Residents of small Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, were not sure what to make of “odd” Joseph Gorham, who lived–and wandered–among them in the first half of the 1700s. He would walk unannounced into their homes, “Searching and Rumiging for Victuals in a Ravenous manner without Leave,” gorge himself on what he could find, sometimes to the point of throwing up, and often spend the night by their fireplaces or in their barns. Gorham had no wife, did no work, and neither bought nor sold, being unable to bargain on his own behalf. At the same time, he had a “Very Extraordinary Genius” in playing checkers, visually estimating the weights of goods, and recalling calendar information in exact detail. Also remarkable from our vantage point, his oddness was tolerated for decades.
University of Connecticut historian Cornelia H. Dayton tells Gorham’s story in the fall, 2015 issue of the Journal of Social History, a story only made visible by a court case over Gorham’s will when he died at 73 and a story with several implications for how we understand mental illness, community, gender, and class.
Dayton suggests that 150 years later Gorham would have been labeled as an “idiot savant” and that today he would be labeled as being on the autism spectrum, perhaps as having Asperger’s Syndrome. However, whether one can legitimately transfer psychological categories back 400 years is intensely debated. Behavior is context-dependent and, over the course of American history, different sorts of psychological conditions have been identified and considered pathological; some of those have since seemed to disappear (such as neurasthenia and fatal nostalgia – see earlier post).
Barnstable residents themselves had no clear term for Gorham’s behavior. Doctors had not yet identified “mental illness” as a category and as their concern; strangely-behaving people were left to the community and the courts. Gorham did not fit the era’s basic disorder categories of “idiot” or “lunatic”; nor was he senile. He was just “odd” in ways that required his brother’s supervision and his neighbors’ forbearance.
Dayton points out an interesting way that Gorham did not seem odd. If she is right that he was on the autism spectrum, he would have shown some emotional disconnection from other people. Yet, none of the witnesses who discussed Gorham during the trial over his will described that sort of oddity. Could it be, Dayton asks, that the restrained emotion we today associate with autism was considered unremarkable in an 18th-century New Englander?
Under the protection of his brother, who would come and fetch him when needed, Joseph Gorham seemed to be no more than a nuisance at times and a public curiosity at others. Cape Cod residents “treated” Gorham’s oddity simply by tolerating him. But that, too, is notable.
Colonial New England communities were not particularly supportive of strange people, especially idle people, and particularly if they might be a cost to the town. Officials “warned out” newcomers who needed help and treated socially marginal or seemingly disreputable people harshly, sometimes by placing them into homes as indentured servants (earlier post). Yet, Barnstable treated Gorham as just an eccentric, argues Dayton, in part because he was not violent, but also because he came from an established, well-to-do family; because he therefore was not a financial burden to the community; because he was white, whereas Africans and Indians were commonly banned or sent to workhouses; and because he was a man, whereas a woman might be suspected of being immoral or, worse, a witch.
By the way, the court declared, despite Gorham having been described by his brother about 30 years earlier in a legal document as “non Compus or distracted,” Joseph’s last will as legitimate, made of sound mind.