Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Trials of Cora Birdsall: part 10

The Trials of Cora Birdsall: part 10

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 25, 2014

Cora Birdsall’s deed was delivered to James E. Leavitt in June, 1904. Isaac Birdsall, Cora’s father, testified in Washington during the Smoot hearings in mid-December, 1904.

Almost immediately upon his return to Utah from Washington, Isaac took steps to have Cora’s deed invalidated and her land returned to her. It may just be that he finally got around to doing something after six months of wondering what to do, but I suspect that the trip to Washington prompted what came next: Maybe somebody gave him some legal advice. Maybe when he came home after a week or two’s absence he could see Cora more clearly and realized that something must be done.

In any case, under the direction of a local attorney, Isaac took steps to have Cora declared legally insane, and to have himself appointed as her guardian.

Isaac arranged for a Richfield doctor, William Griffith, to come to his house and examine Cora. Dr. Griffith reported his credentials this way:

I reside and have resided in Richfield for about seven years; I am a practicing physician and surgeon, a graduate physician and surgeon of Hospital College of Medicine, Louisville, Kentucky, and am licensed to practice. I studied medical science regarding insanity. I visited the State Mental Hospital there with Dr. Reynolds, an expert on insanity, and listened to his lectures and talks on a great variety of cases of insanity. I have practiced in this state since 1896. In that time I have had the care of a great number of patients, mostly among the women who have exhibited a variety of insanity.

No doubt both his medical and psychiatric credentials were primitive according to our standards, but given the time and place, there is no reason to doubt that he was at least as good as any other available doctor. He came to examine Cora on February 7, 1905.

When I got there the patient was in bed asleep and after considerable coaxing we got her to take a little nourishment. I gave her a sedative medicine to quiet her nervous system, so she would get rest and sleep. After she was aroused from her sleep she was non-communicative, very stubborn and very difficult to get an expression from her. She was abnormal in her looks, in her expression and in her conduct; all of which went to show she had no control of her conduct and her thoughts – absolutely irresponsible for her actions.

As well as the concern they felt for their daughter, it must have been humiliating for both Isaac and Mary to answer the doctor’s questions about their own background – he apparently did probe into their family background. Unfortunately for me, he recorded only his conclusions, not the information that led to his conclusions. Cora’s case, he declared, “was merely a case of insanity.”

It was hereditary. A disease of the mind means a diseased brain and those diseases of the brain follow the same law that diseases of the body do; that is those that come on slowly and gradually and are a long time in coming, so that the beginning is almost impossible to ascertain, or the time that it is going to last. It doesn’t appear quickly. It comes as a permanent defect. The condition in her grandparents has given her an undeveloped central nervous system and those cells of the nerves have not been developed thoroughly leaving them in an unsuitable condition, at any time liable or break down owing to that non development due to heredity.

He doesn’t specify whether the grandparents he spoke of were the parents of Isaac or of Mary, and nothing that I have learned of either set of grandparents – admittedly sparse, beyond bare genealogical facts – tells me what he was speaking of. I know of no insanity or any kind of mental disturbance in either the Birdsall or Troutman grandparents. Isaac’s father died when Isaac was ten, so unless there was something spectacularly notable about his life or death, it seems unlikely to me that Isaac would have known or remembered enough about him to have reported any evidence of “undeveloped central nervous system.” Mary’s parents had come to live near Mary in Utah for a few years, so if there was anything abnormal about their behavior, it’s possible that people in that neighborhood remembered it. I know of nothing suspect – I do know that Mary’s father served legal papers and posted legal notices while in Utah, so he would appear to have been fully functional and competent to swear to having filled his legal responsibilities. I just don’t know what if anything justifies the doctor’s conclusions, or whether the state of medical science in 1905 assumed that all mental illness was a sign of defective heredity.

Projecting Cora’s February 1905 condition back to June 1904, and hearing of Cora’s behavior at that time, Dr. Griffith made out an affidavit concerning Cora’s incompetence to sign the deed transferring her property to James E. Leavitt.

If on June 11, 1904, she was walking back and forth, writing her hands and sobbing and crying like a child, and if she had not eaten food or drank water for a period of ten days prior to that time, and if she hadn’t been able to do anything in cooking, or washing or caring for herself for that time, and had been roaming over the hills and through the fields avoiding persons that would come to her home, and making her escape whenever anybody visited her home, she was not in a mental condition to execute a deed.

In April 1905, Cora’s insanity hearing came up before the court in Richfield. Isaac and Mary had to drive Cora from their home in Elsinore to the courthouse in Richfield. It was too much for them to do alone, and they enlisted the help of a cousin, Parley Washburn of Monroe, to help them. The first obstacle was to lay their hands on Cora at all. She spent nearly all her time wandering the hills near the Birdsall home. On the morning of the hearing, Cora came indoors to eat her breakfast, and her parents closed and locked the doors to keep her inside.

Mary said, “We had to take a silk handkerchief, tie her hands together, and put her in the buggy.” I think there must be a great deal of struggle and force lying behind that sentence, because surely they wouldn’t have had to bind Cora if she were not flailing and refusing to go. I imagine Parley throwing his arms around Cora, while one or both of her parents tied her hands. She must have been writhing and screaming, and I imagine that Mary was crying, as Parley carried Cora to the buggy, against her will, and put her inside.

They got to Richfield, but then “we could not get her out of the buggy; she sat there until evening. Then she got out and started down the street; the officer and Mr. Washburn had to bring her back.” I can’t imagine she was simply sitting in the buggy peacefully all those hours. Cora must have struggled as they tried to remove her, so fiercely that they gave up.

Someone brought her dinner as she sat in the buggy (crying? shouting?) – and she threw the dinner plate back at the person who brought it. Others came to talk to her, including Dr. Griffith and her father’s attorney – Cora seized the buggy whip and drove them away, followed by a volley of apples and peaches that the Birdsalls had brought along with them.

She kept saying that Cora Birdsall was dead, but her body was not yet buried.

The judge himself must have come out of the courthouse to see Cora, as well as taking testimony from her parents and doctors and others, or perhaps the hearing was adjourned until another day – once again, the incomplete record leaves me with questions. Cora’s hearing, or at least her first hearing, took place in April 1905, but it wasn’t until August 1905 that the judge issued his ruling, judging Cora insane and committing her to the State Hospital.

Warrant of Commitment

State of Utah,
County of Sevier, ss.

I, John F. Chidester, Judge of the Sixth Judicial District Court, in and for Sevier County, upon the information of Isaac Birdsall, caused Cora Birdsall to be brought before me for an examination as to her sanity, and having heard the testimony of Mary M. Birdsall and Isaac Birdsall, witnesses who have been acquainted with the said Cora Birdsall during the time of her alleged insanity, and Drs. H.K. Neill and W.M. Griffith, practicing physicians, after hearing the testimony of the witnesses and after a personal examination of said Cora Birdsall, having made the certificate required by law, find that the said Cora Birdsall is insane and a proper person to receive care and treatment in the Mental Hospital; that the residence of said Cora Birdsall is Monroe, Sevier County, Utah, and that said Cora Birdsall is not indigent and is able to bear the actual charges and expenses for the time she may remain in the hospital, therefore order said Cora Birdsall, a female aged 36 years, to be committed to the State Mental Hospital at Provo, in Utah County, and M.A. Abbott and Mary Birdsall is charged with the execution of this order.

Within the week, Sheriff Abbott, with Mary along to try to soothe her daughter, delivered Cora to the State Hospital in Provo. The only surviving papers relating to her treatment there are her intake papers, which record the basic facts of Cora’s name, age, and address; noting that she was suicidal; and summarizing Dr. Griffith’s assessment that her insanity was due to hereditary weakness.

I try to imagine Mary’s emotions as she returned home. There must have been grief at leaving her daughter behind in such a place, presumably for the rest of her life. Might there also have been relief that Mary could go home to her husband and other children, and perhaps resume a more normal family life, without the constant disruption caused by Cora’s presence? Might there have been guilt at any feeling of relief? Whatever her emotions, I feel for Mary as strongly as I do for Cora. I want to put my arms around my great-great-grandmother and assure her that somehow, someday, everything is going to be all right again.

I want to stand by Mary, as another round of court hearings is about to begin.



  1. Ardis, although you only have your own educated suppositions to go on for a lot of what’s happening, I’m guessing, based on my own experiences, that you’re probably more correct than not. This story just keeps getting sadder and sadder.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 25, 2014 @ 8:43 am

  2. Just a quick note that I’m still reading the series, but don’t have anything particular to say. It’s hard to come up with any adequate response. I guess most of these tragedies happen behind closed doors or in medical settings, and are not subsequently discussed in the family or in public in any detail.

    Comment by Amy T — August 25, 2014 @ 9:43 am

  3. Yes, relief and grief. They probably *knew* they were doing the right thing, but must have felt keenly the sting of the forcible separation.

    The historical information at the Utah State Hospital’s website says that the hospital was built in 1885, eight blocks from the current site at 13th East Center. I’m not sure when the hospital moved to its current location. (When I was a student at BYU, I had the good experience of playing in several concerts held at the chapel at the hospital.) In any case, here is a photo of the old hospital, circa 1896 (Wikipedia photo here).

    Comment by David Y. — August 25, 2014 @ 9:47 am

  4. As Gary said, this just gets sadder and sadder.

    About the hospital: I think the hospital has been at the same location from the beginning–the eight blocks mentioned in one of the articles measured the distance between the nearest residence and the hospital at the time it was built. The topography of the mountain behind the hospital matches the view that Google Streetview gives when looking eastward up Center Street.

    When I was young–age in single digits–we lived just six blocks west of the hospital. Back then, the hospital’s most prominent feature was a white, two-story building that could be seen as one looked east up Center Street.

    I remember going to the hospital a few times with grade school classes, to sing Christmas carols. Those brief encounters did not make us feel any more comfortable about the patients at the hospital–mental illness was horribly misunderstood by us schoolchildren, and those visits didn’t do anything to change that.

    The “white house on the hill” is long gone, and the hospital is no longer set apart from the town as it was at the beginning–there is a water park, an indoor ice rink (which was used for some events during the Olympics) and an outdoor amphitheater that was used as long ago as the mid-70s for community theater, all within a block of the hospital.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 25, 2014 @ 11:07 am

  5. Ardis, as the parent of a child who has suffered from depression and anxiety attacks, I would say that your guess about how Mary felt about Cora are spot on. Guilt, relief, grief, and fear are pretty common feelings. As parents, you are conflicted at every turn. At least we have a somewhat better understanding of what mental illness is (a sickness, not unlike a physical ailment such as the flu, or pneumonia), and what it is not. My heart goes out to you as you learn more about Cora and for all the things you can’t find out.

    Comment by kevinf — August 25, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

  6. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a parent in this situation. I remember that you posted a picture once of some sort of cage that held some of these patients at the mental hospital. Am I right or am I getting confused with something else?

    Comment by Maurine — August 25, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

  7. I am also largely speechless. This series is both fascinating and tragic.

    Comment by Matt — August 25, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

  8. thank you for sharing this story. I continue to follow.

    Comment by Johnna — August 28, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

  9. Of course the Church at that time had only recently begun to embrace a separation of political and ecclesiastical spheres, with the political manifesto of 1896. It’s hard to overturn decades of habit regarding combining Church and practical matters.

    Damn Leavitt for exploiting a system of which he wasn’t even a member to obtain land he wouldn’t have likely been able to obtain through legal means.

    Comment by Meg Stout — August 31, 2014 @ 9:30 am

  10. So sad in so many ways. My life experience tells me that this can still happen. Not over land, but my biological father, even after being excommunicated and having a restraining order that forbids him from being on church property anywhere, still understands the system well enough to harass a number of people.

    By approaching those who don’t know his history, and convincing ward or stake church leaders that he is worried about a child or “friend,” who he wants to check up on because (insert bogus but Mormony reason here) and if you speak Mormonese it is easy to manipulate. It is always the first thing I ask the bishop to share with the ward council when we move into a new ward.

    Comment by Juliathepoet — September 3, 2014 @ 7:00 am

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