Sickness, disease, and untimely death were an accepted part of life in eighteenth-century America. There are many references to the kinds of physical ailments that afflicted the typical family, among others: cuts, colds, fevers, burns, dysentery, sore throats, frostbite, whooping cough, and childbirth (called an illness)—these were usually dealt with by the woman of the house. Little, however, has been found in letters and diaries about mental disabilities, perhaps out of fear or shame.
It is unclear what afflicted John Jay’s oldest brother Augustus (1730-1801), known as Gussy. His name rarely appears in the voluminous correspondence of the Jay family, but, when it does, usually as “poor Guss.” From a young age, Augustus was boarded out, and learned to read and write; he seems to have been an amiable soul. From Madrid, John Jay wrote to his brother Frederick (13 February 1782): “Remember poor Guss. Make his Life comfortable. If necessary I will furnish the Means.” Frederick replied from Poughkeepsie, New York in August: “Gussy continues to behave well and remains at Kingston.” Supported by his family, Augustus seems to have been able to live fairly independently. From New York, Sarah Jay wrote to her husband John in London (11 October 1794): “Since I’ve been writing your brother Augustus has come in, he is delighted with your attention, tho’ he has not yet seen your letter.”
In our research for In the Words of Women we came across more examples of mental disabilities. Sarah Kast McGinn (ca. 1717-1791) lived in the Mohawk Valley, spoke the languages of the Native Americans of the Six Nations, and served as an intermediary between them and the British during the Revolutionary War. In her petition to the Crown in 1787, she recounted [in the third person] her services and tragic loss:
The Rebels have destroyed, plundered and taken almost all her Property, because they alledged and not without reason that she was tampering with the Indians in favour of Government. … She made her escape to [the British army] with her Family except a Son [16-year-old William] who she was obliged to leave to their Mercy, who was out of his Sences and bound in Chains, as he had been for several Years, and sometime afterwards was burn’d alive in said Situation.
In her diary, Elizabeth Porter Phelps (1747-1817) in Amherst, Massachusetts, made occasional comments about an afflicted family member and his treatment:
January 4, 1781. … Brother Solomon began to grow crazzy. Thursday young Mrs. Allixander a visit here. Fryday Mrs. Trowbridge and Becca Dickinson a visit here. Brother worse—Mauled his sore Head with an Ax. Satterday chained.
Jan. 14 … Sol better—Let loose. …
Oct. 27 . … Wednesday Sol. put into the shop chained there. Satterday my Husband gone, Sol got Loose—soon come home. Sol hurt none of us—praised be God. …
Nov. 30. … my Husband and I rode into town to do some errands. Sol. came home with us he is crazzy. …
Apr. 15 . … Wednesday I a visit at Mr. Shipmans—when I came home found Brother Solomon here crazy.
Henrietta Marchant Liston (1752-1828) and her husband Robert, the second British Minister to the United States after the War, made many trips along the East Coast during their stay. On January 15, 1798, traveling through Camden, South Carolina, Mrs. Liston discovered a more sympathetic attitude toward the mentally disabled on their visit to a chief of the Catawba Nation:
[W]e found the old Warrior sitting in a Chair, at the side of the fire, with a blanket jacket,—his Wife, or as the Interpreter styled her,—his Lady, sat on a stool, with a Savage look, squalid & nasty, a woolen Petticoat, & a Blanket about her naked shoulders, her long black hair hanging loose—At one corner of the fire, & within the Chimney, squatted in form figure & posture a large ape, blind, & playing on his teeth with his fingers,—this shocking spectacle was it seems an idiot almost naked & a quantity of hair hanging over its face—for with this nation, as with some more civilized—these unfortunate objects are not only held sacred, /which perhaps they ought to be everywhere/ but it is esteemed fortunate to have one in your family.
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