Crazy Esther…

Bedlam

Esther Newell was dealt a double whammy in the world of history and genealogy. She was a women and she was crazy. Both of these issues made her doubly sure of not being relevant when it came to her descendants.

One can tell how irrelevant she was by the dismissive mentions made of her in biographies about her husband, Asa Lyon.

Esther was from Charlotte, Chittendon County, Vermont. She is said to have been born about 1762, although I have found no records that confirm this yet. She was the daughter of Rev. Abel Newell (a 1751 Yale graduate) and Abigail Smith (daughter of John Smith).1 She married Asa Lyon in 1796. They probably met in South Hero, Vermont, as he was employed there by 1794.

Asa was a 1790 Dartmouth graduate. He spent many years as a pastor of the Congregational Church in South Hero. Among his other accomplishments he was a member of Congress from 1815-1817 and served 13 years in the Vermont Legislature. He was also a Judge of Grand Isle County. Apparently he was regarded by many of his peers as one of the most talented men in the State.2

I have found many mentions of him in various books published about the history of Vermont and South Hero.  A great many accolades are heaped on him, but the only thing ever mentioned about his wife Esther, who birthed his children, is she was crazy.

In researching the history of the insane in the later 1700s to early 1800s, I found out that there were only two institutions built around that time period in America, one in Virginia the other in New England. But from what I have been able to glean from various published biographies, Asa kept his wife at home in his own care. There weren’t really any other options at the time. And even if he could put her in an insane asylum, she wouldn’t have been any better off. The treatment of the insane was pretty barbaric at the time. The reason for the institutions in the first place, was merely a place to put the crazy people who were dangerous, so they wouldn’t interfere with the ‘sane’ people out in the world. Those deemed insane, but harmless, were left to their own devices. They ended up beggars, the homeless of their time.

So poor Esther is treated with distain. It wasn’t like she had any choice in the matter when it came to being crazy, and we have no idea what kind of crazy she was. But she has been pretty much ignored even by those researching the Lyon family. Meanwhile her husband has had accolades piled on him by his peers, I am sure they were reasonable. Although one does get tired of the poor suffering husband routine. After all I do believe the vows were, ‘until death do us part’. He was merely doing his duty.

I have to say that for me it is refreshing to have an ancestress who is a bit more interesting than the run of the mill housewife, which is 100% of the lot. I greatly wish more of them had broken out of the mould, even a little bit.  Although I guess when I think about it, maybe they didn’t write a great novel or march for suffrage, but they did travel great distances across this country through the wilderness and help to carve out lives for their family. They crossed oceans in small ships leaving all they knew behind, in some cases not even speaking the language of the country they moved to, and suffered hardships beyond my comprehension or experience.

I guess more of them must have been just a little bit crazy.

1 New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making
of Commonwealths and the Founding of a Nation, Volume 1: p300

2 Bibliography of Vermont, p157

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