guess and should not be accepted as fact, unless new information comes to light. It goes like this: Thomas, probably with Anna, got on a train in Orleans to go to the Boston area. This could have been for a number of reasons including medical ones, but they had enough reason with four sons and three grandchildren (one less than a year old) living around Boston. Either going up or on the return, Thomas suffered a heart attack on the train. He was removed at East Foxborough and transported to a hospital in Foxborough where he died. Anna would have wired her son(s) in Boston and one or more would have come to her aid. Maybe the boys got to see their father before the end, or maybe not. It would have been natural to have sent Thomas to the Cape to be prepared for burial, and bring Anna home with them to Boston so she would not be alone in her time of grief. They probably took the train to Orleans as a family for the funeral. Afterwards, we can only guess if she remained on the Cape or returned with one of her sons to Boston. Either way, she was not present when intermediaries recorded the death in Orleans on the 3rd of March. The information recorded in Orleans may well have been wired from Foxborough based on the best information they had at the Hospital where he died.

The origins of my great grandfather eluded me for a long time.  When I finally found the record of his death back in 1994, I was so sure that I would learn who his parents were.  I was quite disappointed that the record didn’t shed any light on that subject and brought with it a whole bunch of questions that I needed to address.  I can take most of my family lines back 8-12 generations, a couple I can trace back into the Middle Ages.  This line was my shortest and it was the line of the family name that I bear.  I so wanted those answers.

I next searched for Tomas and Anna’s marriage record and that completely eluded me for years.  I didn’t know if they were married back in Ireland or in Eastham, Massachusetts.  Eastham told me that there was no record of their marriage there so I searched through indices of marriages in Ireland and England but I had no luck there either.  I also checked indices all over the state of Massachusetts.

I finally found that marriage record a few years later by accident.  I was looking for something else in the Orleans town records and I found the record of their marriage.  Thomas Downes [sic] and Anna Maria Watts were married on 7 September 1885 in Boston, Massachusetts.  Boston Massachusetts?  I had been looking in the wrong place.  I also learned when searching for the marriage on that date in Boston that the name was misspelled with the “e” added and to further make things difficult, the person who transcribed the records misread “Downes” for “Downey.”  The error followed through the cross referencing of both locations.  It was odd that I found it in Orleans as they would not move to Orleans until after the birth of their first three children.  I did finally learn the names of my great great grandparents, Thomas(#7020) and Harriet Downs(#7021).  I’ll make the marriage records the subject of another article.

When I found my great grandfathers death record, I should have learned the names of his parents. After all, Absalom Linnell’s parents are recorded in his death record. Why didn’t anyone ask Anna who her mother and father in-law were? They should have, but it never happened. In fact, that document said she was dead when she wasn’t.  Thomas did not die simply and at home like Absalom.

But there is one link between Absalom and Thomas. Thomas’s son, John(#18), would marry Helen Hopkins(#19), second cousin three times removed to Absolom Linnell(#6070).

Photo Credits: Picture of the Downs Grave Marker by the author.  Picture of Anna and her grandchildren scanned from the original in the author’s mother’s possession.

Thomas Downs’s Family Tree


[i]  Crosby, Clara Snow, “Early Orleans, Mass. Almanacs,” New England Historical & Genealogical Register 102 (October 1948): 284

[ii] Ibid, 283

[iii]  Massachusetts Vital Records 1841-1910 (Boston Massachusetts: New England Historical and Genealogical Society, online <;), Town of Orleans, vol. 247, page 14.

[iv]  Thomas Downs, death certificate (Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Town of Orleans, County of Barnstable) Rec. Date: 3 Mar 1921

[v] Anna Downs, Downs Monument Marker (Orleans Cemetary, Orleans, MA)