MPIDR Working Paper

The effect of widowhood on mortality in polygamous marriages: evidence from the Utah Population Database

Barclay, K. J., Donrovich Thorén, R., Hanson, H. A., Smith, K. R.
MPIDR Working Paper WP-2019-010, 41 pages.
Rostock, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (June 2019)
Open Access


Although the increase in mortality following widowhood has been widely studied, much less is known about how this pattern varies across less common household structures. Polygamous marriages are still prevalent across much of the world, but whether and how mortality varies following the death of a partner has not been studied in polygamous relationships. In this study we use data from the Utah Population Database to examine the relationship between marital status and mortality in polygamous marriages in 19th century Utah. With data on 110,952 women and 106,898 men, we particularly focus on whether the widowhood mortality effect varies between monogamous and polygamous marriages. We examine how the number of wife deaths affects male mortality in polygamous marriages, how the death of a sister wife, meaning other women with whom they share a husband, affects female mortality relative to the death of a husband, as well as how marriage order amongst sister wives affects the mortality of women in polygamous marriages. For women we find that the death of a husband in polygamous marriages increases mortality to a similar extent as in monogamous marriages, while the death of a sister wife does not have a qualitatively different effect on mortality than the death of the husband. Marriage order does not play a role in the mortality of women in polygamous marriages in this historical context. For men we find that the death of one wife in a polygamous marriage increases mortality to a lesser extent than it does for men in monogamous marriages. For men there is a dose-response effect to losing additional wives. We discuss these findings in relation to theories regarding the mechanisms driving the widowhood mortality effect.

Keywords: Utah, adult mortality, polygamy, widowhood
The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.