When I was a young girl, my mom mentioned something in passing about my Grandad’s brother. What? A brother? I thought my grandfather was an only child. So I pressed her for some elaboration. The story she told (which had to have come from her dad or his parents) was that Letis Johnson was 13 years older than my grandfather, and that he was “crazy”. My grandparents had to commit him several times to the Insane Hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Sometimes Letis would come home for visits. One time he threw a brick through the chicken coop. Another time he was so engraged he tried to cut off my grandfather’s ear. Grandad carried the scar the rest of his life. Mom also mentioned that it was believed Letis had falled at some point in his infancy or early childhood, and it was thought the fall had caused some sort of brain problem.
As a young girl and teen, this story was fascinating. A loony great-uncle who died at the age of 28. As a budding family historian over ten years ago, this was the type of information that needed to be delved into. But as a mother – it was heartbreaking. I wrote about this in Katie’s Story.
On the Friends of Allen County website (Friends of Allen County), I found information that showed that Letis had been admitted to the Fort Wayne State School (Home for Feeble Minded Youths) due to epilepsy (probably caused by the fall), and he died from pneumonia. What makes this story even sadder, is that it happened decades before there were medicines to help with epileptic seizures. Today, Letis could be a functioning member of society. I don’t know if he attended enough school to be considered educated. I don’t know if he ever felt romantic love for someone. I don’t know if he felt all alone when he was far away from his family. And until two years ago, I didn’t even know what he looked like. Then I found the pictures. Suddenly I had a face to go with the name.
So the question I still go back to – was Letis really “mad” or just suffering from a medical condition? Epileptic seizures have ocurred in many people throughout history – from Biblical times until now – sports figures, celebrities, and normal people trying to live their lives. How debilitating one must feel when a seizure strikes – especially in a time when others wondered what the person had “done” to be cursed with this illness. Did Katie and John (my great-grandparents) blame their son for having epilepsy? Themselves? The universe? Or did they just feel helpless? They weren’t wealthy enough to travel to a “big” city to have a fancy medical doctor treat Letis – if there even was a treatment then. All they could do to protect themselves, their younger son, and their home was to send him to a place where he would be treated, cared for, and kept from hurting himself or others. My heart goes out to my great-grandparents because that type of decision must not have been made lightly.
So the Great-Uncle I didn’t know much about, has aided me in the way I look at the other members of his family.