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.