Life Unwinding: Ira Sayles 1891-1893

As fine crystals frosted the window panes of his Ithaca office that November 1891, the assistant paleontologist for the United States Geological Survey concentrated on the Devonian fossils arrayed before him. Ira Sayles–Darwin doubter, writer of meter and rhyme, observer of chipmunks and turkey vultures, thinker of deep thoughts–prepared the season’s specimens under the supervision of Cornell University professor, Henry S. Williams, for shipment to the National Museum in Washington, D.C.

The 74 year old’s labeling and packing of the year’s field work was disrupted by a “stroke of paralysis” which left him weak and tremulous, particularly in his right hand. Nonetheless Ira carried on his duties for the Survey and returned to his Washington, D.C. apartment at 213 9th Street. His winter commute was but a short block north to the National Museum, headquarters for the Geological Survey. Each day he summoned the intellectual acumen of which he was so proud, and joined the team analyzing field notes and fossil specimens to discover the “bearing and distribution of faunas on the history of the elevation of the eastern half of the North American continent.

Ira Sayles lived at 213 9th Street, a block south of the National Museum in 1889-1891.

Real Estate Platt Book of Washington, DC, Volume 2, 1893, by G.M. Hopkins and Company: digitally accessed at DC Public Library (https://digdc.dclibrary.org) 28 Aug 2019.

Ira’s health deteriorated with the deepening of the District’s winter.

On the 24th of February 1892, Ira’s boss, Chief Paleontologist Charles D. Walcott, alerted the Sayles family in Mecklenburg County, Virginia that Ira was “lying dangerously ill at Providence hospital, this city.” What, asked Professor Walcott, did his wife and son want to do with his body in the event of his death?


Ira didn’t give them a chance to make that decision. He left the hospital with or without medical advice, resigned from the US Geological Survey, and set out for home.

One could be forgiven for anticipating that Ira took his frail body to Southside Virginia, to sit on the porch of his family’s farmhouse, to listen to wind-brushed pine needles and drink deeply of the curative Buffalo Lithia Spring Water bottled locally.

But Ira had rarely visited Chase City since the estrangement from Serena in 1872. For a decade afterward Professor Sayles had bounced from one New York academy to another, until he had received an appointment to the Geological Survey in 1883 by former student-cum-Secretary of the Interior, Henry M. Teller. As a geologist/paleontologist Ira had split his homecomings between apartments in Ithaca, New York, and Washington, D.C., with an occasional visit to the farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

So, from that Providence Hospital bed, Ira rose to board trains and coaches not through Virginia’s Piedmont, but through the Appalachian Mountains. During the first two weeks of March 1892 Ira traveled to south central Kansas with the intention of making his home with his younger brother Loren, a prominent citizen and water works engineer in Greensburg. The visit lasted long enough for Ira to celebrate his 75th birthday in April and to witness Loren’s purchase of the Rubart house on East Florida Street in May. But the sibling time proved temporary. In mid-July, wheat fields waved farewell as Ira headed back east.


Unemployed and unemployable, the elderly Sayles had one option for continued independence in Washington–apply for a pension under the Congressional Act of June 27, 1890. This legislation made funds available to soldiers and sailors who had served at least 90 days during the War of the Rebellion, had been honorably discharged, and who found themselves permanently unable to do manual labor because of disability not caused by vicious habits like alcoholism or STDs. Ira’s service with Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers and his permanent debilitation from the strokes made for a good claim.

On August 2, 1892 Ira Sayles filed the first piece of paperwork through Washington, D.C. attorney James Tanner. Nine days later the former paleontologist walked from his apartment up 9th Street, past the National Museum, across The Mall to the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot on the corner of B and 6th Streets, where he succumbed to the heat and humidity. Whatever his destination, the trip was postponed while he recovered in the Washington, D.C. Emergency Hospital and then recuperated with his friend and colleague, Dr. Revere Randolf Gurley in Carlins Springs, Virginia, just across the Potomac River.


In early October Ira picked up where he left off, and submitted to a physical examination by the pension board’s physicians, Drs. J.W. Little and C.A. Davis. They described him as a 5 ft 8 in, 175 pound, somewhat emaciated, pale man with flabby muscles. They noted that the history of apoplexy caused a loss of power in his right hand, which left Ira tremulous and unable to button all his clothing.

The doctors also noted a right inguinal hernia, which was “readily returnable and easily restrained by truss”, a diagnosis they believed entitled Ira to a 10/18 rating for disability. A secondary diagnosis of a irritable, weak heart was also reason to rate Ira for disability.

“He is evidently debilitated. To some extent.”


With that step completed, Ira retired to the rolling landscape along Butchers Creek, in the care of his son, Clifton.

The first quarter of 1892 was unusually cold, setting farm work and schedules 10 days to a month behind. That delay may have provided time for Clifton to pursue the arduous application process. In March Clifton reached out to James Tanner, the attorney Ira had hired to prosecute his claim. Having established that his father was completely unable to care for himself or to travel to Washington to gather the necessary testimony, Clifton received the necessary documents to pursue the claim from Chase City.

In the following weeks, Ira filed a General Affidavit testifying to his hernia. A local doctor, H. L. Burwell, completed a medical affidavit that Ira was “totally unable to perform manual labor, and that he was suffering general disability resulting of old age, and an inguinal hernia on his right side.” And a J. M. Sloan, who had been acquainted with Ira for 15 years, gave a Neighbor’s Affidavit to affirm that Ira was who he said he was, that his habits were good, that he was “almost totally helpless, so much so, that doesn’t go about at all.”

“It is impossible to get further testimony here as he has not been here but a few months.”

“This is his home and he visits us occasionally.”

Military records, physician exams, general statements, letters, and neighbor’s affidavit slowly piled up in Ira’s file. As the claim was reviewed by Pension Board of Review requests for clarification and additional evidence were made; the family complied. The cold spring was followed by summer days when temperatures soared above 100 degrees. Summer crops were appearing on dinner tables when finally Ira’s invalid pension was approved on August 4, 1893, retroactive to the date of first application August 3, 1892.

Eight dollars a month was not nearly what he had earned as an employee with the Geological Survey, but it was a useful stipend for the care he received in his son’s home until his death just 10 months later.

The story of the pension does not end in June 1894.

For though Serena and Ira’s marriage appeared strained, and strange, they were husband and wife. During the summer of 1894, James Tanner and J. M. Sloan would once again find themselves party to a Sayles declaration for a pension.

Who was J. M. Sloan and what was his relationship to Serena that he went to bat for the Serena’s Widow Pension? Next time on Shoots, Roots, and Leaves.


Sources

Pension files of Ira and Serena Sayles, #1124613 and #597.981, National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.

Newspapers of the era discovered on Newspapers.com and Library of Congress’ Chronicling America (ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gov.)

United States Geological Survey Annual Reports to the Secretary of the Interior, 1890-1892, available in Google Books, and on U.S. Geological Survey Publications Warehouse (https://pubs.er.usgs.gov)

Transcript Tuesday: General Affidavit for Pension Claim of Serena C. Sayles, 27 August 1895

GENERAL AFFIDAVIT

State of Virginia, County of Mecklenburg, ss:

In the matter of the application for pension of Mrs. Serena C. Sayles, widow of Ira Sayles, Co. H. 130. Regt. N.Y. Inf.

On this 27thday of August, A.D. one thousand eight hundred and ninety-five, personally appeared before me, a Notary in and for the aforesaid County, duly authorized to administer oaths J.M. Sloan, aged 64 years, a resident of Chase City in the County of Mecklenburg and State of Va. Whose Post-office address is Chase City and M.V.B. Webb, aged 57 years, a resident of Chase City Va in the County of Mecklenburg and State of Va whose post-office address is Chase City Va well known to me to be respectable and entitled to credit, and who, being duly sworn, declare in relation to the aforesaid case as follows:

From the Records.

190 acres of land Value $570

Personal property              50/ $620

Taxes –                               $7.00

The income from said land for several years has barely paid the taxes, and she has no other income.  In order to eke out an uncertain existence, she has to resort to selling a little timber, but even that resource will soon be exhausted. We deem her case both worthy and urgent. 

Can’t see how she keeps body and soul together. 

If she was not too proud, would, no doubt ask help of her neighbors. Her land is mostly Old Field pines, poor and almost worthless. We hope she may soon be helped, by her Government that owes the debt, because fro services of her husband, now deceased.

We have made the foregoing statement without suggestion or dictation from any one. 

We don’t think her land would bring $250- if sold today. 

We further declare that we have no interest in said case, and are not concerned in its prosecution. 

Signed

J.M. Sloan

M.V.B. Webb

State of Virginia, County of Mecklenburg, ss: Sworn to and subscribed before me this day by the above named affiants, and I certify that I read said affidavit to said affiants, including the words ______ erased, and the words _______ added, and acquainted them with its contents before they executed the same. I further certify that I am in nowise interested in said case, nor am I concerned in its prosecution; and that said affiants are personally known to me, and that they are credible persons. 

Signed

N. H. Williams

Notary Public.

Note.–This may be sworn to before a Clerk of Court, Notary Public, Justice of the Peace, or any officer who has the right to administer an oath. 

Entered into the Pension Office files by James Tanner, Attorney at Law, Washington, D.C., 30 Aug 1895.

Tick Tock: A timeline for Ira Sayles, 1884-1894

In 1884 letters to his buddy, Edwin B Hall in Wellsville (NY), Ira set out his specs for what sounded like a utopian “home”, where fellow believers of THE WAY OF IRA would live in harmony.  Clearly, the estrangement with Serena and his sons ruled out Virginia as a potential location. 


Ira went on to state that he intended to head out west and carve from the Public Domain land that he can call home.  Buoyed by the steady income from his employment with the United States Geological Survey, Ira seemed keen on making the move in the next couple of years.  

However


Records show Ira hopscotching from town to town, collecting fossil specimens in Appalachian strata, and residing in either Washington, D.C. or Ithaca, NY (Cornell connection) while labeling and organizing the collections for the National Museum for the best part of a decade.


Ira did go west, eventually.

The 75 year old suffered a stroke in November 1891 while in Ithaca, that reduced the capacity of his right arm. Another life-threatening “attack” forced his hospitalization while in Washington, D.C. the following February. Just weeks after the second illness, a Greensburg (KS) newspaper reported that Captain Ira Sayles had arrived to make his home with his brother Loren, the city’s water engineer. But that experiment out west ended in July 1892.


Ira returned to Washington, D.C., where he applied for a pension on August 2 based on his military service in 1862-1863 . Later that week Ira collapsed at the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot and was whisked away while unconscious to the Emergency Hospital. 


A former colleague, Dr. R. R. Gurley saw a notice of the hospitalization in the paper and went to visit the elderly friend. Seeing that Ira was intent on leaving the hospital though weak and confused, Dr. Gurley persuaded Ira to spend a few days at his home in Carlins (now in Alexandria) before continuing his travels.


Ira remained in DC until at least October when he was examined by pension board of examiners’ doctors, Little and Davis. Their report indicated that an inguinal hernia (completely returnable and held in by truss!) and some heart disease limited his ability to do manual labor, and therefore qualified him for a disability pension.

 
Later that fall, the patriarch traveled to his son’s home, where he remained confined and totally dependent on family formerly estranged. 


The pension was approved in June 1893, and payments sent to Chase City, where he died a year later. 


Without his home. 


"…the small still voice spoke to the soul, and the soul listened, bowed and received the instruction given it. So shall my labor be. I will speak to those only that wish to hear, and hear but to obey. Every principle I teach, shall become an active element in the lives of them that hear. Whoever hears but refuses to practice, will hear no more. He cannot live with me; and so shall it be with them that follow me. My home shall be the home of such and of such only as wish to live the life that I teach and… (missing)”
~~Ira Sayles in a letter to EB Hall, 1884 

I find this man and his life struggles fascinating.