Thursday, July 2, 2015

Dayton on "The Oddest Man that I Ever Saw"

Cornelia H. Dayton, University of Connecticut Department of History, has published a fascinating article, “The Oddest Man that I Ever Saw”: Assessing Cognitive Disability on Eighteenth-Century Cape Cod, in the Journal of Social History.  It’s gated but otherwise available online.
In the eighteenth century, prior to the establishment of asylums and the rise of psychiatry in the United States, laypeople bore the onus of assessing whether community members had mental or cognitive disabilities that necessitated special treatment. This article analyzes a rare legal dossier that allows us to overhear laymen assessing and reacting to disability in an era when the words normal and abnormal were not used. Joseph Gorham lived all seventy-three years of his life in Barnstable, Massachusetts, protected by his father's wealth and social status. Neighbors puzzled over Gorham's unusual mix of capacities and incapacities. Some thought he was "Disordered in his Intelectuals," but others noted that he answered questions cogently, could read, and displayed a type of savantism. For the last three decades of his life, Gorham was under guardianship. He was not allowed to bargain, had no occupation, and did not marry. Not surprisingly, the will he signed fifteen years before his death in 1762 was challenged as invalid. Witnesses who had known him for forty or more years described Gorham as singular, uncommon, different "from all mankind." The essay explores what the puzzle of Joseph Gorham meant in his lifetime and it asks what we gain by noting the resonances between Gorham's situation and the ways we currently understand and debate autism. Applying the prism of autism as one of several interpretive approaches brings into sharper relief certain elements we might miss, notably Gorham's aloneness and his observers' silence on his emotional and affective deficits.