Janet R Stafford

A Hot Time In the Old Town


I have been re-working WALK BY FAITH and will be releasing a second edition in a few weeks, I hope. As I was editing the first chapter, which includes a mysterious fire that takes Maggie’s house and the shop containing Eli’s Gazette newspaper, I learned that a fire had broken out at a warehouse in my town, Hillsborough, NJ. This is an enormous blaze, which our New Jersey News station has dubbed an “inferno.” It broke out in an area of town called Veterans Industrial Park. Four of the buildings there are WWII era but now are used for warehousing and offices. The fire started in one of those warehouses and spread to a second.

I'm Baaaack!


(Hawking my wares again.)


Hello! I live and am writing now with a vengeance!

   Why do I look so cold? Today’s blog looks at a couple of unexpected things that have happened to Janet the Author, and part of it happened while standing in front of a bookstore for hours on end. In the cold. 


Frankie Makes a Decision



A preliminary sketch by artist Diane E. Stafford. It is of the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane. I sent Di some photos of several old Kirkbridge asylums and made some suggestions as to how I wanted the hospital in SEEING THE ELEPHANT to look, and this is what she came up with. I'm proud to have such a talented artist as my sister!

Today's post is a first-draft piece from the new novel. Seriously. it's first-first-draft! I wrote it this morning. Let me set the scene without giving too much away.

Frankie has taken a job at the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane. She is an attendant for women in the convalescent wing (these are women who are nearly ready to return to life outside the hospital). Eli, meanwhile, has spent about two weeks living in a cottage behind the hospital as he researches an in-depth article about the hospital.

However - and there always is a "however" isn't there? - some very big changes are coming to the hospital which raise concerns for both Frankie and Eli. Eli has been "dismissed" by the new administration. When he tells Frankie, their conversation revolves around their needs for safety versus their needs to take care of the vulnerable people living at the hospital.

One of the interesting things about writing historical fiction is that it is possible to draw parallels between current events and events rooted in history. Our discussions this week about the need of safety vs the need to be compassionate are under-girding this scene.

Enjoy - and forgive any awkwardness in the writing and dialog, not to mention typos. It is, after all, a first draft.




The photo is of an old AME church that is rumored to have been involved with the Underground Railroad. It is couple of miles from my house. Here is the information from the Sourland Conservancy website: "Between 1821 and 1850 New Jersey gradually passed laws prohibiting slavery; during this period the Sourlands played a part in providing hiding places for the Underground Railroad.  There were already free blacks and whites living and working side by side here.  Some worked in the clay pottery works and some in the peach orchards and related basket-making.  Their AME church still stands on Hollow Road near where 'camp meetings' were held, comprised of religious services and lots of socializing, attended by people of both races, participants from nearby towns arriving by train at the Stoutsberg station." The website also says that the little church was built around 1850 and originally located on Zion Road at the top of Sourland Mountain. Later it was moved to Skillman, at the base of Sourland Mountain. (http://sourland.org/about-spc/history/)





(The hiding place at the Greist farm)

Long time, no write. I know. This fall has been particularly challenging. First the church where I work has been exciting and busy. Then I caught a cold that lapsed into an upper respiratory infection. No sooner had I gotten better than my dear love Dan whisked me away to Hawaii. That was soooo hard to take, the worst hurdle of all. This is me drinking a mai tai for medicinal purposes.


(No, I'm not drunk. I'm jet-lagged. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

Now down to brass tacks. How does the historical Underground Railroad connect with my historical fiction?

Because my novels have been located in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, I have learned a bit about the operation of the Underground Railroad in each state, and in particular in central-northwestern New Jersey and Adams County in Pennsylvania. I absorbed even more when a local historical society asked me to come and speak on the topic.

The Underground Railroad was an act of civil disobedience. People trying to free themselves undertook an enormous risk. If caught and returned, they were likely to experience whippings, disfigurement (remember Kunta Kinte from Roots?), or torture. Those helping the escaping slaves took huge risks, too. In 1793 a Fugitive Slave Act was passed giving permission to local authorities to seize and return escaped slaves, and imposing penalties upon those who defied the law. The Fugitive Slave Act was beefed up in 1850 as a response to the efforts of those trying to circumvent the first law. The new law allowed judges to promulgate certificates granting permission for slave-owners and slave-hunters to chase, take into custody, and return runaways in any state. People found guilty of aiding and abetting self-emancipated people were subject to a fine of not more than $1,000 and imprisonment of not more than six months. If taken to a criminal court, offenders additionally were required to pay the slave-owner $1,000 per recovered fugitive. Yikes! The full text of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 may be found at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp

Maggie Blaine Smith, the protagonist in Saint Maggie, is well aware of the dangers. She writes in her journal: “If our conspiracy is uncovered there will be serious repercussions. The Fugitive Slave Act demands a $1,000 fine, which none of us can pay, and six months imprisonment. There will be no trial, nor will we have any lawyers. There simply will be a sentence – and an unpleasant one, at that. But we do what we must. Even more importantly, we do what is right.” And that is precisely the crux of the matter. People were willing to undertake this particular act of civil disobedience, complete with attending risk, because they were convinced that slavery was wrong.

As a result, the Underground Railroad was compelled to be a secretive organization. It was not centralized, nor did it have a formal chain of command or communication. Instead the UGRR was a group of small, flexible, interlocking networks in which individuals and families most likely were connected to local organizations, and local and/or county networks were loosely linked to regional networks. UGRR station masters probably only knew the names of fellow workers one or two towns away. That meant if a raid occurred, a few individuals would be revealed as part of the Underground Railroad, but the larger networks would remain covert.

Despite the presence of the Underground Railroad, not all self-emancipated people escaped with its help. Since the UGRR was a secretive movement, some runaways might stumble upon a station or line while others might be pointed toward UGRR safe houses. However, other self-emancipators managed to find their way out of slave states and into free states without any help at all.

True to its name, the Underground Railroad also employed railroad language. A safe house was called a “station” or “depot.” Stations were situated about 10-20 miles apart, a good night’s journey on foot. The runaway signaled the “station masters” (the people who lived inside the house) by tapping on a window, door, or gate. The station master’s job was to welcome the escaped person, provide for his or her needs, hide her or him during the day if necessary, and send the escaped person on the next night. Hiding places were varied: a secret room, a cupboard, cellar, barn, or special “hidey hole.”

In Saint Maggie, we learn that the Smiths and the Johnsons have constructed a tunnel between Maggie’s boarding house and the outbuilding on her property that Eli uses as his print shop. If I were writing the novel today, I probably would not use a tunnel as a hiding place for runaways, as these were not as common as we like to assume. Tunnels are romantic, right? Tunnels are dark, slightly creepy places. And, yet, some tunnels actually did exist within Underground Railroad networks. In addition, the tunnel idea worked well in the context of my story’s larger plot. So I’m keeping it.

By the time I wrote, Walk by Faith, though, I had taken an amazing tour of Underground Railroad sites in Adams County, Pennsylvania. If you ever get to the Gettysburg area, I strongly suggest that you look up Debra Sandoe McCauslin at Gettysburg Histories Her tour was informative and fun and wide-ranging, starting in Bieglerville (known as Middletown in the 1860s) to Yellow Hill (called Pine Hill in the 1860s) to Quaker Valley. Although some sites were on private property, Debra had been granted permission to bring tours to visit. For a fascinating history of a community of self-emancipated people, the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad in Adams County, pick up McCauslin’s book Yellow Hill: Reconstructing the Past.

Armed with my new knowledge, the hiding places in Walk by Faith more closely resemble the ones commonly found in history: a cellar, disguised or hidden closets, and a barn. I also used information regarding what is known about the UGRR line in that area. In real life Eli’s sisters probably would not have known more than that the runaways came to them through Edward Mathews on Pine Hill and left their home to go on to Cyrus Griest’s spring house in Quaker Valley – but for the sake of the readers, I decided to let them have a bit more information about the line.


The hiding place for escaped slaves at the Cyrus Griest farm: the spring house)

Check in next week – and I do mean next week since I’ve already done most of the work – for the conclusion to this essay. Come hell or high water I’m getting that up. Now someone please encase me in a plastic bubble for the next seven days…




Image from the New York Public Library/From ''Slavery in New York"

In the Saint Maggie Series, my characters Nate and Emily Johnson are African American. Nate is a freeman, born and raised in New Jersey. Emily was born a slave in Maryland. We also meet Matilda Strong and her daughter Chloe, escaped slaves from Virginia. Although my characters have fictional histories, a real history lies behind them. This blog looks at 1) how slavery became big business in the United States; 2) what was going on in New Jersey in the late 1700’s-1860 with regard to slavery; and 3) how all that connects to the characters in my stories.


In the late 1700s England was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and had become capable of producing cheap cotton textiles. This capability created an enormous market for American cotton. American cotton producers would happily have filled the demand were it not for one thing. The cotton that provided the greatest yield per acre (upland or short-staple cotton) had seeds that clung stubbornly to its fiber, so pulling the seeds out by hand was time-consuming. One worker could only remove about one pound of seeds per day. Therefore in order for cotton producers to take advantage of the British demand for the crop, something needed to change.


That change came in 1792 in the form of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. The genius of the cotton “gin,” or cotton engine, was that a roller studded with metal teeth picked the cotton up, carrying the cotton to a metal grill that scraped it off the teeth and simultaneously loosening those stubborn seeds so that they dropped away. One machine cranked by one slave could do the work of twelve slaves. Better yet, if a water wheel powered the machine, the cotton gin could do the work of hundreds of slaves. As a result, American cotton exports grew like crazy, from almost nothing in the early 1790s to twenty million pounds of cotton by 1801.


One would think that such an invention would result in a reduction in the need for slave labor. Not so. The need for slave labor actually increased because the cotton economy spread, going from the coastal states to the Mississippi Territory and all the way to Texas. And who was going to plant and tend and harvest all that cotton? That’s right. Slaves. Thus the institution of slavery became fully entrenched in the South, and the total number of slaves nearly quadrupled from 1800 to 1860. By 1860, thirteen percent of the population of the United States was enslaved (395,538 human beings total) and was owned by eight percent of the families in the USA. 


Meanwhile, the northern states, who were not engaged in the production of cotton, began a slow process of abolishing slavery. Maggie Blaine Smith’s home state of New Jersey (which also happens to be my home state) was no exception. In 1790 the New Jersey census reported a total population of 184,139 people, 169,954 of whom were white and 14,185 of whom were black. Eighty percent of those with African ancestry were enslaved. Because there was no compelling economic reason to maintain slavery, voices opposing the institution began to push for change with positive but sluggishly instituted results. New Jersey took its first steps to eradicate slavery in 1804 and abolished the institution permanently in 1846. Strangely enough, the 1860 New Jersey census reports that although there were no slaves among a total population of 646,699 (25,318 of whom were black), there were eighteen “apprentices for life.” Draw your own conclusions as to who those people might have been. Northern states were not necessarily hotbeds of racial reconciliation and equality.


How does some of this information to the Saint Maggie series? A few years back, I created a document called the “Saint Maggie Bible.” It contains birthdates and other information pertinent to the characters in the series and keeps me from doing stupid things like giving Eli five sisters and a brother in the first book and only five sisters in the second book. What happened to Eli’s brother, you ask? The answer is: he seemed to have met the same fate as Richie Cunningham’s brother on the old “Happy Days” TV show. He just disappeared. But I digress.


As mentioned, Nate Johnson, the husband of Maggie’s good friend Emily, was born free in New Jersey. My “Saint Maggie Bible” says he was born in 1825. But wait, slavery was not permanently abolished until 1846. How did Nate pull that off? As Nate relates, he could have been born a slave, but he wasn’t. He says in A TIME TO HEAL, “My granddaddy was freed. Lived over in Newark, but once he got his papers he moved to Warren County.” So, Nate’s grandfather had been born as a slave. However, an enlightened New Jersey owner decided to grant manumission to his slaves, probably around 1805. If Nate’s grandfather was unmarried or even a newlywed at that time, then his free status would have been passed on to his children and to his grandchildren. And that is how Nate came to be is a third-generation freeman.


However, I need to point out that even though slavery was illegal in New Jersey in 1846, New Jerseyans were not completely onboard with abolition. Earlier in the century, the state had passed laws seeking control the movement and daily lives of those enslaved and also promulgated complicated manumission laws. So kudos to Grandpa Johnson’s mysterious owner for going the extra mile before slavery was officially abolished.


And yet New Jersey also passed laws to control the lives of free blacks. For instance, freemen could not own, inherit, or purchase land, nor could they buy alcohol. A free black person from another state was not allowed to travel in New Jersey, and those freed in New Jersey could not travel beyond their own county unless they showed their manumission papers.


The above information gives us clues to two more things about Nate Johnson’s grandfather: 1) Granddaddy most likely rented a house and land in Warren County, since he wasn’t allowed to own land. 2) He must have had the proper documentation to move from Essex County to Warren County.  There is no candy-coating it: if you were a free person of color in the 1800s life was tough. However, if you were an enslaved person of color, life was brutal. So despite all its toughness and all the roadblocks thrown by the white community, being a free person was a cherished dream and a preferred way of life for the African American community.


The other characters of color in Saint Maggie series come from more recently enslaved backgrounds. In SAINT MAGGIE, Maggie tells us: “Emily was smuggled out of Maryland when she was an infant. She bears the imprint of the wickedness of slavery: her skin is lighter than Nate’s, and her eyes are amber, rather than deep brown. I fear for her even now, should her former owner or his successors wish to send bounty hunters to reclaim her.” I have not yet made it clear whether Emily and family escaped through the Underground Railroad. However, I was clear that Matilda and Chloe Strong came through the Underground network. Next week, I’ll look at the Underground Railroad itself – how it worked, who was involved, where the “lines” were, what conditions made it possible to have a stop on the Underground Railroad, what was going on in New Jersey and the Gettysburg, area, and how all of that connects with Nate, Emily, Matilda and Chloe, Anna and Pete Wilson, and Moses Galloway – not to mention assorted Quakers, and Maggie and Eli.



Fergus M. Bordewich. Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.


Don Papson and Tom Calarco. Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Publishers, 2014.


William J. Switala. Underground Railroad in New York and New Jersey. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2006.



Group (Fugitive Slaves?) in Lean-To On River Bank, Illuminated By Firelight; From Harper's Weekly


 Image from Harper's Weekly (1860); from Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division


When I began working on my first book, Saint Maggie, I didn’t know how much I would be learning about the Underground Railroad. My story needed a secret place in Maggie’s boarding house in order to move the plot along – so it made sense to make it a hiding place for runaway slaves. In addition, Maggie was a Methodist, her friends Nate and Emily Johnson were African Americans, and Maggie’s beau (eventually husband) Eli Smith was raised as a Quaker. I don’t think I knew it at the time, but I had created the mix for a station on the Underground Railroad. I also correctly made Nate and Emily the originators of the station. Once the Johnsons knew they could trust Eli and Maggie, they invited the other two in. The station’s hiding place was then moved to a more secure spot between Maggie’s house and Eli’s print shop.


At some point, I’d like to write a “prequel” short story about how Nate and Emily came to live with Maggie and about the genesis of their Underground Railroad stop. Thanks to having given several talks on the subject, I now will know a lot more about the subject when I actually get around to writing that story.


But right now let’s talk history.


The key to the Underground Railroad is found in its name “underground.” It was a secretive network (think the French Resistance of World War II). Because it was secretive, we really do not have piles of information about precisely who was involved, where the stations were located, exactly how it operated, and so on. In a way, it’s amazing that we know what we do and that we have learned more as the years, decades, and centuries have passed. Clues are found in letters, journals, and other writings, in the architecture of homes, and sometimes in local legend. However, as many of us know, any home built in New Jersey before 1860 probably has one of three things (possibly all three) said about it: 1) it was a station on the Underground Railroad; 2) George Washington stayed there; or 3) it is haunted. So identifying buildings or sites related to the UGRR requires sifting history from legend, which isn’t always an easy task.


Regardless, let’s start at the very beginning, as Maria from The Sound of Music might say. This ain’t no happy little musical, though. Not by a long shot.


Slavery was a common institution throughout human history. And, as much as it pains me to say this, slavery is still a common institution in some parts of the world. Many humans tend to think it is perfectly acceptable to own another human and to treat that human however they wish. It is no secret that we can be and often are brutal to one another.


When Europeans began arriving on North American shores, they brought their particular forms of slavery with them. These included paid servitude, indentured servitude or contract slavery, and slavery in perpetuity. The North American continent was/is vast. Unlike the native peoples, who generally lived more in tune with their environment, Europeans tended to shape their landscape in profound ways. The earliest form of shaping on the North American continent came in the form of permanent settlements and agriculture. Newly arrived Europeans needed to engage in the heavy work of farming and that the labor required many hands. The early colonists tried using Native Americans to work the land, but Native Americans were familiar with the world around them and, once they escaped their bonds, could disappear into the forests, mountains, and hills.


Meanwhile, Africans were being kidnapped and sold into slavery long before the European migration to the Americas. Thus, when Europeans relocated in North America, African slaves came with them. In fact, the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in the year 1619.


Please do not think that slavery during the colonial era was confined to the southern colonies. People in the northern colonies owned slaves, too. Let me tell you of one enslaved woman from the north. Her name was Phyllis Wheatley, and she is known today as a poet. She had been born in West Africa in 1753, kidnapped and brought to New England in 1761. John Wheatley of Boston bought her as a present for his wife. That’s right. A present. If slaves can be considered “fortunate,” Wheatley was indeed fortunate because the family allowed her the luxury of an education. How did Phyllis Wheatley become a poet? What happened to her? Well, Poets.org has a great little biography on her. I invite you to visit and learn more about this amazing and accomplished American woman. 

Not everyone viewed slavery as an acceptable institution, though. As the 1700s came to a close, some people began to advocate for the prohibition of African slave importation and for the gradual emancipation of those already enslaved. Some even embraced abolition, the immediate and unqualified emancipation of slaves; yet that idea made others wary – after all, what would happen once formerly subjugated people were set free?


In addition, there also were those who helped runaway slaves try to escape to freedom. This was done through a webbing of family and friends, who sheltered the runaway and attempted to have him or her resettle in another location. But such networks were small and the relocation usually was only about ten to fifteen miles from the slave owner. Thus chances were good that sooner or later someone would tell the owner where his “property” had gone. Thus there was no larger, organized network to move self-emancipated people far away from their former owners. No, it would take something big to light the spark of the Underground Railroad.


More next week. That’s right. I’m writing a historical serial, complete with cliff-hangers. It is, after all, a big story.




Fergus M. Bordewich. Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.


Don Papson and Tom Calarco. Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Publishers, 2014.


William J. Switala. Underground Railroad in New York and New Jersey. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2006.

Excuse Me While I Blow Off Some Steam



Yesterday, I said some things that I regret on FB. I painted hedge fund workers and billionaires in a negative light. Why? I let my tongue (my fingers in this case) get away from me. The impetus for my comments was a story appearing in the New York Times about Martin Shkreli (32), who in his 20s had started a hedge fund named MSMB Capital. He went on to become founder and chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals, and recently purchased the rights to a drug named Daraprim, which is used for treating a parasitic infection in people with compromised immune systems (caused by, for example, AIDS and certain kinds of cancers).  He raised the price of the drug from $13.50 a pill to $750, claiming that the move is to keep his company in business.

The story made me angry and I said some things I didn’t need to say. This morning, I tried to figure out what made me angry and what I was really angry at. In short, here it is: It makes me angry when people with power take advantage of those with less power or without power altogether. That came to me like a club over the head when I heard the disturbing news about U.S. soldiers being told to ignore the sexual abuse of Afghan boys by pedophiles in the Afghan militia.

I am convinced that the trouble lies in our conception of power. Whether it comes in the form of money, or fame, or social or political rank, power is addictive and shifts our focus from compassion for others to self-aggrandizement.

I realize that some of you reading this are not Christians, so bear with me because I need to explain philosophically and theologically where I’m coming from. This Sunday our scripture reading was Mark 9:33-37. In it we find Jesus’ followers arguing about who is the best (“the greatest”) disciple. When Jesus finds out about their argument, he sets them straight, “If you want the place of honor, you must become a slave and serve others!” The next thing Jesus does is bring a child to his side and put his arm around the child. Then he says, “When you welcome even a child because of me, you welcome me. And when you welcome me, you welcome the one who sent me.” (All quotes from the Contemporary English Version Bible.)

True power, for me, is located in service and caring for those who are least powerful, those who are at the bottom of the socio-economic scale. When we embrace power that has other things at its center (money, for example) we do not have real power. We have a false power that sucks us in, addicts us to the goodies it offers, and lies to us that it is “reality.”

Whether it is raising the price of a pill to something beyond the reach of most people in order to keep a company “alive,” or whether it is saying nothing about child sexual abuse out of fear that it will damage a fragile alliance, those who have the least power lose every time and we are addicted to unhealthy, destructive behaviors and decisions.

Changing business as usual and changing our basic assumptions about power is not easy. Some will say it is simply impractical. But I don’t believe we can say we are a society that offers equal rights for all when we continue to promote a “power over” philosophy and lifestyle, and reject a “power with” focus. That’s what I believe and that’s where I stand, however imperfectly.

I’m not a Catholic, but I am interested in hearing what Pope Francis has to say when he comes to the USA today. Our basic assumptions need to be challenged.



A few weeks back, Darrell Laurant contacted me, said he had read an excerpt from HEART SOUL online and was interested in featuring it on his blog, "Snowflakes in a Blizzard." The blog's intent is to highlight books that otherwise might be hard to see in the blizzard of books out there, both traditionally and independently published. He also told me that he does not charge for doing this. It sounded good, so I checked out his blog - then told him that I would be happy to do it. So he sent me a template with questions, I answered them, and HEART SOUL's feature will be up on Friday, Sept. 25.  

Women and 19th-Century Insane Asylums


The notion of separate “spheres” for men and women was alive and well in the nineteenth century. In addition to that, women had to contend with the cult of the True Woman (not to be confused with the New Woman, who evolved later at the end of the century). Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris, in their book Women of the Asylum, describe the model women were supposed to embrace.

The True Woman was delicate, timid, and in need of protection. Her dependence upon her husband went beyond economic support and included guidance and leadership as well. The True Woman was modest, sweet, and charming; a child/woman who maintained that persona despite assuming great responsibility within her home. When she acted to fulfill the domestic agenda of running a good home and caring for her children, she was motivated by purity and piety. (13)

Geller and Harris note that if a woman stayed within the boundaries described above she would “be adored and loved.” However, should she wander beyond them, she would be “despised” (13-14). In other words, she was beyond society’s pale. Thus one might suspect that she also would be qualified to enter a hospital for the insane.

Innocent women sent against their will to asylums was a story line found in popular literature at the time. If we go only by those stories and novels, we may get the impression that many more women were committed than men, but that is not the case. The ratio of women to men was about the same. (I wish I had the reference for this, but I can’t find it at the moment. Bad scholar!) But the reality also was that some women really were institutionalized because they had violated the social code of the True Woman. At the same time, not all women emerged from treatment as meek and well-behaved. Geller and Harris’ book contains the writings of many women who had been admitted to hospitals. One of them, Elizabeth Packard, was kidnapped by her brothers and taken to an asylum. Elizabeth writes, with a great deal of indignation:

Every law of the United States was violated, in secretly depriving me of my liberty, on the 25th day of November, 1840, in the Charlestown McLean Asylum, at Somerville [MA], by Stephen S. Stone and Eben W. Stone. My brother Stephen hired Dr. Wheelock Graves, of Lowell, a perfect stranger, to give a line about me; for I was not sick, nor I never was. Neither does he dare to say there was any disease, only my religion was different from my family, and for that he was hired to give a lone to deprive me of my liberty, and to be experimented upon in a prison. By this power every free-born citizen of the United States can be deprived for their liberty and happiness. (Geller & Harris, 35-36)

Clearly and with good reason Elizabeth was outraged at her treatment. Fortunately, she refused to stay silent and so we have her record and records of women like her. Not all women bought into the True Woman scam, but when they did they could pay dearly for it.

But what were the admitted for? How was their “illness” described? Below is a photo of the list of reasons for admission to Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (later known as Weston Hospital). See how many reasons might be applied to a woman trying to resist the True Woman mold. There are quite a few of them, aren’t there? You might notice that some of the “reasons” simply seem to be things that go against social convention for both male and female (masturbation, for example).



If you really like lists, Appalachian History printed one found in a pamphlet created by Marjorie E. Carr in 1993. Her list has 125 reasons for admission to Trans-Allegheny. See which ones, if any, might have gotten you institutionalized. 

Now that we’re all thoroughly weirded out and thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t born in the 1800s (because you know most of us just might have been considered insane), it won’t be so strange for you to read about Anabel Van Curan in SEEING THE ELEPHANT, my historical fiction work-in-progress. Anabel is a patient at the fictional Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane. Her diagnosis? “Politics.” Obviously, she has violated part of the cult of True Womanhood. In the excerpt, the ideas exchanged between Anabel and Frankie may strike you as restrictive and a little sad. Because of this, I included some of Frankie’s musings about Anabel’s situation so readers might feel a bit more comfortable with the scene. But women really were expected to adhere to a code of social behavior more restrictive than the one we experience today. You might say, “What code? Women have rights now!” And my answer is, “Not completely.” We’re still arguing about what constitutes proper dress, about whether or not a woman “asked” to be rape, about a woman’s right to abortion and birth control – and good golly Miss Molly, we still don’t get equal pay! So don’t be so smug about being cool, latte-sipping, cell-phone obsessed twenty-first-century denizens. Women still do not have equality with men yet.

Another part of this week’s rough draft excerpt from SEEING THE ELEPHANT involves Dr. Stanley, the superintendent (doctor) at the hospital. He is supposed to be the man in charge of everything. Dr. Stanley’s problem seems to be that he is a rather meek and very kind man, something which apparently sets him apart from many of the other asylum superintendents. According to Carla Joinson in her Master’s thesis, "The Perception and Treatment of Insanity in Southern Appalachia":

Insane asylums were generally run by superintendent-physicians, though a variety of boards, commissions, or committees tried to provide additional oversight. However, superintendents were the acknowledged experts in mental care and seldom met resistance from overseers; they held almost unchecked authority within their institutions. Many superintendents developed reputations for arrogance and superiority, becoming so convinced of their rightness that they endorsed bizarre treatments based on pet theories.… Superintendents coupled their desire to experiment on patients with resentment toward any questioning of their authority or knowledge. Kirkbride referred to this stance as the “one-man rule” upon which a successful asylum depended. (Joinson 26-27)

In addition, Dr. Stanley has another issue: his cousin-benefactor, Josiah Stanley, wants to see a return on his very expensive investment. They disagree over what the focus of the hospital should be, as well as on patient care and treatment. It is easy enough for a gentle, benevolent man to convince his patients and his staff that he is providing the very best in care. It is another thing altogether for such a man to stand up to the fellow paying the bills. The good doctor does not want his work and his hospital’s nascent reputation ruined, but his industrialist cousin is used to getting his own way and leveraging his power to do so. As Joinson notes in her thesis: “Despite the benevolent roots of moral therapy and the great optimism generated by superintendents, controversy about the quality of asylum care began almost immediately.” (28) And thus, in SEEING THE ELEPHANT, we are getting a little taste of what is to come.

Enough semi-scholarly blather. You're invited to follow Frankie as she counsels a patient and overhears a conversation that might change the way things are run at the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane.

Works Cited:

Geller, Jeffrey L, and Maxiine Harris. Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls 1840-1945. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

Joinson, Carla. The Perception and Treatment of Insanity in Southern Appalachia (A Master's Thesis). Johnson City, TN, May 2012.

Tabler, Dave. 125 reasons you’ll get sent to the lunatic asylum. December 04, 2008. http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2008/12/125-reasons-youll-get-sent-to-lunatic.html (accessed 09 11, 2015).


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