Researching the Taboo

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The historical marker along Michagan Ave. in Jacksonville showing the location of the North Immanuel Cemetery, the burial grounds for the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane. Note that the first patient and the first person to buried here were both female.

What we know of history is heavily edited. Edited by memory, shame, pride, or one’s right to privacy. In American Athena, I’m not just interested to know what happened to educated women, I’m interested to know what happened to an entire community where women were educated. There’s a big difference. Simply educating women is not enough to overcome deeply engrained patriarchal systems. But does it help?

To begin answering these questions, I’m looking into the lives of women who operated on the peripheries of capitalism: domestic servants, the impoverished, the disabled, those struggling with mental health issues, and women who – for whatever reason – just didn’t quite follow convention.

If the women of the JFA left few records, the aforementioned women left hardly a trace. And even if they did, these records can be difficult to access. For example, we’ve already found several JFA alumnae who spent time at the Illinois Hospital for the Insane (IHI)- located right here in Jacksonville. In 1895, Louisa Alcott, JFA ’82, lost both of her parents within six months of one another. Death records tell us that her father died of a stroke in February. Her mother died of heart failure at the IHI. Sometime between 1895 and 1900, Louisa herself was committed (perhaps by her only brother?), and lived there until  her death in 1941. Most notable is Emma Smith, whose story started this project. According to her death record, she also died at the IHI in 1887 following “nine days of acute mania.” We’ll likely never know more because mental health records for the state of Illinois are permanently sealed under the provisions of the Illinois Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Confidentiality Act and the Illinois State Records Act.  One can obtain a court order (the Newberry Library put out an excellent blog post on the subject), but I’m skeptical that a a judge would allow an unrelated, writing-publishing historian to see them.

So I’m setting my sights elsewhere. Right now, I’m spending some time with the Morgan County Poor Farm records at the Illinois Regional Archival Depository at the University of Illinois-Springfield. Megan Birk, author of Fostering on the Farm: Child Placement in the Rural Midwest (2015), encouraged me to look at these records to find out more about women living in poverty. Morgan County’s poor farm opened in 1848 and operated until the late 1930s, and they left three volumes of records: a general accounting book from 1848-1868 (which includes some pauper rolls), an admission book from (1868-1896), and a volume of medical records from 1908-1928.

From my first reading, it is clear that the residents of the poor farm are not there due to personal failings or laziness. Most are listed as disabled and “insane.” For women, however, it is even more striking how readily their families (and society) discarded them for failing to live up to feminine ideals. The women on the pauper roles tended to be elderly or young, single, and pregnant; their offense was somehow failing to be good, chaste, dependent wives.  Many showed up with children (born and unborn) after their husbands (or lovers) died or abandoned them. And without men in their lives, they had no means of support. Some, like “A Dutch Women with 4 children – three very sick” who showed up on September 11, 1854, did not even have their names recorded for history. When she was discharged on October 25, 1854, notes mention that only her oldest son went with her. Does that mean her three sick children died? Or were they removed to a foster care situation? We’ll never know. I asked Megan about how well children fared in facilities like this. She replied:

It was hard to place infants before about 1910 and lots of orphanages did not take children under two.  So sometimes the woman and child could stay at the farm until other options opened up.  The mortality rate for babies in institutions was criminal.  At some places it was 80%.  I noticed that what seemed like a lot of women took those babies with them when they left… from there they do tend to disappear from the records.

What was most unexpected was the very high number of women working off debts from local businesses. Between 1848 and 1860, I counted fifty women who ran up bills with local merchants for shoes, fabric, household orders, and small (no more than $2-$5) cash loans. These women were made to work off their debts, which averaged about $26, at $1-$2 per week. For example, in 1848, Amanda Lucas accrued a debt of $16.50 for one pair of shoes, eight yards of calico, and two yards of domestic cloth from the store of T.D. Eams. She also purchased eight yards of print fabric from Mr. McAllister’s store, and took a cash loan of 25 cents from D. Ayres (likely Jacksonville’s banker) to attend a concert. The county demanded that she work for sixteen weeks and three days to repay her debt. Though what kind of work she performed the records did not specify. This is where the pot thickens.

I asked Megan about this too, and she turned to Linda English, author of By All Accounts: General Stores and Community Life in Texas and Indian Territory (2013), who said the women were likely working down these debts to pay off credit at various stores. That’s helpful because from what I can tell, the merchants sued the women and the county ordered them to work off these private debts through service to the county – but I’m still not sure. The census isn’t forthcoming, as many of these women were probably transient and on the move looking for stability. My next step is to consult county court records. In one case, the judge called for leniency because the woman, Susan King, “encumbered as she is with an infant child.” Still, she worked from April 29, 1866 until August 14, 1866 to pay for a hoop skirt, a corset, 13 dozen buttons, a trunk, and cash – a total debt of $16.00.

But then here’s the catch. There are very, very few men doing similar work. Certainly men ran up bills with local merchants as well. How did they pay down their debts? Or was this some form of social control, to keep women reigned in and prevent them from establishing credit. For every woman made to work, there had to be many more who paid heed and shied away from purchasing the supplies they needed. Nearly all of those fifty women purchased shoes and enough fabric to make one dress. Nothing extravagant. Only enough to be social acceptable.

Clearly there’s much more to learn. And the hardest part is that the records leave so much unsaid. Researching the taboo requires sensitivity and imagination, and a willingness to tell these stories with respect for the people who lived them.

A big thanks to Megan Birk and Linda English for their input on this research. I’d be lost without you!

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