05 March 2012

My Trollopian Work Life (or getting paid to have fun)

Imagine this plot: In 1869 a well respected superintendent of an insane asylum is accused of profiting from his position, defrauding employees, neglecting the patients under his care, and even the non-return of two horses that wandered onto the grounds of the asylum. Months of letters, testimony, and committee investigations ensue in order to determine if the charges have any basis in fact.

Then imagine that the story is told with all the twists, turns, and commas of Victorian syntax with no little attention to bureaucratic details.

Could this be a lost Trollope manuscript? Some mix of The Warden and The Last Chronicle of Barset? It could be, but it isn't. It is actually a description of a real life scenario I stumbled across in the course of my job. You see, my job for 2012 is to research and write a book-length history of an insane asylum that dates back to 1855. After a few years working as an urban planner on a project to redevelop said insane asylum, and after working for a few more years dealing with the historic preservation issues related to that same project, I now get to write this history to help mitigate the adverse effect the redevelopment is having on the asylum which is a National Historic Landmark. (You may remember me posting some pretty cool historic photos of this asylum last spring.)

So the majority of my work day is spent in places like the National Archives and the Library of Congress. The archive work is particularly fascinating because I am working with primary documents that read like excerpts from a Trollope novel and are filled with lots of fantastic (mundane) Trollopian details.

How about this letter from 1857 offering the superintendent first refusal on a soon-to-be vacant (and better) pew at Christ Church for only $26 per annum?

Or how about the story suggested by this invoice for the superitendent's wife's funeral? Twenty carriages at $5 a piece, 21 pair of raw silk gloves, $20 for freezing the body. The superitendent was well paid at $2,500 per year, but this $304 funeral was more than 10% of his annual income.

And I must say, reading plenty of Trollope over the years has prepared me well for sifting through thousands of letter from the second half of the the 19th century. What it didn't prepare me for, however, was deciphering the sometimes cryptic handwriting which can make for really slow going. I can't wait until the typewriter is invented and the hospital buys one. Maybe my eyes will uncross when I get to those years.

One of the more fascinating, and Trollopian letters I have come across relates to the plot I described earlier. So again imagine this plot where the superintendent is fending off attacks on his professional integrity when he gets a letter from one of his former clerks George Kellogg, who is now farming in Jamaica, Vermont. In that letter Kellogg tells the superintendent of a visit from a man he judged

...to be about thirty years of age, light hair, red side whiskers, quite a full face (judge caused by whiskey), he had a small bottle of whiskey with him and he offered me some the first thing. It being nearly gone he drank it himself.
The farmer goes on at some length to describe how the visitor attempted to bribe him to go back to Washington to testify against the superintendent.
The bribe was like this: 1st, I was to have my old place with better pay &c, 2nd, If one or two thousand dollars would induce me to tell all I knew for, said he, you know enough of Dr. Nichols to send him to State's prison...
Kellogg is taken aback by the charges and the man's bald attempt to bribe him.

I told him he was a stranger to me and that I knew nothing about him or his friend whom he was working for and that I should be very careful what I said or did. He then said that his friends name was General M. McGowan who was a surgeon in the army a was third or fourth cousin of General Grant [presumably the newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant] and was a very fine man, and a great friend of Secretary [of the Interior] Cox and a man who would surely be appointed in Dr. Nichols' place.
What amazes me about this scenario is that in 1869 someone was so intent on procuring the position of superintendent of this asylum that they sent this inebriated boob 451 miles north to try and bribe a former employee--and one who was still on good, personal terms with the superintendent. In the end, like a good Trollope novel, the superintendent was cleared of all charges but with an admonishment or two to keep better account books going forward.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  There are so many fascinating aspects to this project.  Life in a Victorian-era insane asylum (Wilkie Collins anyone?) The role of the hospital during the Civil War. A pioneering institution in the understanding of brain pathology in the insane with over 2,500 brain specimens collected over the years. The place where Ezra Pound was kept for 15 years after being charged with treason after WWII. And the list goes on.

I don't think I have ever been so excited to go to work each day.

11 comments:

  1. Wow, that does sound fascinating, like a Wilkie Collins novel, only set in America. I spend most of my days at the library showing people how to print out documents on the free computers. If I'm lucky we'll get a real reference question and someone who actually is looking for a book.

    And I am so impressed by the beautiful handwriting people had back then. Mine is just sad compared to that.

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  2. I'm lucky enough to work in an archives, though we don't have anything as wild as this story! I hope you'll be sharing more of your research finds.

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  3. Amazing project, Thomas. What a great way for the work to come together.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this project with us, Thomas. It sounds so interesting! Glad you're enjoying your work.

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  5. What an amazing job you have, Thomas! I'm sure you know Ned Rorem's gripping setting of Elizabeth Bishop's "Visit to St. Elizabeths", but I can't remember if I've mentioned that the hospital makes a cameo appearance in Thomas Mallon's gay-themed novel Fellow Travelers (p. 216 and perhaps elsewhere).

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  6. Thomas! How absolutely brilliant, you are so fortunate to call this your occupation for the duration. Definitely no alarm required to get me out of bed if I had this to look forward to!

    The script is breathtaking but yes, I can well imagine very hard on the eyes.

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  7. Karen: What is odd, is that the folks who work at the archives seem very disinterested in subject matter. They are kind of like automatons whose only concern is the proper handling of documents.

    Lisa May: What kind of archives do you work in?

    Ted: I am definitely fortunate, I am not sure what I will do after this year.

    Julie: It certainly does occupy the mind.

    Joy: I just hope I pull it together into something meaningful by the end of the year.

    Hayley: I hope I manage to do a brilliant job.

    Steve: I know the Bishop poem, but I don't think I have heard the Rorem song. I will have to check out Spotify to see if it is there. And thanks for the heads up on the Mallon novel. I hadn't heard of him.

    Darlene: These two examples are the ones hat are easy to read. If they were all like this my job would be a breeze. No, the doctor's scratch is way harder to read.

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  8. My guess is that you may not like like the Mallon (1950s, manipulative older closeted Alpha male in affair with younger guy), but I found much to admire and enjoy in it. Most of it is set in DC, so, no doubt, there will be familiar locations.

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  9. I do envy you, what a wonderful experience. My job is more like Karen's. On the days I'm in a branch, I don't really do reference work anymore, people just want to know where the toilets are & how to print. Luckily the rest of the week is spent buying books with someone else's money. I can't complain about that!

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