Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Descendents of Lydia Spaulding: A Legacy of Mental Health Activism

Part One: Lydia Spaulding of Buckland

By Kate Corbett Pollack

Lydia Spaulding, the youngest of the Spaulding sisters, may not have been as prolific a letter-writer as her siblings, but she is a strong presence in the Spaulding letters collection of the APHGA. She undoubtedly was a part of their continuing correspondence, and we do have letters from her, if only a few. She is mentioned frequently in the letters of her sisters, and occasionally a line appears where Lydia is instructing a family member to write something on her behalf. The sisters kept each other apprised of Lydia’s life and health, and she certainly read the letters sent to Buckland, Mass. by her older sister Mary from Southampton. Lydia, Deborah and Nancy Spaulding remained in the Buckland area after Mary left, following her 1810 marriage to Isaac Pomeroy. Isaac’s sister, Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge, moved from Southampton to Buckland, and was also close with the family. (See December 14th’s APHGA blog post The Spaulding Sisters for background information.) In the early 1800s, letters were a celebrated event, and often the only source of material about a relative who lived in another town. Unless told to keep something a secret, the sisters would share letters amongst themselves. We have already seen from previous articles on this family how connected they were.

Lydia is mentioned often enough in the letters to gain a picture, albeit small, of her life. Otherwise, today we would know very little about her. Lydia was born in 1797, in Buckland, Franklin County, Massachusetts, the youngest daughter of Reverend Josiah Spaulding and Mary Williams. On May 8, 1822, she was married to Ezra Howes when she was 25, and he 26. Ezra was a farmer, landowner, and later a U.S. representative. Lydia seems to have been well-loved by her family and Ezra. The year after her marriage, Lydia’s parents died within months of each other; Mary Williams dying on February 11, and Reverend Spaulding on May 8th, both in 1823. Lydia was pregnant with her first child at the time of her fathers’ death. Her daughter, Mary W. Howes, would be born on November 30, 1823. Another significant development in Lydia’s life occurred this year as well: her brother Josiah, thought to be insane and kept in a cage in her parents’ home for the last 11 years, would be transferred to Lydia’s house and care. For the next 13 years, Lydia would care for him the best she could, but her short life was marred by tragedy and ill health.

Lydia’s second daughter, Lydia S., named for her mother, was born August 5, 1825. Nancy Spaulding Coleman writes to her sister, Mary Spaulding Pomeroy on February 6, 1826:

I think that Sister Lydia health is better than it was last winter they have a fine babe and the family are all well.

Sadly, the child would only live to be 7 years old. Family letters indicate that Lydia was in ill health for many years. Not all of the letters are dated, so it is difficult to say when Lydia’s health began to decline. A letter that is possibly from 1814, from Deborah Spaulding to Mary Spaulding Pomeroy says regarding Lydia:

You wanted to know about L health she has not come down yet, she is as well as We could expect her health is not sound and probably never will be.

If 1814 is an accurate year for this letter, Lydia would have been 17 at the time. It seems that she had some type of recurring illness that affected her lungs; possibly tuberculosis. The letters indicate that her illness returned every few years. By 1828, Lydia is 31 and her daughters are 3 and 5. Deborah Spaulding (the Spaulding sister who did not marry) writes to Mary Spaulding Pomeroy in Southampton on August 28th, 1828, to tell her of Lydia’s health [punctuation added]:

She sits up to eat her meal tho she has not streangth to walk a step hardly. Her cough is very troublesome. There is one thing for which we had ought to be very grateful for-her mind I believe is in a happy state; she appears very tranquil…Lydia says she should like to have you come to see her this fall for she will not probably ever see you if you do not.

Deborah adds a line for Mary’s 14-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, as she must have been directed to by her sister:

Maryann your Aunt Lydia says you must not let the trifling things of time take up your mind so as not to be prepared for death, for a sick bed is no place for repentance.

Clearly Lydia came very close to death that August, but she lived another eight years. Three days before Lydia’s death in 1836, Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge writes to her sister-in-law, Mary Spaulding Pomeroy on July 26:

Dear Sister, Open moments I take to write you a line respecting your sister Howes as she (if living) is very low not able to speak loud on Sabbath last. I have not heard from her since, they then thought it would not surprize them if she did not live out the day…but they have seen her as low before.

Deborah Pomeroy Trowbridge saw the Spaulding sisters in church (when she was able to - bad roads and her own poor health often prevented it), and that is where she got her information on how they were doing. She must have had a feeling that Lydia was going to die soon, and thought she should write to Mary to tell her. This time Lydia would not recover. She was 39 years old. On August 7, 1836, Deborah Spaulding writes to her sister, Mary:

Dear Sister, It is with a trembling hand and an ailing heart that I now address you - and I can hardly write it. Lydia is no more on earth.

Lydia’s surviving daughter, Mary W. Howes, was 13 when her mother died. Letters indicate that Lydia was unwell throughout Mary’s life, and the little girl must have seen her mother struggle with health quite a bit. When things got very bad, Mary went to stay with her Aunt Deborah. During Lydia’s last thirteen years of life, and Mary’s first, Lydia was taking care of her caged brother, Josiah, who had been placed under her care following the death of their parents.

Josiah suffered from some kind of mental illness. In the early 1800s, there was not much psychiatric medicine available, and nothing of the sort in Buckland. It is difficult to say exactly what was truly wrong with him. Lydia was about ten years old when Josiah was first put in a cage by their father, and sources indicate that she was afraid of him. It is unclear if this is accurate. Since Lydia married Ezra Howes, who had wealth and influence, their house was thought the best place for Josiah and his cage to go after Reverend Spaulding’s death. Ezra was able to make arrangements with the town of Buckland to avoid paying certain taxes in exchange for keeping Josiah in his home. In the early 1800s, a disabled or impoverished person would be cared for in the homes of local citizens, who in return would be paid by the town. This often meant that the person was shuffled from one place to the next, as there was no permanent home available.

A year after Lydia’s death, Ezra remarried. He was very distraught when she died, but needed someone to help raise Mary and care for Josiah. Lois Warriner, spoken of in her family’s genealogy books as a warm, caring woman, would become Ezra’s second wife. Lois was also known to be an intelligent person, and was from a respected family.

Mary W. Howes spent her entire childhood and adolescence growing up with her Uncle being kept in a cage in her family home. She was born the year he arrived, and he was still living there when she left to go to college. Her new step-mother was not afraid of Uncle Josiah. She was reportedly very kind to him, and the closest thing to a friend he had. Lois looked after Josiah until her death in 1864. (Ezra died in 1855). Josiah was then brought to the poorhouse to live out his remaining years, still in the cage. He would die in 1867, at 81 years of age. (For more on Josiah, see APGHA November blog post Only a Being of Senseless Existence). It seems that Lois taught her step-daughter Mary not to be afraid of her Uncle, and to care about and respect people like him.

Mary Howes took a very different life path than her aunts, her cousins and her mother, and was able to escape the cycle of tragic lives and early deaths that befell most of them. Determined to escape the destiny of her women relatives, Mary forged ahead with her education, attending Mt. Holyoke seminary. The horror and despair of her early life fueled Mary to great heights of accomplishment and inspired a lasting legacy of activism, which she passed down to her own children. Mary W. Howes ended up very far from Buckland, indeed.

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