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.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Asylum Chronicles: Diagnosis and Treatment of the Insane in the Mid Nineteenth Century

Image by Robert J. Higgins

The topic of insanity in an historical context conjures up images of inmates chained in dark cellars and egomaniacal practitioners who derive perverse pleasure in administering torturous treatments. I tried to put all those preconceived images aside as I set out to learn more about the treatment of the insane during the mid nineteenth century.  This research will set the stage for the fourth book (as yet, untitled) in the Orphans and Inmates series.  

Early understanding of insanity attributed the affliction to a variety of non physical phenomena including demonic possession and supernatural curses.  During the mid nineteenth century, physicians started to distinguish the physical or bodily indications of insanity as opposed to mental indications.  In 1855, Dr. Sanford B. Hunt wrote an article on hysteria in the Buffalo Medical and Surgical Journal.  He discussed the feeble will as the predisposing cause and argued that in different forms of hysteria, the mind became possessed of a dominant thought that it couldn't overcome.  For example, in the case of hysterical coma, the individual became convinced that they couldn't move or respond to external stimuli.  His suggestion in such cases was to force the dominant thought to recede.  He advocated simply leaving the patient alone and allowing the issue to resolve itself, but in cases where the family insisted on a quicker resolution, he suggested a cold water bath, hot cautery iron or ingestion of a foul tasting cathartic.  These treatments attempted to shock the patient back to their senses.  He advocated treatment as needed to prevent a return of symptoms.

Later in the century, physicians became interested in trying to identify the early indications of insanity.  It was felt that if treatment occurred within the first three months after the onset of symptoms, a cure was likely.  Dr. George P. Gray, the Superintendent of the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, New York,  recommended the appointment of a pathologist to undertake the study of sphymography (recording of the pulse), microscopic examination of morbid tissues, changes in the color and elasticity of the skin, and changes in the nerves and vessels of the eye in an attempt to identify lesions associated with insanity.

In the later decades of the nineteenth century, insanity was understood as a disease of the brain.  An unhealthy brain resulted in an unhealthy mind.  Dr. J.B. Andrews of the State Asylum in Buffalo, New York, defined insanity as a prolonged departure in the individual from his normal mode of thinking, feeling or acting, the result of a disease of the brain.  Such a departure could come on rapidly due to an injury, illness or the abuse of substances such as alcohol or laudanum.  They could also occur gradually.  

Image by Robert J. Higgins

Andrews went on to describe the earliest symptoms in the gradual onset of mental illness as a series of disturbances.  First, there were disturbances of function such as loss of sleep, loss of appetite, indigestion, constipation or a general derangement of secretions. Such disturbances of function could result in disturbances of sensation, such as a headache, or disturbances of feeling such as depression, irritability, or moroseness.

Dr. Andrews also acknowledged general life stress as a potential cause of insanity.

     Lead by the desire to excel in the strife for riches, position and power, or, on the other hand,  compelled to work far beyond their strength, to struggle with poverty and actual want, they press forward, or are forced on by the circumstances of life till some additional burden, in the form of grief, anxiety or ill health, develops the changes indicative of mental disturbance.  (Buffalo Medical and Surgical Journal, v. 22, 1882-1883, p. 394) 

Andrews indicated that most physicians underestimated life stress in the development of mental illness to the detriment of the patient.

Treatment of patients from the Erie County Poorhouse was described in the Report on the Chronic Insane in Certain Counties Exempted by the State Board of Charities from the Willard Asylum Act, 1882.  The asylum was built to house up to 300 patients. There were both dormitory and single occupant cells.  In general, the "filthy and violent" patients were housed on the third floor, the patients able to work occupied the second floor and the "quiet" patients occupied part of the first floor.  

It was the job of the attendants of each ward to see that the patients were washed and dressed in clean clothes each morning.  The report indicated that the availability of water was a problem and that the supply was insufficient to maintain proper hygiene.  The report also indicated that at the time of the inspection, many of the attendants were absent from their posts.  

Those patients, who were able, were put to work either on the farm or around the asylum.   Three meals were served each day, which included at least one serving of meat.  Male inmates who labored to maintain the asylum were given more meat and sometimes alcohol as a reward. 

Image by Robert J. Higgins

The report discussed the concern for the number of mechanical restraining devices in New York asylums in general and warned of their potential for abuse in the use of these devices.  At the Erie County Poorhouse Insane Asylum, restraining chairs, covered and uncovered cribs, handcuffs, and arm restraining muffs were used. The decision to restrain a patient came from the physician, often upon the recommendation of the attendant.  The covered cribs were said to be used only at night and camisoles (straight jackets) were not used.  At the time of the inspection described in the 1882 report, only three patients were restrained, two men and a woman. 

Image by Robert J. Higgins

Fresh air and regular exercise were thought to be important in the treatment of the insane.  The outdoor facilities were typically small fenced in yards.  The women's yard at the Erie County Poorhouse Insane Asylum was described as having trees, settees, and a pavilion with seating.  The men's yard was long and narrow, and had available soft balls made of rags and covered with leather for their amusement.

Progress in the understanding and treatment of mental illness lagged behind that of physical illness.  While the conditions at the Erie County Poorhouse Insane Asylum were not ideal, they represent efforts on the part of policy makers and physicians to improve the treatment of the insane in New York. Again, objectivity is the key to interpreting these data and placing them in the context of an effort to reform what had been truly appalling living conditions earlier in the century.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Asylum Chronicles: A brief look at the Insane Department of the Erie County Poorhouse during the Mid Nineteenth Century

Erie County Poorhouse Insane Asylum by Robert J. Higgins

Research for the next installment of the Orphans and Inmates series has lead away from the cholera hospital and directly into the insane asylum.  The Erie County Poorhouse, like all early institutions of its kind, always served those persons considered to be insane. Much like cholera in the early to mid nineteenth century, insanity reached epidemic proportions in New York as the century progressed and the evolution of institutionalization and treatment in the state is as complicated as it is fascinating.  This particular essay will serve as a window into the asylum in the middle decades of the century.

One must tread with care when looking back in time and not judge the actions and opinions of others by the standards of today.  I can think of no better advice for the scholar of nineteenth century institutions.  Certainly there were times when the treatments were barbaric for those determined to have diseases of the brain, or diseases of the mind.  There were many discussions in the medical literature while physicians were trying to understand the difference between the brain and the mind and whether a diagnosis of insanity could be treated in the manner of other physical ailments. However, this dialogue was a giant leap forward from the idea that insanity was the result of a curse or demonic possession.

A movement toward improved treatment of the insane began in New York in the middle decades of the nineteenth century with the heroic efforts of Dorothea Dix, who witnessed first hand the deplorable conditions under which many insane inmates lived.  Since their doors opened in the late 1820's, the  poorhouses of New York state were the primary refuge for the indigent chronic insane. These institutions quickly became overwhelmed with a diverse population of people in need, and the care of the insane was just one of many issues administrators found they were ill equipped to manage.  

Prior to the Willard Asylum Act of 1865, patients sent to the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica were transferred to the poorhouse in their home county if they could not be cured within two years. The Willard Asylum Act was passed requiring the removal of all patients with a diagnosis of insanity from poorhouses across the state.  Those thought to be curable would be sent to the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica and those considered incurable to the new Willard Asylum for the Insane in Ovid.  However, The Erie County Poorhouse was one of several poorhouses in New York that were exempt from this law because they had suitable facilities and continued to house insane patients there until 1896.  

At the first location in Black Rock (1829-1851) there was a separate building for the insane, but no details have been uncovered regarding when it was built or how it operated within the larger institution.  The specific treatment of this sub-population in the beginning of the poorhouse's history is difficult to determine because the records for this period are not very detailed.  The poorhouse system was designed to be a self sustaining farm where the inmates contributed to the production of food and the upkeep of the facility.  However, a good portion of the population was unable to work and often the majority of the chores were carried out by the insane patients.  These individuals worked the gardens, the kitchens, and the laundry.  They quarried stone, dug ditches, made clothing and whatever else needed to be done.

The Erie County Poorhouse moved to the Buffalo Plains location in 1851 and also included a separate building for the insane.  The inventories submitted by the keeper of the asylum suggest that restraint was often used, as straight jackets, handcuffs, restraining chairs and padlocks were consistently counted among the other items in the asylum.  No treatments were detailed in the hospital records, however, regular work for those who were able, fresh air and exercise were indicated in the municipal reports.  

The Keeper's Report for the Erie County Poorhouse, submitted annually to the Erie County Board of Supervisors, suggests that in 1872 the asylum was becoming overcrowded.  The Keeper of the poorhouse, the attending physician and the Superintendent of the Poor expressed concerns over the dangers of having two to three patients confined in a cell meant for a single occupant. Additionally there was a temporary shed that had been built some years before to accommodate the ever increasing number of inmates which was still in use and in a bad state of repair.  One of the chief concerns about the continued use of this structure was that it was ill equipped to keep the inmates warm during the winter months.

Funds were requested to enlarge the asylum and repair its roof. Enlargements or modifications to the insane house were completed in 1874, 1877 and 1879, and addressed issues such as poor lighting and ventilation, weeping walls, cramped cell size, lack of facilities for bathing and inadequate water supply.  The modifications included a dormitory style sleeping area in addition to individual cells, which would reduce expenses in addition to providing superior ventilation and light.

In the report of 1876 the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors reiterated many of the same concerns mentioned by asylum administrators, and added to them the fact that there was no separate hospital for the inmates of the asylum. Inmates who experienced illness or injury were transferred to the general hospital department, often causing disruption among the staff and other patients.  In 1878, the Commissioner of the State Board of Charities, Eighth Judicial District, also expressed concerns about a separate hospital.  He reported that although a hospital ward was added as part of the administration building, it had been converted to dormitories when the asylum again became over crowded,  requiring patients, again, to be transferred to the general hospital department of the poorhouse.

                                    Floor Plan of the Insane Department of the Erie County Poorhouse* 

The Erie County Board of Supervisors were very critical of the running of the poorhouse in the early years of the 1870's and in 1874 investigated the administrators and staff members who held positions in 1871, 72 and 73.  A resident physician testified that liquor was purchased for use in the hospital and the insane asylum. The purpose for offering liquor to the inmates is not clear: " is given to those insane men who will be benefited by it and who labor on the farm; it is given to them three times a day; such as is used at the insane-house is obtained by the keeper; I have nothing to do with giving it out..."

Also evident from this testimony was that inmates of the poorhouse were employed as domestic laborers in the insane department and paid a small wage.

Report from the Committee on the Poor Department.  From the Proceedings of the Board of Supervisors of Erie County, 1874.
My sense of this period from the municipal reports is that living conditions in the insane department of the Erie County Poorhouse were often less than ideal.  However, asylum administrators, county officials and the State Board of Charities were actively trying to remedy them.  Confounding factors included money (always), the ever increasing number of inmates, and a poor understanding of the nature of mental illness.  The latter most certainly impacted the growing inmate population and will be the next installment of the Asylum Chronicles so stay tuned! 

*from the Report on the Chronic Insane In Certain Counties Exempt by the State Board of Charities from the Operation of the Willard Asylum Act, 1882. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The people who tell the story: Alanson Palmer, millionaire turned pauper

Erie County Poorhouse Insane Asylum by Robert J. Higgins

As the research for the next installment of the Orphans and Inmates series continues, real people whose lives are so compelling that they demand a place in the story are continuing to find me. I was searching the period newspapers when I came across the story of Alanson Palmer.  Palmer was a veteran of the War of 1812 and one of Buffalo's earliest millionaires until he lost his fortune in the panic of 1837.  Sadly, Palmer was in and out of the Erie County Poorhouse after that and ultimately died in the Willard Asylum for the Insane, in Ovid, New York.  A millionaire-turned-pauper who died in the insane insane asylum would certainly make an excellent character in my story, so I decided to investigate him further to see if his connection to Orphans and Inmates would reveal itself.

Image Source: Victorian Buffalo: Images from the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, by Cynthia Van Ness
Announcements of his death, which appeared in many newspapers in New York and elsewhere in the United States, portrayed Alanson Palmer as a brilliant, yet benevolent business man.  Other articles about the building of Buffalo's infrastructure revealed the same.  In 1835, when discussions of establishing a university in Buffalo were underway, Palmer donated $15,000 to endow a professorship in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy and several acres of land.  However, it was one of his other investments in the city that caught my eye, The American Hotel, which was built in 1836.  Located on Main Street, between Eagle and Court Streets, it was among the earliest of the grand hotels in Buffalo, and Palmer purchased it for $100,000. Readers of the Orphans and Inmates series may recall that the American Hotel was featured in both A Whisper of Bones and The Seer and The Scholar.  How sad to think that by the time those books took place (1840's), Palmer likely didn't have the means to stop in for a pint in the hotel he had once owned.

Another interesting part of Palmer's life with possible connections to my stories were his marriages .  In 1817 he married Patty Swain.  Patty was the daughter of Daniel Swain, who, ironically, was the Poormaster in Boston, New York.  Sadly, Patty died five years later.  In 1827 Alanson married Julia Matteson.  Her last name might ring a bell if you are regular reader of my blog. Antoinette Matteson was a clairvoyant healer who lived and practiced in Buffalo during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  She was a strong-willed and beloved woman who faced without fear the medical establishment of the day and, on more than one occasion, the law.  She is absolutely worthy of representation in some way in my next book (for more information on this fascinating woman see my blog post from Friday, October 30, 2015).

I wondered if Julia Matteson was related in any way to Judah H.R. Matteson, Antoinette's husband, and immediately contacted a colleague who specializes in genealogy.  As yet, no common ancestor has been identified between Judah H.R. Matteson and Julia Matteson.  However, in the process of trying to find a connection between them, my colleague found another more interesting relationship.  The daughter of Alanson and Julia (Matteson) Palmer, also named Julia, married Samuel E. Cleveland in 1854,  Cleveland was first cousin to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, Grover Cleveland (who was also a former Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York).  Palmer's daughter certainly seemed to have married well considering the decline of her father's status.

Schenectady Courier, Wednesday, April 12, 1837 from
Palmer's decline played out in the period newspapers in Buffalo and elsewhere.   In 1837, after losing his fortune, Palmer wrote a short piece for the Buffalo papers which was reprinted in the Schenectady Cabinet entitled Come and Get Your Pay.  He encouraged his creditors to seek him out for repayment while he still had control of what little was left of his finances and pledged his sincere effort to repay all that he owed.  Apparently, he bounced back somewhat because in September of 1843, the New York Evening Express announced that he purchased a large parcel of land in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the amount of $60,000.00.  Whether he used his own funds or had the help of financial backers is uncertain.  It seems after that, the years were not kind to Palmer. In 1847, The Buffalo Daily Courier reported him in default on several payments and announced the sale at public auction of several of his properties. There was a report in the same paper in March of 1860 of a juvenile delinquent found guilty of throwing snowballs at passers by. His unfortunate target was Alanson Palmer.   In 1861 the Buffalo Daily Courier reported that Palmer's empty wallet had been stolen.  In the winter of 1868, the Courier again reported that Palmer was arrested and charged with petit larceny for stealing a shirt.  Given the old and decrepit appearance of Palmer, by then in his mid-seventies, the judge dismissed the case and sent him to the poorhouse for four months. A few years later, in 1870, the New York Courier and Republic reported that  he was arrested for vagrancy and sent to the poorhouse for six months after just having been released from there.

Although many of the period newspapers imply that Palmer spent the remainder of his life as a pauper after he lost his fortune, it was more likely just the last decade of his life spent at the poorhouse.  A search through the Buffalo city directories revealed that Palmer retained office space on Main Street until 1857.  There was a record of admission to the poorhouse in December of 1864 for 63 days.  He was classified as a pauper and a vagrant at that time.  Another entry into the poorhouse in August of 1867 added the classification of intemperate to his description.  According to The Auburn Morning News (December 29, 1875) Palmer was transferred to the Willard Asylum, the state institution for the insane, when the Erie County Poorhouse asylum was being enlarged.  The first enlargement of that asylum was in 1874, a year before his death, however, the poorhouse records indicate that when Palmer was admitted in December 1870, he became a long term resident and that he was actually transferred to the Willard Asylum on June 19, 1872.  It seems reasonable to assume that he was sent there either because he was considered incurable and,or, because the poorhouse asylum was overcrowded.

When Palmer parted with his wife is a mystery.  I could find no evidence that Julia departed immediately after the initial financial crisis in 1837.  It does not appear that Palmer's situation was dire until about 1847, when much of his property was sold at auction. However, The Buffalo Daily Courier reported that Palmer served on a Grand Jury in 1852.  It is doubtful that he would have been chosen if his mental stability was in question, or if he was an inmate at the poorhouse, so perhaps he was still a citizen in good standing at that time.  Other records indicate that Palmer petitioned to serve as the administrator of his mother-in-law's estate upon her death in 1856.  It was recorded that Julia Matteson Palmer was absent from the state and believed to be in Michigan at that time.  That was the first indication that Julia had left Buffalo.  The announcement of her death that appeared in the Buffalo Morning Express on October 17, 1889 indicated that she died in Brooklyn, New York, and her body was transferred back to Buffalo for burial.  Strangely, neither of Julia's children were listed as witnesses or beneficiaries in her will. A sum of money was left to grandchildren by one Julia's deceased daughters. It is possible that she was estranged from her surviving children at the time of her death, or perhaps she just didn't think they were in need of her assets.  I find myself wondering if Julia had any contact with Alanson during those dark years before his death, and if so, was it a comfort to him or just a reminder of how far he had fallen?

There are even more unanswered questions regarding Palmer's relationship with his children.  Palmer married his second wife in 1827, so his surviving children, Charles and Julia, would have been under ten years old when he lost his fortune in 1837.  If his wife departed at that time, she likely would have taken the children with her.  If she parted with Palmer in the late 1840's or 50's, the children would have been grown and perhaps no longer in her care.  I wondered what the children were told about the family's reversal of fortune. Did they resent their father for the change that took place in their lives?  Did they have any contact at all with him growing up? Both young Julia and Charles left Buffalo, the former going to New York City and the latter to Cleveland, Ohio.  Did Palmer know that despite his failure, his children grew into respectable adults? Did he ever contact them and ask for help?  These are questions that the historic record does not provide answers for. Why neither of them chose to take in their father is also unknown.  The stigma of an insanity diagnosis would have been enough to keep Palmer's family away.  One wonders, though, if the insanity is what drove the family away or if rejection from his family lead to his mental instability?

The life of Alanson Palmer certainly provides plenty of interesting details to build a character around.  The beauty of writing fiction is that it gives us the ability to fill in the missing pieces of the story and add of few twists using our imagination. What if Palmer's wife did not want to leave him?  Perhaps Palmer was ashamed of his failure and pushed his family away, seeing the poorhouse as just punishment for his actions.  Maybe his daughter had visited him once or twice in the asylum, and brought with her tales of her childhood and of her own children.  What if his last thoughts were of her when he died?  What do you think?  If you could add a chapter to Palmer's life, what would it tell us?