Balter stopped speaking in around 1760. According to his family, his self-imposed silence was the result of a sudden trauma, but they couldn’t agree on what, exactly, that was. Maybe it was a disastrous sea voyage. Or maybe it was the profound shock of watching a chest of money sink to the ocean floor in the course of that voyage. Or maybe it was because he was unlucky in love, pining for a German girl who didn’t return his affections. The story changed depending on which family member told it.
Balter ended his silence 14 years later when, according to his great-niece, he fired “a pistol from his window” and yelled “the devil’s in fourteen.” A few days later, he died, never having elucidated the source of his sudden silence.
Before Balter became the “queer uncle” of family lore, he was one of the many thousands of German-speaking immigrants who came to Colonial America in the 18th century. Sometime in the 1730s, Johann and Balthazar Hieronymus left their home along the Rhine River and set out for Rotterdam, where they boarded the Two Brothers, a tall ship bound for Philadelphia. After disembarking on Oct. 13, 1737, the brothers set out for Virginia and settled on its edge, in modern-day West Virginia, where they began building a farm and were renamed “Francis” and “Balter” by local British authorities.
Francis’ life is richly documented; there are surviving bills of sale for horses and livestock, a marriage certificate with Elspeth Richter, and birth certificates and other written documents testifying to his constantly growing family. But Balter virtually disappears from public records after he’s renamed, with the exception of two court cases, of which he was the subject. On Aug. 11, 1761, the Loudoun County court ordered Francis to build a “house ten Feet square to secure Paldos Heironimous—until he recover his reason that he be confined therein and that Thomas Ormsby and William Ormsby go there weekly to see that he is found with all Necessaries by the said Francis for his Support.” (“Paldos” was likely a misinterpretation of Balter, as pronounced with a German accent. Similarly, the Hieronymus name appears in numerous records with multiple spellings. The Ormsbys’ relationship to Balter isn’t clear, but it’s likely that Thomas was the parish minister.)
It’s unclear whether Francis or his neighbors referred Balter’s case to the court, but the result was that Francis was ordered by the court to build a private “madhouse” for his brother, where Balter likely resided for the remainder of his life. (An archeological dig on Francis’ land, conducted by Hieronymus descendants, uncovered the foundation of a building of a size identical to that ordered by the court.) The document is remarkable because it offers a brief, if rare, glimpse into what Balter’s life as a mentally ill person in Colonial America would have been like. This kind of window is particularly rare to find before the obsessive record-keeping of the later asylum movement.
For those who were, in the contemporary parlance, “crazy-brained,” “afflicted,” or just simply “insane,” legal records are invaluable for understanding how they would have been perceived, both legally and by their communities. Throughout the 18th century, the mentally ill appear in criminal and civil cases, in probate cases, and in cases of wives asking courts for the legal authority to make decisions for a husband incapable of doing so. Court records, combined with surviving diaries, letters, and family histories, show that Colonial America was relatively tolerant of the mentally ill, leaving them to move in and out of society as long as they weren’t violent. Lynn Gamwell and Nancy Tomes argue in their book Madness in America that the historic record shows that “people who behaved in bizarre and disruptive ways” were still “allowed to move about freely, and even retain important positions of responsibility. During periods of madness, such individuals were watched and cared for, but as soon as they recovered they rejoined the community.” At least, this was the case with the people whose records we retain; it seems fair to presume that perceptions of madness and violence in the 18th century were bound to race and gender. Any tolerance and empathy shown to the “distracted” was undoubtedly predicated on their station within the social hierarchy. (There are very few surviving records from this time concerning Black people, enslaved or free, who were considered mentally ill.)
This fluid pattern of engagement and withdrawal might have been true for Balter.
According to Hieronymus family stories told to me by my grandmother, a direct descendant of Francis, Balter had periods where he was lucid and able to work, although he remained silent. A suit brought posthumously on Balter’s behalf by Francis suggests that the family story might be true. In October 1781, Francis sought the intervention of the county court for unpaid wages owed to Balter, suggesting that he had labored on neighboring farms when he was well. Colonial American history is littered with similar stories. James Otis, a lawyer, patriot, and pamphleteer whose influence was cited by both Samuel Adams and John Adams, suffered bouts of “insanity.” In 1770, Otis left his law practice after a mental break only to return a few months later without any apparent damage to his career—he was even reelected to the Colonial assembly. That pattern continued until the 1780s, when Otis was permanently placed in the care of a man named Osgood who housed a large number of mentally ill people on his farm. (Otis died in 1783 after he was apparently struck by lightning.)
Otis’ care by a private citizen who housed the mentally ill, likely paid for by both public and private funds, wasn’t a particularly unusual arrangement. Colonial America largely operated under English Poor Laws, leaving care for the mentally ill to local governments, namely counties or towns, if families were unable to provide. As in the United Kingdom, the shape of that care changed drastically from community to community. Some might board dependents in private homes while others might send them to a poorhouse; they might also compel a family to take care of a relative or intervene in their care, as Loudoun County appears to have done in Balter’s case. Others might simply leave them to wander the streets.
Family was, as Gamwell and Tomes note, the “bedrock of care for the sick and disabled” in Colonial America. But even the care of family could prove less than ideal. A quick comparison of the dependents of two Founding Fathers shows how varied care could be, a persisting reminder of how precarious the lives of the mentally ill were. Take Angelica Hamilton, the eldest daughter of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton, who was considered an “invalid” due to her “insanity,” according to her nephew. Angelica lived with her parents for much of her life, and relocated to a private asylum in upstate New York after, it seems, her mother became too old to care for her. Angelica’s existence was no secret and she was not hidden from visitors to the Hamilton home, some of whom mention her in their letters. (Alexander Hamilton’s letters include a few references to Angelica.)
Angelica’s life is a stark contrast to that of Sarah Shelton Henry, the wife of Patrick Henry. Like Angelica, Sarah was kept at home, but she was locked in the household cellar. According to the family physician, Sarah “lost her reason and could only be restrained from self-destruction by a strait-dress.” It’s unclear how many years Sarah was confined, though it may have been up to four years, until her death sometime in early 1775, the same year Henry delivered his “Liberty or Death” speech. It appears Sarah had little contact with anyone other than an enslaved woman tasked with caring for her.
The contours of Angelica’s and Sarah’s illnesses are abstract since their experiences are exclusively narrated by others and filtered through deeply romanticized tropes of illness. And, in the case of Sarah in particular, these stories of mental illness are told in such a way as to be both forgiving and flattering to the narrator. But as family stories passed down from generation to generation, these tropes are also meant to reassure the listener, often suggesting that the illness within a family was caused by uncontrollable outside forces.
As with Balter, the narratives that gathered around Otis, Angelica, and Sarah all told of a single traumatic event that produced sudden madness. Otis’ madness was brought on after he was beaten by a British official for publishing an inflammatory newspaper article, Angelica was rendered “dumb” after her brother was killed in a duel, and Sarah turned violent after the birth of her sixth child.
On even the most cursory inspection, none of these stories are entirely true. Though the narratives of insanity are all based on factual, undoubtedly life-altering events, the emphasis on a quick, swift break, rather than a slow deterioration of mental health, is purposeful. Closer readings of biographies usually show worsening over time, instead of a singular break. John Adams, for example, noted that Otis was troubled long before he was beaten, and contemporaries had remarked on Sarah Henry’s melancholy before the birth of her last child.
These stories aren’t meant to be a literal recounting of mental illness. Rather, they are reassuring, creating a kind of empathetic bond with the well. Samuel Coates, who was the manager of the Pennsylvania Hospital, a Quaker institution that was the first organized attempt to care for the mentally ill in Colonial America, particularly those who were violent, kept an illustrated notebook between the 1790s and 1817. In it he recorded anecdotes and stories of inmates (he often refers to them as “prisoners”), nearly all of whom were supposedly driven insane by disappointments in love, money, or kin. Coates’ perception of the inmates at the Pennsylvania Hospital was typical of the era, a particular blend of pathos and paternalism that pointed to the “accumulation of disappointments” as the primary source of madness.
The stories passed down by my ancestors about Balter reflect something similar to Coates’ point of view, giving his 14 years of silence and half a lifetime spent in and out of a house that was “ten feet square” a sympathetic frame while eliding difficult details. Balter and his counterparts lived at a moment when the responsibility for the mentally ill was shifting from the home to confinement in public asylums. Francis Fauquier, lieutenant governor of the Virginia colony, asked the House of Burgesses to build an asylum in 1766. “Every civilized Country has an Hospital for these People … to endeavour to restore to them their lost Reason,” Fauquier wrote. The Burgesses agreed and Williamsburg’s Eastern State Hospital, the first public asylum in Colonial America, opened in 1773. Its opening marked a significant shift in the treatment of the mentally ill as government apparatuses expanded.
Balter died a year after Eastern State Hospital opened. Like so many of history’s vulnerable populations, the details of his life have been almost completely obscured. What’s left is a story of the broadest strokes, a “queer uncle” who had little to say.
State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.