I’ve been thinking a lot about Betsey Bolt.
For several years I have been researching a local physician, William Purple, who practiced in my little town in the mid-1800s. Through that research, I stumbled upon Betsey Bolt.
Poor Betsey Bolt. She disappeared from her house in the middle of the night and was never found. Her story has been pieced together, crazy quilt style, after the fact.
Let me say, up front, that John Johnson was found not guilty of her murder, but then again, no body was ever found. The jury deliberated for half an hour.
In 1844 Betsey Bolt and her husband, James, moved to a farm in Triangle (yes, there is a town called Triangle.) The wealthy landowner, John Johnson, offered to give Mrs. Bolt a ride there in the wagon while her husband drove the hogs, sheep, and cattle on foot.
When James got there, it was obvious something was wrong with his wife. He called in Dr. Purple, who described her as agitated, anxious, and disturbed. Betsey finally told her husband that Mr. Johnson had raped her. He confronted Johnson who confessed and offered to pay him in money or land, whatever he wanted, but James wanted justice. Shortly after that, his wife disappeared and was never seen or heard from again.
Nearly every witness for the prosecution was female. They cited improprieties by Mr. Johnson, threats he had made about killing people, ways he had described getting rid of a body, and abductions purported to have been attempted by his henchmen.
Nearly every witness for the defense was male and authoritative. John Johnson had a lot of money. He hired the best lawyers and the best witnesses.
His most convincing (and final) witness was Amariah Brigham, one of the fathers of American Psychiatry, who ran the Utica Insane Asylum. Below is some of his testimony at the trial:
Persons subject to hysterics for years have a tendency to insanity; and hysterical women do the most strange things of any class of persons, sane or insane. I speak from my own observation, and history attests its correctness.
Hysterical women will deceive their friends, and frequently their physicians, by inventing stories, with little if any regard to truth; and will, in carrying on the deception, submit to painful operations by the physician or surgeon, and I am not prepared to say but that they do in part deceive themselves.
I do not attribute their false statements to moral obliquity, theologically speaking, as the obliquity is produced by disease. They are apparently sincere, and I have never known one to own the deception. It is a diseased state of the nervous system, and I think the subject is irresponsible…
Hysterical females see visions and dream dreams, that are so vivid that they take them for realities.
… Hysterical fancies and strange delusions are very likely to occur in young females that menstruate.
In 1852, a Dr. Grindrod added these thoughts on the matter:
Hysteria is a very common affection at the present day. It is a real disease, and should be treated always as such. But hysterical persons generally get little sympathy from friends or enemies. “She is only nervous,” is the common expression, as if nervousness were not a disease. “Nervousness” is, in fact, one of the worst of diseases. Let no one call an hysterical person well; such a thing cannot be. They are far from it; but we arc glad to say the affection is generally curable; perhaps, always, when not connected with some other and more formidable disease. Drug-treatment will seldom if ever cure it. Bathing, with suitable dieting, exercise, &c., are the means that should be employed.
Hysterical persons should not marry until they are cured. Once cured, the sooner married the better, provided there are no other obstacles in the way. How many miserable wives there are, who are not only miserable themselves, but make their husbands and others about them a vast deal of trouble, in consequence of the diseased state of their nervous system.
Some day, 150 years from now, someone will look back on events of 2014 and wonder how we could have thought or done such-and-such.
Some day all this present murkiness will be clear, and people will laugh pained laughs at our misconceptions and wrong judgments.
Some day we will know as we are known, but until then this glass is awfully dark and dim.