Sunday’s Obituary: “And he was prospered beyond the lot of most men”

In the Sabbath Recorder, a newspaper of the Seventh Day Baptist Church, the following obituary appeared on September 20, 1860:

DIED

WHITE — At the Utica State Asylum, Sept. 4th, 1860, Samuel S. White, of Independence, Allegany County, aged 64 years.  Mr. White had been suffering from a partial, and at times, a total mental alienation, since about the 9th of October of last year.  In the fore part of November, he was removed to the Asylum, where his last days were spent.  After he became an inmate there, his physical health seemed to improve, and with it, his mental; especially was this the case during the past spring.  But, in the fore part of August, pulmonary consumption set in, and terminated in his death within a month.  Mr. White settled in early life, forty-two years ago last April, in the the town of Independence, earnestly and successfully devoted himself to business, and was prospered beyond the lot of most men.

New York State Lunatic Asylum at UticaFile:Utica03.png

By the 1850s, mental alienation was considered a disease of the brain that was treatable.  Its causes and cures were rooted in environmental factors found in food or water  and social issues like a stressful work environment.  The New York State Asylum at Utica was the institutional home of the American Journal of Insanity, and through its Superintendent, Dr. John Gray, at the forefront in the treatment of mental illness. It was held that insanity was curable, but that the patient had to be totally isolated from family and the stresses of society.  An orderly, controlled environment of light work, recreation and rest was essential to the cure. In instances in which a patient was at risk of harming him/herself or others, restraints were used.  One such device was the “crib”, a box shaped bed with a cover of slats,  which was securely locked while the patient was inside.

Samuel White was ill in October 1859.  However his mental instability manifested itself, his wife, Nancy Teater White, and children must have been gravely concerned, seeking the counsel of their local physician.  The decision to continue treatment at Utica was probably one of hope, with an expectation that this community leader would return home, cured of his mental alienation. Samuel was seen by Dr. Gray, diagnosed as insane and admitted to the men’s ward of the great Greek Revival building in early November 1859.

File:Utica02.png

What treatments did Samuel require that winter?  Was he permitted to socialize among the other 300 patients; or was he contained in a “crib?”  And at the end, as he lay dying of pulmonary consumption or tuberculosis, did Dr. Gray break the rule forbidding contact with family, and allow Nancy and his children to visit, to comfort him as he passed over?

“and he was prospered beyond the lot of most men.”

1. Photograph gallery of New York State Insane Asylum at http://www.AsylumProjects.org

2. Era of Asylum.  “Overview of Mental Health in New York and Nation.”  New York State Archives.  accessed September 29, 2012.

3. “A visitor to the Utica Insane Asylum.” Weekly Wisconsin Patriot. (Madison, Wisconsin). Volume 6: Issue 42: page 2 (Saturday, January 7, 1860).  Accessed on GenealogyBank.com September 29, 2012.

Tuesday Tip: Think Outside the Search Box

I favor Google Chrome, a largely irrelevant opinion.  We all start in the box.

Dutifully we type surname and variations; we add locations or events or dates. Genealogists troll the internet for data, stories, articles, and cousins.  I must admit to some success with such random meanderings; but I have felt hungry for context, for a fuller understanding of the intellectual and economic landscape of my ancestors.  Particularly one. My muse.  The one ancestor I wish I could invite to lunch.  Ira Sayles.  Professor, teacher, principal.  Geologist, poet, soldier.  Son, husband, father.  And so I stared at the box and pondered.  What else could the internet expose?  How could I think outside this query box?

Among my earlier query returns was a letter published in The American Journal of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 39, May 1865; it established Professor Sayles’ geology credentials and was cited throughout oil industry documents for the next century. Staying inside the box, I felt proud of this citation. Outside my thought box I wondered: Why was a New York school teacher and administrator writing a letter about rock porosity and oil quality in northwestern Pennsylvania?  And why was he taken seriously?

The blinking cursor taunted me and finally I typed: Ira Sayles’ town of residence in 1865 – Whitesville, New York – and the keywords “oil history”.    Holy moly.  I got a whole new line of research, the most helpful site being developed by fellow genealogists in Allegany County, New York, with the page “Who Drilled the First Wells in Allegany County?”  Among the comments, assembled from various historical resources, was this tidbit: “this well, which was drilled on the Alvia Wood farm in the summer of 1865 by the Whitesville Petroleum Company” which was incorporated “for $2500 on March 6,, 1865, to bore for oil or minerals in Allegany and Steuben counties, and six trustees were named to direct drilling operations.  The stock was sold to residents of the village and vicinity farm owners.”  ( Empire Oil by John P. Herrick)

America’s first oil boom occurred just as the Civil War cannons boomed, and my ancestors were living in the middle of both.  Outside the old search box is a landscape of oil pockets and financiers purses.  Expanding a genealogical search to include more than the names on our trees expands our understanding of their stories, and their communities.