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.