Only a Being of Senseless Existence: The Continuing Story of Josiah Spaulding, Jr.

Josiah Spaulding outlived almost everyone in his family by many years. He was about age 81 when he died, and at that time had been put on display at the Deerfield Poor Farm, where admission was charged to see him. Massachusetts journalists traveled to the area to view Josiah and write articles about him, but the reality was that no one really knew much about his early life. There was no one in his family left to ask, and the villagers probably had little idea of what had happened back in 1812 when Reverend Spaulding caged his son, as it was an event that occurred behind the closed doors of the parsonage. Popular perception and belief in 1866 was that psychiatrically disabled people were “lower than brutes,” were insensate, and of course, not at all intelligent. One reporter however, wrote that he was surprised upon viewing the elderly Josiah Spaulding, who by then had spent almost fifty seven years in the cage, due to the “sharp and quick mind” he saw before him. Evidently Josiah fixed his clear gray eyes upon the reporter in a steady gaze, but it does not seem as if he said anything. It was the look alone that rattled the reporter, and one can only imagine how it felt.

By 1808, Josiah Spaulding Jr. had gained a position as a teacher in nearby Plainfield. Newspaper articles written in 1866 state that Josiah was not accepted to college because he was a raving maniac. I am unsure if Josiah attended college, but my estimation due to research is that he may not have. By the time Josiah had reached young adulthood, Reverend Spaulding had found a place among the New England Divines, and had gained respect and influence in Western Massachusetts. A teaching job in Plainfield could have easily been procured for him through his father’s connections whether he had gone to college or not. Josiah’s education in Buckland also would have been enough to curate his intelligence, which, based on his letters, was ample, and could facilitate a teaching job.

Reverend Spaulding, in an 1808 letter to written to Josiah while he was away at his teaching job, addressed the epidemic disease so prevalent in Buckland during these years. The Reverened believed that the disease was God directly killing people:

 My dear Son,

            The Lord keeps us alive, We are all of us still alive and in a measure of good health, which is thro’ the tender mercies of our God. There appear to be a calamity upon us, and the hand of God out against us; which ought to be for our humiliation, and prayerful consideration. 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.[1]

During these years, the epidemic disease that absolutely ravaged Buckland, written about in the Reverend’s above letter, could not be explained by science, as the tools did not exist. Reverend Spaulding, and by extension, the villagers of Buckland, believed that God was angry and killing people. In the Reverend’s 1808 letter to his son, he implores Josiah to not anger God any further, and to “prayerfully consider” the reason that God was striking people down. Josiah’s belief that God was loving would not have functioned to explain the constant disease and death in the village in the eyes of his father. For Reverend Spaulding, his son’s doctrinal rebellion was not only disobedient to him, it was disobedient to God, and disobedience to God during this time would result in direct, fatal consequences.



The Spaulding Family’s Graves

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…

According to Professor Philip Grevin of Rutgers University, who has written extensively on Puritan childrearing tradition, questioning the patriarch at all was gravely sinful and disobedient. Reverend Spaulding never relented even a little in his hardline Calvinist beliefs. Josiah and his friends, like the minister Ezra Fisk, wrote more about the loving nature of Christ and forgiveness. This was a doctrine different from Reverend Spaulding’s–and to differ even a little from Reverend Spaulding’s doctrine would be considered very rebellious in this era, especially by the Reverend himself.

More evidence of Josiah’s intelligent, caring nature appears in his 1806 letter to his sister Mary, written in gorgeous, flourishing, and artful script:

 Dear Sister. Whilst the morn arises and the sparkling sun shines around my habitation I converse a moment with a dear Absent sister, your letter I received with pleasure and happy would my state be if I truly considered those things which you wrote to me about…may Christ grant me and you a blessing that we may truly love him for he is worthy of all our love…I rejoice to hear of your health and all the rest of the family and that I in measure enjoy mine.[2]

Based on Josiah’s words to Mary in his above response to her, it seems as if she may have been gently giving him some kind of advice, which would be consistent with his un-Puritan behavior or his identity in the family as the different one. When he responded that he would be happier if he followed her advice, perhaps he meant that yes, he would be less stressed if he conformed to expectations.  Mary was very aware of the Reverend’s personality and role as patriarch, and what that meant–and therefore, she was likely worried about Josiah.

In 1810, Mary Spaulding married Isaac Pomeroy of Southampton, Massachusetts, and moved to that village, which was 30 miles south of Buckland. Josiah followed her move, and often joined Mary in Southampton–so much so that he kept clothing at Mary and Isaac’s house and possibly had his own room there. It does seem as if Josiah was struggling with mental illness of some kind, as his sisters wrote to each other out of concern for Josiah’s “lost reason,” and the “pills and drops” he was taking for it. Josiah was about 23 when these letters were written, the age that psychiatric disabilities like bipolar or schizophrenia often manifest.

Reverend Spaulding meanwhile, was busy crafting his three hundred-page book on the nature of hell and suffering, and seething over Josiah’s choices. In 1812, he would put a permanent stop to Josiah’s visits to Mary, sending youngest daughter Lydia there to collect him. When he returned home to Buckland, his father would forcibly chain Josiah to the floor of his bedroom in the beginning of his attempt to exert total control over his son.

[I will conclude my exploration of Josiah and his family in next week’s post.]   

The cover photo is Mary Lyon Church in Buckland, Massachusetts, originally called the First Congregational Church of Buckland. Reverend Spaulding was the minister therefor 28 years.

[1] Reverend Josiah Spaulding, letter to Josiah Spaulding, Jr., 21 May 1808, American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association Collection (copy), Sussana Cole Letters, 18080521 Rev Josiah Spaulding to Josiah Jr.(North Syracuse, New York).

[2] Josiah Spaulding Jr., letter to Mary Spaulding, 24 December 1806, American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association Collection (copy), Sussana Cole Letters, 18061224 Josiah Spaulding to Miss Mary Spaulding (North Syracuse, New York).

Kate Corbett Pollack is a graduate student in Cultural Foundations of Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University.  Her scholarship has grown from Josiah’s story, and has led to an interest in prisons, mental illness, social reform, education and disability. She wrote a monthly blog for almost three years, which can be viewed at americanpomeroys.blogspot.com, the blog for the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association. She has also written for and done work with the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica on the history and families who lived in a few of the beautiful old mansions in that area. Prior to coming to the university, she lived in Brooklyn, and before that Eugene, Oregon where she was born, and Utica, New York. Her family in Syracuse goes back one hundred years, and she has lived here over the years on occasion.