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.