I Found It in the Archives!
Having suffered through the mental illness and suicide of my brother David, I feel empathy for other families dealing with these crises. Much to my surprise, I have discovered that the Ohio Historical Society archives contain the records, letters, or diaries of at least three 19th century Ohio families who struggled to help a mentally ill relative.
It began as I was tracking down the microfilmed estate account of my third great-grandfather, who died in 1833. I came upon “Inventory of the estate real and personal of Doctor John M. Edmiston…the said Doctor Edmiston having been adjudged insane by a jury…” I had no inkling I would find such a thing. The window suddenly opened onto a traumatic period in the life of this man, Columbus’s first doctor, and his frantic family. The estate account was full of unpaid bills from Columbus merchants. Among other transactions, the estate paid Columbusite Ebenezer Barcus $60 to accompany the doctor on a stagecoach trip to Philadelphia, where he soon died.
Curious whether other stories lay in wait in the society’s archives, I thumbed through the card files and came upon the papers of an early Marietta family, the Backuses. You never know, I thought. Gradually, at the microfilm reader, I found that the letters family members sent between Marietta and their original home in Connecticut told a wrenching story. One of the five Backus siblings, Matthew, a lawyer, never found his footing in the Western country. His sister Lucy became increasingly alarmed at his discontentment and depression. Eventually, despite all her efforts to help him, he committed suicide in 1808 in Pittsburgh.
As I combed the file cabinet that held descriptions of OHS’s manuscript collections, I came to the Charles Arthur Ely Papers and my eyes widened at the notation that they contained “diaries…written…when he was a patient at Newburgh and Longview asylums.” I found another tragic story, of an epileptic young man incarcerated in asylums in Cleveland and Cincinnati during the 1860’s and pleading with his wife and brother to be let free, but to no avail. I’ve held Ely’s little leather-bound diaries with the supine stick figures he drew to indicate seizures, and I won’t forget it.
The OHS Archives/Library has provided this private citizen an intimate acquaintance with the Backus family in the 1800’s, the Edmistons in the 1830’s, and the Elys in the 1860’s. What they wrote in their times of desperation links them to me in my present sadness.