Friday, November 4, 2011

Only A Being of Senseless Existence: A Father-Son Conflict Has Drastic Consequences in Early 19th Century New England

by Kate Corbett Pollack

The tragedy experienced by the Spaulding family of Buckland, Massachusetts did not stop with epidemic disease. Although that was likely a defining aspect of their lives, in the background something very strange was occurring - the incarceration of young Josiah Spaulding Jr., who was kept in a cage in the family’s home.

Josiah Spaulding, Jr. was born in 1786 in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, to Reverend Josiah Spaulding and Mary Williams. One source indicates that he was the only surviving child of a premature triplet birth. He would be the Reverend’s only son. Reverend Spaulding had gone to Uxbridge to be ordained as a minister in 1782 after graduating from Yale in 1778. He began a career preaching there, but it was cut short, and he was dismissed on Oct 2, 1787. It seems the Reverend’s hard-line Calvinist theology was not readily accepted by his parishioners. According to History of the Churches and Ministers in Franklin County, Mass. by Reverend Theophilus Packard, there was an objection raised in Uxbridge about Reverend Spaulding’s belief that God “foreordained every thought, word and action” of human beings. The entry for Reverend Spaulding in Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College states regarding Uxbridge, “It is surmised that his unpopularity was due to his Calvinistic theology.” It would not be the first time someone disagreed with Reverend Spaulding’s ideas, which were fast becoming old-fashioned in post-revolutionary America.

From Uxbridge, the Reverend and his small family (which also included daughter Mary, born April 17th, 1785 who would later marry Isaac Pomeroy of Southampton) traveled to Worthington, where Reverend Spaulding was installed as a minister on August 21, 1788. He was not well received there, either, and was dismissed in 1794. The History of the Town of Worthington reports that “He was evidently somewhat eccentric, though a man of full ordinary powers of mind.” Charges were made against the reverend in Worthington, but none were substantiated after being reviewed by an independent counsel. To be fair, Worthington at this time had difficulty with other ministers for reasons that were not necessarily their fault, and the town seemed to be disorganized and divisive. However, it was clear that the townspeople were not happy with Reverend Spaulding. (Interestingly, Spaulding’s successor was Reverend Jonathan Law Pomeroy, who fit in very well at Worthington and went on to have a successful career there).

Reverend Spaulding’s experiences at Worthington and Uxbridge would begin to fade into the past after he accepted a position as minister of the Congregational Church at Buckland, in 1794. He would remain there until his death in 1823 - much revered and admired by the citizens of the town. Reverend Spaulding had finally found his place. Buckland, located in the picturesque Connecticut River Valley, must have seemed a beautiful oasis for the troubled reverend and his family. By this time the Spaulding family had grown. Two daughters, Nancy and Deborah had been born in Worthington. The arrival of daughter Lydia, born in Buckland in 1797, made the family complete. Reverend Spaulding settled into his role as Buckland’s minister, and the family into their home at the parsonage. The years following the Spaulding family’s arrival in Buckland were quiet.

Josiah Spaulding, Jr. was 8 years old when the family moved to Buckland. As the son of a minister, there were certain expectations for his behavior and achievement. His father was highly educated, and his mother was also from an educated family in Taunton. She was the daughter of a judge, and from a town that produced many important people in her time. Both parents expected great things from Josiah, their only son.

Childhood for Josiah was marked by the usual mischief that young boys often cause; playing pranks on the family, and acting up in school. This was certainly out of line for the son of a reverend, but Josiah’s behavior became calmer as he matured, and he prepared to enter prestigious Willams College, in nearby Williamstown. Reverend Spaulding had ties to the school, and served on the boards of several academic institutions in the area. Despite his father’s connections, Josiah was not accepted at Williams College and was told to study harder. By the time Josiah was in his early twenties, it did not seem likely that he was going to be accepted to college at all, and his father secured him a teaching job at a school in nearby Plainfield. Josiah’s difficulty with his studies does not seem to be related to his intellect, however.

In March of 1808, Josiah received a letter from his friend Ezra Fisk, who was studying at Williams College. Josiah was 22, and Ezra was 23.

Worthy Friend,
Agreeable to your request and my own inclination I embrace the first opportunity for opening an epistolary correspondence with you, a correspondence which I hope will not soon be forgotten.

Ezra continued to write about the nice time he had in Buckland, visiting Josiah and the Spaulding family, and mentions Williams College. He seems genuinely impressed with and interested in a friendship with Josiah:

I cannot but anticipate some future enjoyment arising not from the friendship founded on the ever veering and fluctuating affections of self interest or the vain gloss of outward appearances, but from that which is founded on those undeniable affections which shall cement together with a bond never to be sundered.

Sadly, Ezra would not be able to develop a friendship or continue his correspondence with Josiah for much longer. Ezra went on to graduate from Williams College in 1809, and received his Doctor of Divinity from Hamilton College in 1825. He was later the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Goshen, New York for many years. This was the type of life Reverend Spaulding no doubt envisioned for Josiah, and one Josiah could have possibly achieved- if it were not for the conflict between father and son.

Reverend Josiah’s strict Calvinist beliefs could not be swayed even slightly. He believed fervently in Calvinist doctrine and would not entertain anything else. Evidence of this can be seen in the reverend’s 367-page book, Universalism Confounds and Destroys Itself, written in 1805, in which he passionately disputes Universalism to the letter. It is not just Universalism that Reverend Spaulding disagreed with; it was any religion or school of thought other than his own interpretation of Calvinism. Clearly his beliefs had already caused problems for him, resulting in his dismissal from Worthington and Uxbridge.

The ideas of predestination, total inherited depravity and limited atonement were difficult for many people to believe, and by the early 1800s Calvinism had fallen out of vogue. Buckland, in its isolated rural setting, may have been an easier place for Reverend Spaulding’s rigid Orthodox theology to be accepted, as there was little exposure to anything else. Josiah Jr., like many adult children, had his own thoughts on religion, and they differed from his father’s. He had been exposed to a different generation, with its more lighthearted ideas-like those of his friend Ezra Fisk, who would become a Presbyterian.

Letters from 1808 between Josiah and Reverend Spaulding indicate that the young man had an intelligence that matched his father’s, and that he was able to debate him. Reverend Spaulding writes to Josiah in a letter dated May, 1808:

I think that you, nor any of us, ought to despair, or to doubt the mercy of God, we may be guilty of great sin in this way. There is the same ground and the same obligation for one to hope in the fullness of divine grace as another. We must, however, be truly penitent, and our hope that of the just, or it will wholly fail us.

Josiah’s response, dated June 15th, 1808:

You think that I, or no one, ought to despair in the mercy of God, nor doubt his goodness…I think this is true, but all the impenitent ought to doubt, while they remain in sin, that they shall not be saved unless they repent, not surely doubt in Christ, but in their own salvation without repentance …I think there ought to be great care taken to examine to our minds to whether they are penitent or impenitent. I fear that I am not so faithful as my duty requires...

Josiah’s ideas on penitence differ from his father’s. Reverend Spaulding believed in predestination. Josiah feels that a person can repent and be saved, an idea shared by contemporaries like Ezra Fisk, and common today.

Shortly after this letter was written, Josiah Spaulding Jr. was dismissed from his position at Plainfield, and returned to Buckland to live at home. Relations between Josiah and his father became increasingly tense, and neighbors reportedly heard them having terrible fights. Reverend Spaulding felt, as he later reported to his parishioners, that he had no choice but to chain his son to the floor of his bedroom, for he had completely lost his mind. Josiah was able to escape the chains after a year of rubbing them together to break them. He headed towards the barn, in a possible attempt to steal a horse and make his escape. Reverend Spaulding, alerted by daughter Lydia, tried to stop his son and a fight ensued. A strong neighbor assisted the Reverend in apprehending Josiah, and he was returned to the home. Reverend Spaulding then commissioned a large cage to be built by the local blacksmith. Josiah was forced inside, and would remain in it until his death at age 79. The cage became the ultimate manifestation of Reverend Spaulding’s desire to control his son.

Had Josiah lost his mind, or did he serve to remind his father of his own failures in his early career, and anger him by disagreeing with his religious doctrine? When Reverend Spaulding lost a Congregationalist to Universalism, he was so upset that he carried a sermon in his pocket for a year, written for that person, in hopes of winning him back should he see him again. Nearly every biography of Reverend Spaulding calls him “eccentric”, and his fiery attack on Universalism in his book is evidence of how seriously he took Calvinism. Is it possible that his only son choosing to rebel against and reject this doctrine was the last straw for Reverend Spaulding? Calvinism was being rejected all over New England during this time. Josiah may have shown wrath towards his father and genuinely frightened him during their disagreements.

It is also possible that Josiah developed an emotional issue as a result of being treated with such a heavy hand as he matured to adulthood. It is difficult to say what, exactly, led to him to be chained to the floor and later caged, but with his father’s respectable position in the village and in western Massachusetts as a religious and academic leader, one can see how he could get away with it. During this time period, a father’s authority was simply not questioned and insanity was thought of as being a test from God, as were all illnesses. Friends of Reverend Spaulding’s speak of his son as a trial for the poor man, his cross to bear.

Josiah was kept caged in the Spaulding home until 1823, when Reverend Spaulding and Mary Williams both died within months of each other. Josiah was then transferred to the home of his sister Lydia, who had married the wealthy Ezra Howes, later a U.S. representative. Lydia was made to care for her caged brother until her death in 1836. Ezra married a woman named Lois Warriner in 1837, and she took Lydia’s place as Josiah’s caretaker. Lois and Josiah got along. She cooked his favorite foods, and the two were said to have something of a friendship. By this time, Josiah was no longer able to stand or walk upright. Josiah outlived the Howes and was transferred to the county poorhouse, where he remained until his death in 1867.

Newspaper articles from 1866 and 1868 report that Josiah was a “raving maniac”, who had tried to murder his parents and sister Lydia.

Just as he was nearly ready for college, being 21 years of age, he became violently and hopelessly deranged. The first public outbreak of insanity was at church, on Sunday, while his father was at prayer, when he suddenly threw the psalm book at his mother's head. (From the Springfield Daily Republican, 1868)

Whether this is true or not, ideas of ‘insanity’ have clearly changed over time. There is little evidence that Josiah did much beyond throwing the psalm book. It does seem very possible that he was a distracted student, and spoiled by his parents growing up, which may have caused him to act out, but there is not much to support the image of him as a ‘raving maniac’.

Spaulding family letters in the photocopied collection of the APHGA do not mention Josiah Spaulding, Jr. after he was incarcerated in his parent’s home. His sister Mary Spaulding Pomeroy, who wrote to him before the incarceration, does not mention him in any further letters. He is not spoken of by his relatives after 1808. Mary had her own trials (see APHGA September, 2011 blog post, Calvinism and Epidemic Disease in the Sussana Cole Letters), and died young, as did all Josiah’s sisters. Josiah outlived the entire family by many years, managing to avoid the infectious diseases that killed them.

It is hard not to wonder what his four sisters thought of their only brother being kept in a cage and if it compounded their already tragic lives. Their letters, which speak of their painful trials, so marked by death and despair, take on a different light when one is also aware of what was happening to their only brother, whom they never speak of. Surely the image of him caged and desperate must have haunted them. And what was Josiah’s experience of his sisters’ tragedy? If in fact Josiah was not insane, and was as lucid as a caged person could hope to be, could he comprehend their loss and sadness? Was he aware of the tragedies of his sister’s lives, and the deaths of their children? And did he ever see his friend Ezra Fisk again? With further research, it may be possible to answer some of these questions, including the question of Josiah’s insanity.

An anonymous letter to the editor of the Springfield Daily Republican, April 20th, 1868, describes a visit to Josiah Spaulding:

…And, when later, the fall before he died, a gentleman visited him on purpose to observe the effect of more than three score years of insanity, he was surprised to find so noble a specimen of a man still left. Nothing soft and flabby in his countenance, no remote sign of idiocy, but a piercing gray eye, a broad forehead, firmness and resolution marked on all his features, impressing the visitor with wonder at the strong and quick, though deranged mind before him.

Josiah Spaulding ends his 1808 letter to his father, written shortly before he would be chained up, by quoting a poem, The Dying Mary Ann, by Betsy Fitch:

But what, shall I, a wretch, complain,
Or Charge my God with counsel vain?
And shall I dare repine?
Afraid to die, too vile to live;
My God, a trembling wretch forgive,
And let they mercy shine.

Many thanks to researcher Pat Whipple for her help with this article.


Baldwin, Thomas W., compiler, Vital Records of Uxbridge Massachusetts to the Year 1850. Boston, Mass.: Wright & Potter Printing Company, 1916. P. 144, 308

Dexter, Franklin Bowditch, Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College: With Annals of the College History Vol. IV, July 1778-June, 1792 New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1907. P.55-58

James Clay Rice, Rev. John Hatch Bisbee and C.K. Brewster, History of the Town of Worthington From Its First Settlement to 1874, Springfield, Massachusetts: Clark W. Bryan & Company, 1874. P. 28-9, 103.

Packard, Rev. Theophilus, Jr. A History of the Churches and Ministers and of Franklin Association in Franklin County, Mass. Boston: S.K. Whipple and Company, 1854. p.15-18, 53-59, 367, 429.

Vital Records of Worthington, Massachusetts to the year 1850 published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Boston, Mass., 1911. P.62.

“Centennial Celebration of Sanderson Academy, Ashfield Mass. June 16th and 17th, 1921 Address by Frederick L. Greene, Esq. President of the Board of Trustees.” p. 1-3

Buckland Centennial, September 10, 1879: Addresses, Poems, Songs, &c. Massachusetts, 1879. P.16, 23-4.

Springfield Daily Republican. Springfield, Hampden County, Massachusetts, September 18, 1866.

Perry, Neil L. “’Raving Maniac’ of Buckland Spent 57 Years in Cage” The Springfield Union, Thursday, 18 December 1966. P. 18 col 1-4


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