Weaving the Broken Threads of A Family History
Although William Blake's life ended sadly as a resident of the Portland Almshouse, the events of his life are intricately woven into the story of the early East Deering settlement, and into the history of the development of the city of Portland and the state of Maine. I found myself looking at the history of the Almshouse, the treatment of the poor and mentally ill and laws that developed in 18th and 19th century New England. Fortunately, attitudes toward the 'insane' and the causes of insanity changed from the Colonial mentality that 'insanity' was the work of the Devil and a judgement by God. Although, it did seem as though, at the time of William's commitment, there was, in some circles, the idea that insanity was to some degree the victim's fault, not necessarily through moral indiscretion, but because he (or she) was unable to control his passion and self control, contributing to his inability to take care of his responsibilities. As was the case for William Blake; he could no longer manage his financial affairs: his home and property, thus having him declared 'non compos mentis', and Cyrus Cummings, appointed by the Court, his legal guardian
There is an opportunity for those who might wish to delve into this topic to take a look at some of the articles I read and have listed here which I googled, can be found on-line:
- History of Psychiatric Hospitals by Paul Shagoury, Director of Psychology, NHH( Part I) includes information about Maine.
- Ohio State Law Journal (Vol.62:481) pg. 502-514.
- Maine History Online: Taking Care &Educating, pgs. 29, 39, 49.
- The Poorhouse: America's Forgotten Institution by David Wagner
- The World of Ellen G. White, Page 19--Ellen G. White Writing
This photo of the Portland Almshouse taken in the late 1800's was included in the book, Deering by William David Barry and Patricia McGraw Anderson. They write that Joseph Holt Ingraham gave the Poor Farm property to the town of Portland in 1802, and it was accepted in 1805. The Almshouse served dependent citizens until 1870 when it was replaced by the Greely hospital and ultimately, the Barron Center on Brighton Avenue. For over a century, the Portland Almshouse provided care for the city's poor, elderly and mentally disabled.
Ellen G. White wrote:
In 1835 Portland's Almshouse contained some 80 inmates of all ages, both Black and White, including children. Families were separated, but at least a school was provided for the children, taught by one of the men. The men (able- bodied) were employed on the farm, in the brickyard, and in several shops; the women in domestic activities. Children were 'bound out' as apprentices when old enough. The overseers of the poor consistently indicted intemperance as the fundamental causative factor for these people being in the Almshouse and the house of correction, housed in the same three-story brick building on the outskirts of the city
The term 'almshouse' for this institution is deceptive. A careful reading of periodic reports and newspaper accounts on its activities reveals that it was a workhouse, an insane asylum, a refuge for the feeble-minded, an alcoholic institute, a jail, a hospital, a ward for the dying, a juvenile hall, a trade school, and a source of apprentices for the local labor market.
During the Colonial period, the 'insane' resided with their families or in private homes and were often seen about town. Doctors were few and the treatments as well. Last year, I mentored two Girl Scouts in a project to restore an ancient graveyard in Scarborough that housed the remains of Capt. Allison Harmon, 1774 - 1852, and his wife an daughter. Capt. Harmon was notable for his great strength and also for his periodic fits of violent delusions. I was told that at a location on the Harmon property, in a wooded area, there was a cage where Capt. Harmon was kept until he was able to achieve calm and return to his home. Strange? Apparently, this was more common than I realized.
In the latter part of the 18th century, towns developed their own policies for dealing with mental illness and thus, Court appointed Guardianship took the burden of care from the family to the institution; in this case, the almshouse. The following are the deeds for William Blake's property sold on his behalf by Cyrus Cummings to provide for his care during his commitment. I include them because they contain valuable information about the location of the property and those who were living in the area during this time.
|This document is a mortgage taken by George Barbour for the sum of $600. over a three year period. Silas Boothby is mentioned in the deed.|
It seems clear that the original parcel of land purchased by Jasper Blake, his son John and his grandson, Thomas was divided among the children and grandchildren who owned farms from Lunt's corner to the river. The map from 1871 shows that some of that land sold out of William Blake's estate was still occupied by Millikan, Barbour and Dodd families, as well as by John H. Blake.
William Blake, Uncle of Samuel Blake and Comrades At Arms
As you will note from Part I of this article, John Blake and Dorothy Merrill Blake produced 12 off-spring. William Blake was the youngest boy. His brother, Thomas Blake, 1765 - 1832 married Sarah Libby on December 16, 1790.
They had seven children, among them were Thomas Blake born July 29, 1791 who married Sophia Goold (Gould) and Samuel Blake, born August 3, 1793, who married Martha Hinton Goold (Gould). Martha's parents were Gardner Goold and Martha Hinton. She was born in Cape Elizabeth and died in Westbrook on January 1, 1857. It seems likely that she may also be interred, along with her husband, Samuel and her children Emeline and John Goold Blake at the East Deering/Grand Trunk Cemetery, although I can't yet verify this.
When Thomas Blake died at the age of 67, his sons Thomas and Samuel were the executors of his will. The following was published in the Portland Eastern Argus.
Finally, the questions I had when I first wrote of William and Samuel Blake are answered and their familial relationship is apparent. The last piece of this story is regarding their mutual service in the Militia during the War of 1812. I was able to find that William served in the same unit as his nephew, Samuel Blake. Samuel was twenty-one and William about forty at the time. The following is the muster role of Capt. Pride's Company.
Despite the circumstances at the end of William Blake's life, it is important to recognize the man and his service to his community, state and country. I have sent to the National Archives in Washington, DC for his military service records, hopeful that this might allow us to procure a government issued memorial stone and place it in the Grand Trunk Cemetery Veterans Memorial enclosure in the near future.