Thursday, November 7, 2013

Goin’ Fishin’

Not only did the unfolding of John Brown’s drama provide us with clues about his personal history, but the saga divulged some information about his own family. As the newspapers put it—or, more specifically, the one newspaper which took the greatest editorial liberties of the four published in Logansport, Indiana—John Brown’s brothers seemed not to care very much for his dilemma. It seemed as if the Logansport Times saw his brothers as outright cold—nearly inhuman in their lack of care.

While that may seem surprising, I can vouch for such a response. In working in the mental health field for years, especially with parents of grown children with mental health challenges, I’ve come to recognize that resignation that to the uninitiated eye comes across as an uncaring attitude. These were the family members who had tried everything—and, despite pouring their every effort over a lifetime into that one troubled child, have only desperation and exhaustion to show for it all.

From the newspaper reports, we can glean that John Brown had at least two brothers—and that neither seemed particularly warm in the concern they exhibited toward their brother in his current plight. Speaking of John, the Times reported on July 23, 1897,
While lying on the tobacco boxes in the cigar shop he was surrounded by curious spectators. Two brothers were also there, and there was about as much feeling exhibited as if he had been a hog. One brother, who is deaf and dumb, was there soon after it was known that John had taken poison. After a while he sent for the other brother, who was fishing in Eel river.

The Logansport Journal had reported that, in the process of trying to save John’s life that day, as John fought off all attempts to save him, he “almost bit the finger of his brother off when he tried to pry his mouth open.”

The Times described the struggle in which one of the brothers, upon arriving at the scene, went immediately to work pouring an antidote down John’s mouth. After John continually rebuffed his brother’s efforts, the man cursed him and said, “Well, if you won’t take it, then…die.”

Off the one brother went, with the other calling after him, asking where he was going. To the amazement of all, he replied, “Goin’ fishin’.”

I can only imagine how heartless this must have sounded to onlookers at such a desperate scene. On the other hand, the scenario brings to mind the possibility that this might have been a re-run of countless such unfolding dramas over the life of these three men.

Along with this vignette provided in the Times, the report also provided another family clue: one of the brothers was listed as “deaf and dumb.” Having been reported to have carried on a conversation with his brother, the man obviously was not totally unable to hear, nor was he “dumb” (as the vernacular of the day put it). However, that clue in the Times leads me to believe that this 1880 census page for Cass County may contain the household of our John Brown. For those of you able to access, take note of the entry alongside youngest son William: “Don’t hear or talk well.”

If this, indeed, is the family of our John Brown, we at least can now be certain we have the correct John Brown. Son of brick mason William Brown and his wife Ellen, John was the middle son, flanked by older brother James and younger William. In addition to the three boys, the Browns also had an older daughter, Eloise.

In this family constellation, John was entered as a nine year old—putting his birth in Indiana at about 1871. At this point, there is no way to know whether the family had suffered any dysfunctionality, any traumatic loss, or any other cause triggering John’s later agony. Perhaps further examination of historic newspaper collections may reveal other clues.

For now, however, I’ll defer to any direct family descendants to take up that search. You see, John Brown’s drama only serves to launch me into the story of how his young bride, Emma, eventually became part of our Kelly family.


  1. I suspect you're right that the family had seen it all with ol' John. Suicide is always hard to understand. When I was in high school, the 11-yr old brother of one of my friends committed suicide. Now there's a case of clinical depression, not just sadness, and certainly not drugs or alcohol abuse.

  2. My goodness the newspaper reporters didn't spare the families feelings at all with those reports. :(

  3. Some families behave in ways I can't fathom - or rather in ways I wouldn't admit to understanding, but do, in a little way.


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