My great-great-grandparents, David and Clara, started out with lives about as ordinary as possible for Vermont as it neared the middle of the 19th century. David’s parents were farmers; Clara’s parents and her uncle and aunt together ran the general store in the small town that the farms surrounded. Clara’s father was the town postmaster, as was typical for merchants in small towns then. It’s very likely that Clara and David knew each other from childhood, though I have no direct evidence to support that theory. However they met, they married at the end of 1860. I often wonder about what their lives were like then. Did they know that war was coming?
A year later they gave birth to their first child, whose birth was registered without a name by the town clerk. The Civil War was raging by then, and Vermont would go on to have what many believe was the highest per capita casualty rate in the country. But David and Clara were busy raising a family and running a farm. If they had opinions about the war – and I find it a bit hard to believe that any Vermonter, living in the first place to outlaw slavery in what would become the US, didn’t – those were not included in the family papers that were passed down to me.
Two years later, in the middle of the war, they gave birth to their only other known child. If they had further children, these children didn’t even survive long enough for their short lives to be registered at the town hall. Such a small number of children was not typical of American families at this time. But the demographics of the country were changing. With only two children to raise, David and Clara gave their all to ensuring they had good educations. This was a wise move, as Vermont would shortly lose much of its population as young people sized up their chances in an overcrowded small state after the war ended. And so it came to be that the son of two small-town Vermonters – and my would-be great-grandfather – went to law school and moved to one of the largest cities in the United States, Cincinnati, in search of a brighter future than what was available where he had originated.
With most people I research, all I can do for their day-to-day lives is speculate based on available outside records & reading social history. But my great-grandfather is a different story. His family saved many of his papers. He had the active social life typical of a young man then or now upon his move to the big city. One of several saved invitations follows.
My great-grandfather’s life would change dramatically in the span of one year, as he was appointed Clerk of a US Appellate Court and married my great-grandmother. In his journal, also passed down to me, he calls it the most important year of his life.
Through the comparably large number of my great-grandfather’s items that the family saved, I have a much better sense than I typically would that I probably would have gotten along very well with him. Telephones were rather new to Cincinnati while he was clerking, and he used the courthouse stationery to express his displeasure at the cutting of trees, perhaps hoping that it would add extra weight to his complaint. It’s the kind of letter that I would write today. His copy of his letter has a notation indicating he received a response, but that is not among the saved items.
My great-grandfather also kept a scrapbook of items he found interesting in newspapers and other sources. Through this I discovered hints to his opinion on women’s suffrage:
My great-grandfather would not live to see American women win the federal right to vote, though from the above clipping I suspect this man who had devoted his adult life to studying, understanding, and writing on American law would have been pleased.
My great-grandfather committed suicide in 1915. I found out through my genealogical research, though after I discovered it I found out that this was one family secret that the family already knew – they just hadn’t told me. The family story I heard in response to my discovery is that he had had cancer for many years and the pain had gotten to be too much for him to bear. I subsequently discovered that another family story is that he had killed himself to spare his family the debt of what he believed to be an incurable disease. His death was carried in numerous newspapers around the country, openly reported as a suicide. Most of the articles said that he had had a long-term illness for many years and had only very recently become despondent over it. I don’t see any reason all three of these stories couldn’t be true.
My great-grandfather’s cemetery card is one of the few at the cemetery where “Disease” has been left blank:
My great-grandmother was owner of the lot where he was interred, and likely provided the information on the card.
His death certificate was not so obtuse:
I mentioned this to one of his in-laws, who said that the family story had been that he had shot himself and that it had never made any sense as the family had not been known to have any guns in the house since moving to the city. As some of you already know, I am a tremendous proponent of telling relatives the truth; this is probably the only time I ever haven’t done so, as I think they find some comfort in thinking it was a fast, easy death, not the messy one it really was. (His few living blood relatives don’t read this blog.)
My great-grandfather’s entire story deserves to be told, from his birth to his painful and pain-causing death. I’m finishing and posting this draft today because it is World Mental Health Day and this year’s focus is depression. I think it’s easy for people to say “No one is ever given more than they can handle” but that has always annoyed me as if this were true, there would be no such thing as suicide. There should be no shame in telling people that one is depressed or has some other mental health problem, nor in asking for help if one is suicidal, but too often these are feelings and thoughts that people keep to themselves. To me, the best way to raise awareness is to discuss these issues openly, though of course the choice is up to each individual for themselves and each family historian for their family’s history. I doubt I ever would have discovered my great-grandfather had committed suicide if I hadn’t started researching my family’s history, and if that doesn’t speak to the stigma still held by so many regarding suicide, I don’t know what does.
I have no way to know if my great-grandfather told anyone he was despondent beforehand, nor how long he contemplated suicide before he carried out his thoughts. I can’t say whether it was the right choice for him, only that it is still affecting his family nearly a century later, for better and for worse.
“Don’t tell me how they found her
Because I don’t wanna know
Wildflowers all around her
Down in the dirt where they grow
She was all alone in the middle of spring
Don’t tell me there’s a reason for everything
‘Cause every face hides a mind
That gets tired of trying
And every mind hides a heart
That shelters thoughts of dying.”