Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A wee bit from book five of the Orphans and Inmates series: The Girl on the Shore

Patricia’s comment was on Martha’s mind for the rest of the afternoon.  That voyage across the Atlantic over four decades ago had forever changed their lives.  Martha was so young when the family left their small village on Inis Mór, the largest of the three Isles of Aran, and there was little she remembered of the journey or why they had left in the first place.  Sitting in the back room with their cups of tea, she asked, “Do either of ye remember much of Inis Mór?”
Ciara looked surprised to hear the question.  Patricia took a sip of her tea and placed the cup back on the saucer before answering.  “If I close my eyes, I can see the wee cottage we lived in plain as day.  Do ye recall old Dearg?”
Nenagh, County Tipperary.  Photo courtesy of Robert J. Higgins
Martha closed her eyes, searching deep in her subconscious for an image and then seeing clearly the shaggy red horse.  “Aye, I think I do!  He had long whiskers, I recall, and they tickled my hand.”  Her expression changed as another less pleasant memory of the horse came to her.  “Funny, now that ye mention him, I remember the sound of old Dearg crossing the bridge on the day we left the island.  I had my head tucked under ma’s arm the whole time, so I couldn’t see a thing, but I remember the sound of the hoofbeats changed once he got to the bridge, and I knew we’d soon be at cousin Patrick’s and that he’d take us across the sea to Galway.” 
A flash of memory showed her the reason Martha had her head buried beneath her mother’s arm.  An old woman had approached the wagon as it lumbered up to the bridge, yelling something, but Martha could not remember what.  The woman had frightened her as did her mother’s reaction to draw Martha closer.  She quickly pushed the unpleasant recollection aside, not wanting to cast a shadow on their memories of home.   “’Tis odd, I’d never thought of that day until now.”

Inis Mór, Aran Islands.  Photo courtesy of Robert J. Higgins
“Well, ye’d hardly remember it, would ye?   I was seven and I recall very little of our life on the island.”  Patricia’s thoughts wandered out loud as she struggled to bring back another small detail of her childhood in Ireland.  She smiled, and almost popped out of her chair at the sheer joy of the memory she recalled.  “Oh, I remember our wee cottage was full to burstin’ and cousin Patrick had a penny whistle.  There was music, and everyone was dancin’.”
Ciara had been silent until now.  She smiled, recalling the occasion.  “That’d ‘ave been at the new year.”  She thought for a moment before continuing.  “You were five, I think, and Martha was just two.  ‘Twas Da who gave Patrick that penny whistle.  He got it in Galway.” Ciara’s voice dropped off, and it appeared as though she, too, was lost in the memory.
Inis Mór, Aran Islands.  Photo courtesy of Robert J. Higgins
“Surely ye must remember how it was before we left?” Martha asked her oldest sister.  Ciara was seventeen when they left Inis Mór and had become the guardian of her sisters after the death of their parents.
Occupied with her own thoughts, it appeared that Ciara had not heard the question, so it surprised Martha when she spoke.  “No, not really.  Just bits here and there, like Patricia.”  She was quiet for a moment, but then felt the need to addend her comment.  “We had a time of it aboard the ship, if ye recall, and I’ve not had a moment since to spare many thoughts for the old country.” 

She didn’t quite sound defensive, but moved to redirect the conversation lest her sisters pick up on her anxiety.  “Well, that’s enough talk of the past.”  Turning to Martha, she asked, “Can ye stay for a while, sister?  I’ve got Patricia until month’s end and I’d dearly love to have ye here as well.”
Inis Mór, Aran Islands.  Photo courtesy of Robert J. Higgins
The Girl on the Shore will be released on Thursday, December 14 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York (see website for details).  The book will also be available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords.  Locally, print copies can be purchased at The Antique Lamp Company, The Buffalo History Museum, The Museum of Disability History, Talking Leaves Bookstore, Dog Ears Bookstore and Cafe, Parker Pharmacy, and The Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Field research on Inis Mór

Cottage on Inis Mór.  Photo by Robert J. Higgins
     The fifth installment of the Orphans and Inmates series takes our characters, both past and present, back to Ireland.  If you are familiar with the story, the Sloane family made their way to Buffalo, New York from Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland.  The three islands that make up Aran, Inis Oírr, Inis Meáin, and Inis Mór are a microcosm of traditional Gaelic culture not found elsewhere in the country.  I was moved by the haunting images of the islands I had seen in the book Images of Aran: Photographs by Father Brown, 1925 & 1938,  By E.E. O'Donnell.  After a bit of research, I thought Inis Mór was a great place for my characters to start their journey.  Until now, I had written very little about the small island.  It was mentioned in Orphans and Inmates as the birth place of the Sloane sisters, with some brief references to what their lives were like there.  In the fifth book of the series, a good portion of the story will take place there.  More research was needed.  

     I was able to talk my husband into a brief trip to Ireland in May so that I could visit Inis Mór and get a feel for what life was like there.  As indie authors, our research budgets are often tight and may not include travel, particularly to another country.  Having said that, my advice to my friends and colleagues is:  Go there anyway!  Go where your story takes place, however you can get there.  It is worth the time, the expense and the sacrifice of whatever you had to pass up to get there.

Inis Mór.  Photo by Robert J. Higgins

     There is no better way to get a feel for how your characters will behave in any particular setting than going there yourself.  From the minute our ferry left the dock at Doolin, I knew my decision to scrape and save, put off roof repairs and skimp on groceries, had been worth it.  As we moved out on the Wild Atlantic, we were tossed about like a beach ball, although the vessel was substantial and held over fifty people.  Passengers sat in their seats, green in the gills and white knuckles clenched on the benches in front of them.  My mind went back to the nineteenth century, and to the fishermen of Aran.  Those brave men made their living using only their currachs, small wood frame boats covered by cow hides.  Such boats were keel-less and rudder-less, relying on two to four men with narrow oars to negotiate the same choppy seas.  The necessity to feed their families required that these men make such a treacherous journey often.  My characters speak of the harsh life on the islands, now I have a sense of just how difficult it could have been.

Climbing the road to the ruins of Dún Árainn.  Photo by Robert Higgins

     Inis Mór is a bit less than twelve square miles, with a population of about 900 people.  We could not bring a car on the island, but there were a few options for exploring the area.  There were bicycles for rent but we chose a horse drawn cart which had the advantage of a native tour guide.   We also spent time walking on some of the narrower and steeper roads.  These methods of transportation gave me the opportunity to move around the island at the same pace that my characters from the nineteenth century would have and to get a feel for the clip clop of hooves on hard packed earthen roads (although some of them were paved).  

Our guide, Andy, and Johnny Cash.  Photo by Robert J. Higgins
       Exploring on foot also gave me the opportunity to explore the flora and fauna of the island up close.  In addition to the purple clover, forget-me-nots, butter cups and ferns, there was bleeding heart, yarrow, hawthorn, and numerous other plants I’m in the process of trying to identify, cascading down the stone walls, dotting the pastures, or creeping around fallen headstones.  There were beautiful Connemara ponies for riding, sturdy Tinker’s horses for work, shaggy donkeys who stood in judgement as we passed by, and a rather large herd of goats.  Surprisingly there were few sheep and even fewer dogs to be seen.

Photo by Robert J. Higgins

Photo by Robert J. Higgins
Photo by Robert J. Higgins

Photo by Rosanne L. Higgins

     The most important part of the trip for me was being able to see so much of the rugged landscape.  Essentially, Inis Mór is a giant rock protruding out of the sea.  Stone ruins speak to centuries of occupation, yet give the feel of little cultural change over time.  There were/are no wooded areas, and the few trees have been contorted by the harsh wind. Every field on the island was man made. That was something I had read, but did not appreciate until I saw it for myself.  When you look across the landscape at the hundreds of stone walls that divide up each pasture and realize that each wall is made from the limestone that was dug out of the earth by hand and each field was created by hauling in crushed rock, sand, seaweed and whatever else would support the growth of rye grass, cabbages, carrots and potatoes, it is awe inspiring.  Our guide described it as slave labor, yet each man was working to make a small part of the island his own.  Being able to experience this inhospitable landscape gave me a sense of the true grit my characters possessed.  That same grit allowed three orphaned children to survive the journey to America and months in the almshouse.  It would serve them well as they met the challenges that life in the burgeoning city of Buffalo set before them and will help them in this next book to untangle the secrets of their past.

Photo by Robert J. Higgins
Photo by Robert J. Higgins

Dún Árainn.  Photo by Robert J. Higgins
Photo by Robert J. Higgins

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Whispers across the Wild Atlantic Way

Standing on the Cliffs of Moher looking over the wild Atlantic Ocean, I could see Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands, hiding in the mist.  Those of you who follow the Orphans and Inmates series may recall that the Sloane sisters began their lives in a small village on that very island.  

      What a journey it would have been, traveling to America.  As I looked out over the ocean, I imagined a shaggy pony pulling Ian and Mary Sloane, their daughters, and the few possessions they were able to bring with them in a cart that lumbered over the rocky terrain.  The four girls, Ciara, Patricia, Martha and wee Katie huddled together against the unforgiving wind.  It didn't take long for them to reach the shore, where a small currach would take them across the rough sea.  In Galway they would seek passage to America.

     The fear and anticipation was palpable as I watched the waves rage against the cliffs.  It was a dangerous crossing just to get to Galway.  I realized it was not the angry sea that frightened them.  Everything they knew was behind them and the path forward was filled with uncertainty.  It became evident to me that the Sloane family had not undertaken the perilous voyage in search of a better life.  They were fleeing Inis Mor.

     What secrets does this ancient island keep?  Beneath the harsh December wind was the low moan of Celtic spirits beckoning me to come and find out for myself.  Is there a fifth book in the Orphans and Inmates series?  The answer lies on Inis Mor.  Of that we can be sure.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Revelations on the river from A Lifetime Again

Alternative cover concept by Robert J. Higgins
      Déjà vu.  Literally translated, the term means "already seen", having the strong sensation that a current event or experience has happened before.  In this excerpt from the fourth installment of the Orphans and Inmates series, A Lifetime Again, Maude Travers experiences intense déjà vu.  Her feelings actually conjure flashbacks of an ominous past, leaving Maude both unsettled and intrigued.

From Chapter Three of A Lifetime Again...

     Maude and Don wasted no time after their foil-wrapped breakfast renting kayaks, and spent a lovely afternoon paddling around what had once been called Big Buffalo Creek, now known as the Buffalo River.  They made their way along the river and around the grain elevators.  Prior to this ingenious invention perfected by Joseph Dart, surplus grain traveled from the Midwest on ships large enough to withstand the tempestuous weather the Great Lakes could wreak.  Upon its arrival in Buffalo, the grain would be unloaded by hand, an arduous chore taken on largely by Irish immigrants.  They reloaded it onto the smaller canal boats in order to continue its journey along the Erie Canal to the east coast.  With the invention of the grain elevator, ships could be unloaded by steam-powered conveyor belt, at the rate of 1,000 bushels per hour, thus making Buffalo the largest grain port in the world.
            Paddling along a bend in the river, Maude’s attention was drawn across a narrow stretch of land separating the river from the larger body of Lake Erie, toward one of the lakeside bars which had changed hands recently and was closed for renovations.  Although she could not see the actual bar, she felt compelled to look out toward it anyway, squinting for better focus. A large wake rocked the kayak and she looked around to find its source, but saw nobody on the water, not even Don, who had previously been paddling just behind her.  
Bringing her attention back toward the lakeside bar, she could not believe her own eyes.  Instead of the brick and iron skeletons of Buffalo’s industrial past that had just been in her line of sight, she now saw almost nothing.  Instead, there were only two sets of railroad tracks that merged at the bend in Big Buffalo Creek.  The details were so vivid, but impossible because those particular tracks were long gone.  It was such a quick flashback, but it brought a sense of foreboding that made her stop paddling and stare up at the spot where she was sure the railroad tracks had been.
            Don paddled up behind her.  “Ready to call it a day?”
            Maude blinked and looked again to find that the vision had passed and she was once again looking at the modern landscape.  “Yeah, I’m ready.”  She paddled alongside Don, but glanced behind her one last time.  “Hey, you know that place by the marina that’s under renovation?”  He nodded and she continued speaking.  “Wouldn’t it be just over there?”  She pointed across the industrial ghost town on the narrow stretch of land between the river and the lake.
            Don looked behind him, considering the question.  “Yeah, that looks about right.  Why?”
            “Oh, I don’t know. I was thinking when it finally opens maybe we could give date night one more try.”  Her smile was strained and she knew it did not fool him.
“Sure, but I don’t think they will be reopening any time soon.”  He noticed she hadn’t taken her attention away from that spot.  “Everything okay?”  
            Now that he was focused in that direction, the spot just out of their line of sight on the shore of the lake held his fascination too.  Don continued to look in the direction of the marina as if he was trying to remember something important, but couldn’t quite put his finger on it.  The wind came up behind him and he felt a chill run down his spine.  With a shiver, he turned his attention back to Maude.  “C’mon, let’s head back.”
             “Good idea.”  Maude decided it was too nice a day for overthinking and paddled away.  By now, there were other kayaks, water bikes and motor boats around them and it became necessary to pay close attention to the traffic on the river as they made their way along.  As Maude approached the Commercial Slip, which had been the access point into the canal system, she experienced another flashback, this time at the spot where the bridge crossed Canal Street.   The distillery of Jay Pettibone and Company loomed off to the right.  “What the hell?” she mumbled.  How could she possibly know what businesses crowded around the Commercial Slip back in the day?  The intricacies of the Erie Canal district in Buffalo had never been something about which Maude knew much, so it surprised her that she would zero in on such an unusual detail. 
            “Did you say something?”  Don asked her as they paddled up to the Central Wharf to return their kayaks.
            “No, just talking to myself.”  
            Don climbed out and secured his vessel before turning to help his wife.  Maude reached for his hand and allowed herself to be hoisted topside.  She stumbled as she took a step forward, unaccustomed to solid land after hours on the river.  She grabbed for the arm that had reached to steady her, but it was not the bare, tanned upper limb of her husband. It was a wet shirt-sleeve of rough calico.  She could hear the shouts of the men on the docks and the sounds of the nightlife not far off.  The air around her smelled of horse manure, rotting river debris and dead fish.  Startled, Maude looked up expecting to see the bustle of the nineteenth-century Canal District late in the evening when the hardworking folks blew off steam after a long day, but instead it was Don again, and the few people waiting in line for kayaks.  
            Like the glimpse of the railroad tracks and Mr. Pettibones’ distillery, it happened so quickly she wasn’t sure it actually had happened.  This was different, though, because she had experienced more than just a visual hallucination; other inner and outer senses had contributed to the scene.  Maude had felt a distinct sense of conflicting emotions: fear and hope all in the same heartbeat.  Even the air was different when she had exited the river.  Instead of the touristy aromas of cotton candy and sunscreen, the decaying stench of the docks and the people and animals who worked them was evident.

            Don pulled Maude firmly to her feet.  “I’ve got you.”  Maude stopped and took a minute to collect herself.  She resisted the unsettling urge to embrace Don and hold on for dear life, which did not go unnoticed.  “Hey, are you okay?  You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”  He realized the truth of those words as they exited his mouth.  “Let’s sit down for a minute.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What was that about well behaved women and history?

     Not all the inspiration for the Orphans and Inmates series comes from the Erie County Poorhouse.  Just south of the city of Buffalo, Modern Spiritualism was beginning to take shape during the mid to late nineteenth century.  Lily Dale is one of the oldest Modern Spiritualist communities in the United States whose history is chronicled in rows of tidy cottages and acres of virgin forest, as well as in its library and museum. 

    Marion Skidmore was one of the founding and most influential members of the early Lily Dale community as well as the organizer of its library.  Originally just a tent in the middle of the early campground, the Marion H. Skidmore Library now boasts solid construction and a rare collection of the earliest published works on a wide variety of topics, some written by Spiritualists and others written by the spirits themselves.  Marion Skidmore’s library had no shortage of stories of women like her, who overcame tragedy or the limitations placed on them by social convention and accomplished great things.

Antoinette Matteson.  From The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Healing
available at the Marion H. Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York.
Because I am interested in women as healers, I was drawn to Antoinette Matteson, another strong and independent Modern Spiritualist.  She was benevolent, powerful, controversial and talented.  Readers of the fourth book in the Orphans and Inmates series, A Lifetime Again, will notice a strong resemblance to the character of Alva Awalte.

Matteson was a clairvoyant healer.  She would achieve a trance state to diagnose and treat illnesses.  Her book, The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Healing, published in Buffalo, New York in 1894, describes her methods for diagnosis and her receipts for treating a variety of ailments.  A first edition signed by the author can be found at the library in Lily Dale. 
     Mrs. Matteson did not have a medical license, but practiced under the authority of the New York State Association of Spiritualists.  Herbal remedies were given to Antoinette by her spirit guide, who was a Native American medicine woman.  Her passion for herbal healing is evident in the passage below from her book:

     Our object is to give our quota to strengthening the bulwarks of Medical Botany, and we wish it to be so in truth, and trust that the day is not far distant that it will be taught in our public schools, so that the people may gain sufficient knowledge to enable them to remove all diseases that flesh is heir to, and that man may know himself and leave not a single outlet but that of old age. For such is our confidence in the benevolence of the Creator, that within the vegetable kingdom may be found remedies for all the maladies of mankind.

From The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Healing
available at the Marion H. Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York.

         Originally from Boden, Germany, Antoinette Wealthy (perhaps an Americanized version of Welte) came to the United States in 1852 at the age of five.  She lived in Collins, New York, and eventually in Buffalo and also Lily Dale.  The New York State census of 1865 lists her as the wife of Judah H.R. Matteson, a blind musician. At 31 years old, he was nearly twice her age.  Between the ages of 18 and 33, Antoinette gave birth to six children.  At the age of 36, Matteson became a widow.  Her youngest child, Nettie, was just three years old.

   Interestingly, several of Antoinette's children also found careers in healing.  Her oldest daughter, Nellie, followed in her mother’s footsteps as a clairvoyant healer and took over Antoinette’s substantial practice upon her retirement in 1912.  A second daughter, Martha, attended the Medical Department of the University of Buffalo and graduated in 1891.  Her son, George, eventually took over the production of her herbal remedies and sold them through newspaper advertisements. 

     Mrs. Matteson practiced what she called The Medicine of Nature for several decades.  By many accounts she was a respected healer and had a lucrative practice.  There were, of course, those who doubted her abilities.  In January of 1882 The Buffalo Evening News reported that she was arrested for telling bad fortunes based on the complaint of a man whose wife became convinced that he was trying to kill her so that he could be with another woman.  The man accused Mrs. Matteson of delivering this premonition to his wife, who subsequently ran off.  Antoinette vehemently denied both the accusation of fortune telling and that the woman had been a client of hers, resulting in the need to secure an attorney for trial.  Unfortunately, a report of the outcome of said trial could not be found.
     During the final two decades of the nineteenth century, her name was often found in the newspapers associated with some sort of legal action.  Some cases involved lawsuits for non-payment of services rendered.  Another, against her daughter Nellie, involved a piece of property in foreclosure.  Many of these actions involved the acquisition or sale of real estate holdings.  Her last will and testament, written in 1910, recorded eighteen pieces of property collectively worth over $30,000. 
     Mrs. Matteson’s vast estate was a source of controversy for her surviving daughters in the years before her death in 1913.  There was an attempt in 1911 by Dr. Martha F. Caul, Antoinette’s physician daughter, to have her mother, by then a widow, declared incompetent.  The Buffalo Courier reported that it was Dr. Caul’s opinion that her mother’s considerable estate was in danger due to the greed of Martha’s sister, Nellie Whitcomb.  Nellie had taken over the clairvoyant healing practice and was accused of transferring Antoinette’s assets into her own name.  Through cross examination it was revealed that Martha had tried to have her mother arrested for practicing medicine without a license and that she had borrowed a substantial amount of money from her mother and only paid back a small portion.  The case represents attempts on both her daughters’ parts to claim her assets, which were reportedly valued at $60,000.  A jury found Mrs. Matteson competent to manage her own affairs. 
     A closer look at Antoinette’s will reveals more possible family discord due to financial matters.  While the estate was to be divided equally among her four surviving children, she instructed that an amount of $6,000 be deducted from her daughter Martha’s inheritance and $6750 from her son George’s inheritance, these sums being loans from their mother that neither sibling had paid back.
     Antoinette Matteson died on October 11, 1913 at the age of 66.  The Tonawanda Evening News reported a general nervous breakdown as the cause of death.  She left behind substantial real estate holdings, a thriving healing practice and a solid reputation as a clairvoyant healer.  In 1933, twenty years after her death, The Erie County Independent ran a story on her, reminiscing about her bravery as a clairvoyant healer in the face of the medical establishment, her considerable skill in herbal medicine and her far reaching benevolence.  Clearly Antoinette Matteson was a remarkable woman.  She was strong willed and would countenance no transgression against her.  She had the tenacity to fight for that which was due her and was not afraid to invoke the aid of the judicial system when needed, even against her own children.  She was hardly the average Victorian woman.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Life After the Poorhouse: The fate of one family

As many of you know, working with the inmate ledgers of the Erie County Poorhouse was what inspired the writing of the Orphans and Inmates series. More often than not, transcribing the names and ages of the men, women and children admitted there resulted in more questions than answers. In many cases, the mysteries remained unsolved.  These next few blogs will focus on the few inmates for whom details were available before or after their time in the poorhouse.  All of them became characters in the series.

When the doors of the poorhouse opened in 1829, the very first family entered in the ledger was the Pixley family.  This family made an impression on me from the moment I transcribed their names.  I have always wondered how they ended up seeking institutional relief and what happened to them when they were discharged.  The Pixleys make a brief appearance in A Lifetime Again, the fourth book in the series coming out this month.  In the book, Maude is similarly struck by the desperation that must have driven these people to the poorhouse and also wonders what became of them.  It appears as though we finally have some answers.

Erie County Poorhouse Records 1829-1877
Courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum
On January 8, 1829,  the Pixley family was admitted to the Erie County Poorhouse. According to the inmate records, Kenaz, Apphia, and their seven children came from Albany, New York, however, other records indicate the family's origins in Massachusetts.  The town of Chester, Massachusetts, vital records show that Kenaz and Apphia were married there in 1809.  The 1820 Federal Census indicates that the family was living in Franklin County, Massachusetts at the time. Sometime after that, the family moved to Albany. The City of Albany Directory for 1827 indicates that there was a Kenah Pixley working as a shoemaker. It is reasonable to assume based on additional records, that this person was Kenaz Pixley.

We don’t know what circumstances led Kenaz and his wife to transport their family to Buffalo or how they ended up in the Erie County Poorhouse.  It is clear, however, that the need to seek refuge there resulted in the family being separated for a period of time. Kenaz and Apphia were discharged from the poorhouse on May 20, 1829. Some of the younger children, Frederick (age 10), Harvey (age 6) and Philander (age 4) were discharged ten days later. However, the other children were discharged much earlier. Henry (age 12) left on January 16, while Mary Ann (age 16) and William (age 14) left on January 30. Maria (age 8) was discharged on February thirteenth. What became of the children immediately after they left the poorhouse is unknown.

There was no orphan asylum in Buffalo until 1836, but a system of indenture was in place. Legally a parent could enter their child into a contract of indenture if they wanted the child to be trained in a specific trade, or if they were unable to support the child. In the absence of the parents, a legal guardian or the superintendent of the poor could do the same. It was not unusual for orphaned or destitute children to be bound out to the lowest bidder for their care as laborers by the superintendent of the poor because it was cheaper to pay an outside caretaker than for children to continue to reside at the poorhouse. Also, while under contract, the children learned to read and write in addition to learning a skill that would enable them to seek employment as adults. According to the law, a contract of indenture lasted until the age of 18 for girls and 21 for boys. The contract could be terminated if there was evidence of cruelty on the part of the master, or poor job performance on the part of the apprentice.

There was no minimum age at which a child could be bound out into labor, and it seems likely that most of the Pixley children experienced this fate. However, the cases of the three youngest brothers, Frederick, Harvey and Philander are curious. They all left on the same day, 10 days after the discharge of their parents. Perhaps they were not bound out as laborers and stayed in the poorhouse until their parents had re-established themselves and could return for them?

There was no legal provision for the release of children from indenture contracts unless there was dissatisfaction on the part of the master or evidence that he was mistreating the child, however, there is some evidence suggesting that most of the Pixley family may have been reunited after they left the Erie County Poorhouse. The Federal Census of 1830 lists Kenaz Pixley in Cleveland, Ohio, at that time. Records indicate that his brothers Lathrup and Argulus Pixley also lived in Ohio, so perhaps that is why Kenaz and his family relocated there. A Cleveland City Directory from 1837-38 lists a shoemaker by the name of Kenez Pixley on Euclid Street. The spelling of his name is slightly different, but this record does suggest that he remained there for a number of years. Whether Apphia was still with him is unknown. Also, there were no more reliable pieces of evidence chronicling the fate of either Kenaz or his wife after the 1830 Federal Census.

Image by Robert J. Higgins
 While the members of the family are not listed by name in the 1830 Federal Census, the age and sex distribution of the members of the Kenaz Pixley household match that of his family, with the exception that one child was missing. There should have been two males marked in the 10-15 age category, but there was only one. It is reasonable to suspect that Henry Pixley did not reunite with his family after he was discharged from the Erie County Poorhouse on January 16, 1829 at the age of twelve. He was the first of the family to be discharged, although his whereabouts were unknown. The other brothers, William, Frederick, Harvey and Philander could all be traced into adulthood using census data and other municipal documents. However, there was no reliable evidence indicating Henry’s fate.

In the 1850 Federal Census, William Pixley, then 35 years old, and Margaret Pixley (perhaps his wife) were living in Indiana with the Allen family. Who the Allens were to William Pixley and Margaret is unknown. William died in 1897 and was buried in Steuben County, New York.

In the 1860 Federal census, Frederick Pixley and his wife were living with their five children in Indiana. Frederick was a Civil War veteran and died in 1878 at the age of 60.

Harvey married and fathered six children. For a time, he also lived in Indiana. Harvey was a veteran of the Civil War as well and died in 1900 at the age of 77.

The youngest brother, Philander, likely lived in Tioga County, New York. The 1860 Federal Census listed Philander (then 37), his wife, and their five children living there (believe it or not, there may have been another Philander Pixley living in Buffalo, but he was ten years older than the Philander in Tioga County).

The only brother who could not be reliably identified through municipal and or vital records was Henry Pixley. Perhaps he stayed with the mentor who took him on after he was discharged from the poorhouse and he assumed his mentor's name. Perhaps he died while in this person's care. It is also possible that the 1830 census is not accurate and all of the members of the Kenaz Pixley family were living in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1830.

The fate of the Pixley sisters, Maryann and Maria is also unknown. Due to the fact that women typically took the surname of their husband when they married, their overall lack of social status, and inability to serve formally in the military, it is very difficult to trace women in the historic record. 

Assuming that the members of the Kenaz Pixley household in 1830 were, in fact, his wife and children, it is remarkable that they were reunited after their time in the Erie County Poorhouse.  It is unlikely that most other families were as fortunate.  It also appears as if most of their sons were able to make decent lives for themselves as adults.  The Pixley's story becomes an important one in the overall understanding of the poorhouse as a temporary place of refuge.  The institution seems to have offered this particular family the help they needed and allowed most of it's members to go on to lead productive lives.  Whether they were the exception or the rule remains to be seen.


Friday, May 27, 2016

The Asylum Chronicles, Part Three: Case studies

It would not be an exaggeration to say that insanity reached epidemic proportions during the nineteenth century.  Evidence in New York includes municipal reports that document ever overcrowded conditions for the insane in state institutions, expenditures to enlarge existing institutions and legislation implemented to move the indigent insane out of county poorhouses and into state asylums.  Currently, the term insanity is a legal definition rather than a medical one, so a look at a few of the patients diagnosed with a disease of the brain or disease of the mind is necessary to understand the term as it was used during the nineteenth century.

These cases come from the Erie County Poorhouse hospital records, with the exception of Antoinette Matteson, who was lucky enough to avoid the asylum.  Some of them will be familiar, having been subjects of former blogs, others may cause outrage, and some will make you sad.  It is important to remember that each of the individuals reported on here were real people who were considered to be different from the rest.  Still, perhaps you might find some similarities to many of the "sane" people you know.  I know I did.

From the Buffalo Evening Courier and Republic, December 21, 1875 

You may recall Alanson Palmer, former millionaire turned pauper, who made his fortune in Buffalo in the early nineteenth century only to lose it during a financial panic in 1837.  Palmer tried for more than a decade to rebuild his fortune, but was never able to regain his wealth or his status in the community.  It appears that he went into an irreversible decline after he was no longer able to maintain his offices in 1857.  Newspaper reports and poorhouse records show that he spent months at a time as a resident of the poorhouse, where he was classified as a pauper, a vagrant and an intemperate.  Sadly he entered the Erie County Poorhouse for the last time in 1870.  Records indicate that he was transferred to the Willard Asylum, the facility for the chronic insane, in 1872.  He died there in 1875.

Was Alanson Palmer insane or just heartbroken and defeated?  Evidence suggests the latter.  At some point he was separated from his wife and children, whether it was immediately after he lost his fortune or as he continued on his downward spiral is unknown.  The reasons they departed are also a mystery.  Did his wife leave him because of his misfortune or did he send her away because he could no longer support her in the manner in which she had grown accustom?  He went from the man everyone said hello to on the street to the man people threw snowballs at.  Certainly his appearance, described in in the Buffalo Courier in 1868 as old and disheveled , indicates that Palmer, then in his seventies, had given up all hope.

Antoinette Matteson.  From The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Healing
available at the Marion H. Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York.

Another wealthy resident of Buffalo may likely have been declared insane had it not been for her own whits and, perhaps, a little help from her friends.  Antoinette Matteson was a clairvoyant healer who lived in Buffalo during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  She claimed to be able to go into a trance where she received guidance from her Native American spirit guide, who provided her with insight into the diagnoses and botanical cures for her ailing clients.  Interestingly, this was not the reason Matteson was thought to be insane.  She was actually a well respected healer and had quite a lucrative practice in the city of Buffalo.  It was her fortune that was at the source of the accusation.  Matteson had two daughters.  Martha Caul had graduated from the Medical Department at the University of Buffalo, while Nellie Whitcomb had followed her mother into the clairvoyant healing practice.  It was Martha who wanted her mother declared insane in 1911 because she thought that sister Nellie was squandering her mother's fortune.  Martha and other family members claimed that Matteson, then in her late sixties, would talk strangely and that her language was incoherent and hard to understand.

As it turns out, Matteson was unable to be located and could not be served with papers to appear in court and rumors circulated that she had fled to Lily Dale, an established safe haven for Spiritualists in Chautauqua County, New York.  Friends suggested that her ability as a clairvoyant enabled her to know when the process servers were coming and thus to be able to avoid being found.  Eventually Dr. Caul dropped the charges.  Not surprisingly, there is other evidence of friction between mother and daughter.  Martha had her mother arrested for practicing medicine without a license, according to the period newspapers.  Upon her death in 1913, Matteson was owed a substantial sum of money from Caul and deducted the amount from her daughter's inheritance.  Martha's attempt to gain control over her mother's fortune using a claim of insanity failed and in the end, her mother had the last word.

The case of Marietta Blanchard suggests potential abuse, or at the very least negligence on the part of the asylum staff.  At the age of 26 she was admitted to the poorhouse asylum with a diagnosis of insanity.  Three years later, still at the asylum, she gave birth to a son.  The attending physician made mention of the fact that she had been an inmate for a number of years, adding "This woman is an inmate of the insane house and is insane at this time..."  Unfortunately there were no other details explaining the rationale for her diagnosis.

There are several interesting details about this case that suggest something nefarious was going on.  First of all, the woman gave birth in the asylum, not the poorhouse hospital, although the birth was recorded in the hospital records.  Also, there was no record of the infant's admission into the poorhouse and no record of his death.  Further scrutiny of the poorhouse records for that period show that there were records of admission for the live infants of other inmates who had given birth in the institution.  Notation was consistent in these cases and read as such: 'Infant son of Molly O' Reily, born at the poorhouse', yet there was no record of the infant son of Marietta Blanchard.  Also, the physician made a point of documenting that the woman was insane and had been an inmate of the asylum for several years.

 It seems reasonable that the physician was trying to draw attention to the circumstances surrounding Marietta's pregnancy.  Supervision at the asylum was often lax, according to inspection reports.  It is possible that she had a relationship with another inmate, or perhaps a member of the staff.  It is also possible that her liaison was not consensual.  Either scenario suggests a critical level of negligence on the part of the asylum administration.  Sadly, the records do not indicate the fate of Miss Blanchard or her son and we are left wondering if one or both of them were doomed to spend the rest of their lives in the institution.

Margaret Bauman, poorhouse inmate.  Image from The Buffalo(NY) Courier, December 5, 1900
Margaret Bauman's story, to the extent that I have been able to piece it together, is perhaps the saddest of the case studies presented here.  Although newspaper reports claim she came to the poorhouse at the age of twelve, the inmate records report her earliest admission to the institution in 1854 at age 24.  Her diagnosis was insanity with no indication of how or why she was considered as such.  She died fifty-six years later, at the age of 80 in 1910.

Margaret spent more than half of her life in the poorhouse, having never been transferred to the State Asylum in Utica for further treatment or the Willard Asylum for the chronic insane.  She lived well past 1893, when the Erie County Poorhouse asylum closed and the last insane inmate was transferred to the Willard Asylum.  Was she truly insane?  We will never know for sure.  Her initial diagnosis was made when the understanding of insanity as a physical disease which could be cured with treatment was just being considered.  During that time a variety of ailments from stomach distress to seizures could be diagnosed as insanity.  Newspaper reports refer to her as an inmate of the poorhouse, not the asylum and describe her as quiet.  It is a reasonable assumption that if she could have cared for herself, she would not have spent more than half of her life in an institution.   It might have been more accurate to describe Margaret as feeble minded. Perhaps she was simply lacking the mental acuity to survive in real world.

Sadly, Margaret Bauman's circumstances did not improve upon her death in 1910.  According to the hospital records her body was not claimed for burial by a friend or relative and as such it was legal to transfer her earthly remains to the medical school for cadaver dissection.  Having examined all of the hospital cases for the period available that were transferred to medical schools for dissection, there seemed to be no pattern, no rationale as to why one person was chosen over another.  It seems odd that someone who was so well known around the institution would have been selected for what was likely considered a fate worse than death.  There was no record of Margaret's remains having been transferred back to the poorhouse for burial, so her final resting place remains unknown.

A final interesting case is that of Mary McGuire.  Mary was transferred to the poorhouse asylum on May 10, 1858 from Sisters of Charity Hospital, where she had been "under treatment for three months & more without the least good."  She was declared insane because she would howl at night and also because she had severe ankylosis (stiffness) of her knee joints and was forced to crawl around.  She remained in the institution for nearly four months, however there were no details regarding any treatment she may have received.

Mary, who was seventeen at the time of her admission was discharged on August 31, 1858 completely recovered mentally and physically.  It is likely that she suffered from a physical ailment which was causing her severe pain.  Rheumatic fever is a possible candidate given her age and the stiffness in her joints.  There are no details about her specific treatment, but is possible that the disease ran its course and her symptoms disappeared.  The physician noted in her record "...she was discharged perfectly sane and also had perfect use of her limbs, could walk or run as fast as the most sound person in the house."

There were too many cases of "insanity" in the Erie County Poorhouse hospital records to mention here.  These few indicate that there were a variety of circumstances under which a person might be considered insane.  Inmates like Mary McGuire recovered from the condition that was causing her duress.  Others, like Margaret Bauman and Alanson Palmer, whether sane or not, spent the remainder of their lives in an institution.  Through her own efforts, Antoinette Matteson managed to avoid the asylum all together, but Marietta Blanchard was not so lucky and her life may have been forever changed by her experiences there.  Each of these people provide inspiration for characters that will help tell my stories and at the same time allow me to tell a little bit of theirs in return.