J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Samuel Breck Encounters Two Insane Gentlemen

Here’s another vivid extract from the Recollections of Samuel Breck, the Philadelphia businessman who was born in Boston in 1771. In this passage he discussed William Knox (1756-c. 1797), who had been Gen. Henry Knox’s younger brother and aide during the difficult mission out to Fort Ticonderoga in 1775-76.

He was a well-bred gentleman, extremely well educated, but possessed of feelings too sensitive for his future happiness on earth. He had been American consul at Dublin, and became deeply enamored of a lady there who did not reciprocate his love. It was a wound that neither time nor absence could cure. It preyed upon his spirits until it brought him to a mad-house. He lost his reason, and such was the cause assigned.

This leads me to relate a circumstance of an affecting nature which in its conclusion was closely associated with poor Knox. In one of my rides into New Hampshire, accompanied by my sister, I passed through Andover, a town where insane people are well nursed and comfortably boarded. Suddenly a man darted through the gateway of a good-looking house and ran up to my carriage. I knew him. He was a Mr. [George] Searle [1751-1796], a merchant of Newburyport, whom I had frequently seen at Mr. [John] Codman’s [Breck’s first employer]. He recollected me immediately, and after some conversation inquired for news. I happened to have a Boston paper of that morning, and gave it to him. He thanked me and retired.

We pursued our journey, asking each other what could have brought Mr. Searle there. On our return we heard for the first time the cause. It was a singular one. Searle was connected in maritime commerce with a Mr. [Joseph] Tyler, by the firm of Searle & Tyler. In the prosecution of their business they had been so extravagantly successful that Searle’s mind was overset. The first symptoms of a disordered intellect were shown by a purchase which Searle made on his return to Newburyport from Boston of all the property between the two places—a distance of forty miles. His malady soon increased, but I thought no more about it.

A year or two after, being in Philadelphia, some members of Congress invited me to accompany them to the Pennsylvania Hospital [cornerstone shown above]. On entering the long room down stairs, the first object near the door was a man clad in a blanket with one leg chained to a block. I looked on him with pity, and immediately recognized Searle. He knew some of the gentlemen. One he called his Tully, another his Cato, but he addressed me by name. “Samuel Breck,” said he, “I have to thank you for the newspaper you lent me at Andover.”

He had scarcely pronounced my name when I heard it very loudly repeated in a distant part of the room. On looking round I saw a sick person in bed beckoning to me to go to him. I approached the bed, and to my sorrow and astonishment found William Knox in it. The occurrence was unexpected and melancholy. The poor fellow did not detain me after begging a cent to buy snuff. Both these unhappy gentlemen were soon relieved by death, Searle dying first in consequence of a wound in his thigh, and Knox following a month or two after.
This joint anecdote shows how Breck and his contemporaries tried to understand insanity. They sought causes for the men’s mental difficulties in the events of their lives, even if those explanations proved contradictory. As Breck wrote, “the cause assigned” for Knox’s insanity was that he had failed in wooing while Searle supposedly went insane because he succeeded all too well in business. Both men were more likely laid low by their brain chemistry, influenced but not created by their experiences.

Another interesting detail is Searle’s statement that his companions were Tully (now more often referred to as Cicero) and Cato. The first generation of American gentlemen valued the heroes of the Roman republic, so much so that those men appeared in their delusions.

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