Fifty Seven Years in a Cage: A Story of Psychiatric Disability from the late Puritan Era

My historic work is not about famous able-bodied men, battles or presidents as many think of when they think of history; it is about women, epidemic disease, art, slavery, mental illness, reform and disability. It is about those were marginalized, the ones lost to history whose stories have been long forgotten or never told. The medieval anchoresses who lived in little rooms, those kept in towers, in prisons, in asylums, those who were physically or socially incarcerated. As a genealogical researcher in North Syracuse, I worked primarily with a collection of one hundred and forty four letters written by four generations of Massachusetts women in the late eighteenth through mid nineteenth centuries, which centered my work on Puritan New England. The collection had been long forgotten until its discovery about four years ago in an Arizona attic. Within the still pristine letters, preserved by dry heat, was the story of the Spaulding family of Buckland, who kept their only son in a cage in the family home. Josiah Spaulding was said to be insane, and remained in the cage for fifty-seven years until his death. The letters were mostly written by his four sisters. I hope to tell some of their stories here.

What are the circumstances that would compel a family to imprison one of its members in an iron cage for the rest of his life? In the case of Josiah Spaulding Junior, born 1787, the answer given by his preacher father, Reverend Josiah Spaulding of Buckland, Massachusetts, was that his son had “lost his reason” and was a danger to the family. Later census records on the Spaulding family state that Josiah was insane. Perhaps he was, perhaps he wasn’t. I uncovered this story during my time as an archival researcher for a private archive in North Syracuse, where we received one hundred and forty-four letters written by four generations of Spaulding family members. In researching this story, I have been unable to find evidence for violent mental illness, but I have found evidence of many other things. Josiah was kept in a cage by various family members in their homes for fifty-seven years. He was put into it when he was about 23 years old, and it is there that he died.

Josiah Spaulding, Jr., the son of a prominent reverend, was expected to follow a certain life path. He was the only surviving infant of a triplet birth, born to Mary Williams of Taunton, Massachusetts and Reverend Spaulding, originally of Plainfield, Connecticut. Josiah’s sister Mary, the firstborn child, had been born the year before. The two maintained a close friendship for many years. Both of Josiah’s parents were from respected lines of New England families who were among the first white settlers of the region, and their genealogies span to the early seventeenth century in America.

Reverend Spaulding was a staunch Calvinist, and obtained his Doctor of Divinity from Yale in 1778. He was ordained as a minister in 1782 and had gone to Uxbridge, Massachusetts to begin his career as the local minister. He was married there, as well. However, as would occur repeatedly until his arrival in Buckland, the reverend was dismissed from his position in part because of “unpopularity due to his Calvinist theology”, according to the Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, and the fact that he was thought to be eccentric. Hardline Calvinism, which had long been the established religion in New England, was slowly starting to fall out of vogue during this period. According to records, parishioners had a hard time believing that God “foreordained every thought, word and action” of human beings, as Calvinism and the Reverend taught. However, Reverend Spaulding deeply believed in the doctrine and would not renege even a little. As a result, he had to move around a few times until the family settled in Buckland, where he remained minister for twenty-eight years and was widely loved by the townspeople. Josiah was eight years old when the Spauldings arrived in Buckland. Daughters Nancy, Deborah, and Lydia had been added to the family, with Lydia being the youngest, born in 1799.

Letters between Josiah and his older sister, Mary, demonstrate a close relationship between the two. Mary’s 1801 letter to Josiah, written when she was sixteen and he around fourteen and away at a conference in Goshen, spoke heavily of religion and repentance but also of local gossip:

PS I will inform you of the death of Betsy Stinn, she died not long before thanksgiving  & it is expected that Lydia her sister is or will soon be married to the gentleman that courted Betsy. & What do you think of that, it has occasioned considerable talk here…

As a young woman of this era, Mary would not have been groomed for a career in the way that Reverend Spaulding was doing by bringing his son to a religious conference. Unlike her mother and namesake Mary Williams, Mary Spaulding was taught how to write and had beautiful penmanship. She and her sisters attended the local one-room schoolhouse in Buckland where a peer of theirs was Daniel Forbes, famous for his penmanship and friends with the Spaulding family. There is little doubt that the Spaulding children learned penmanship in some measure from Daniel, and in the Spaulding collection there are letters written by him to Mary. However, the Spaulding daughters’ education did not go much beyond their years at the local schoolhouse, as they were expected to excel instead in the domestic arts and get married.

Josiah, also expected to marry and raise a family and continue the Spaulding lineage, could attend college. Neil Perry’s 1966 article on Josiah for the Springfield Morning Union, based on Victorian era articles from one hundred years prior, states that Josiah was violent and rebellious in his youth, and was not accepted to college. These descriptions are from 1866, just before Josiah’s death. However, the language of articles like these is typical to language of the Victorian era when describing or reporting on mental illness, and Josiah is referred to as “deranged.”

The family letters indicate otherwise. Josiah was an articulate and intelligent young man who worked as a teacher, and had the most beautiful penmanship in the family. The story of Josiah will continue in a three part series on this blog. Perhaps he did have some mental illness, and he did seem to be rebellious for the era. It is my estimation that his aversion to Puritan based norms and expectations and his conflicting ideology from his father’s was the real reason that he was caged, along with what does seem to be some kind of possible psychiatric issue. However the description of him as violent and deranged was sensationalized, and is not an accurate description of those with psychiatric disabilities on the whole. There has long been, and continues to be a disparity in power between those who are considered to be able bodied and minded, and those who aren’t. The Spaulding family was absolutely dominated, as most Puritan lines were, by the patriarch. It is not Josiah that should necessarily be looked to as defining derangement, but his Calvinist father, who not only was the patriarch of the family, but of the entire village of Buckland and much of western Massachusetts.

[I will continue my exploration of Josiah and his family in next week’s post.]   


Kate Corbett Pollack is a graduate student in Cultural Foundations of Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University.  Her scholarship has grown from Josiah’s story, and has led to an interest in prisons, mental illness, social reform, education and disability. She wrote a monthly blog for almost three years, which can be viewed at americanpomeroys.blogspot.com, the blog for the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association. She has also written for and done work with the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica on the history and families who lived in a few of the beautiful old mansions in that area. Prior to coming to the university, she lived in Brooklyn, and before that Eugene, Oregon where she was born, and Utica, New York. Her family in Syracuse goes back one hundred years, and she has lived here over the years on occasion.

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