Insanity and the Election of 1856

Sometimes things just don’t make sense.  Every once in a while I come across a document or phrase that doesn’t jibe with what I know–or what I think I know.  It’s happened to me again, and I’d love to have your help figuring it out.

The presidential election of 1856 was a crazy time.  A new, upstart party (the Republicans); a highly contentious issue (slavery); a section of the country in turmoil (Bleeding Kansas); immigration on everyone’s minds (more Irish Catholics came to this country in the 1840s and first half of the 1850s than any other time); all these things worked together to create a highly volatile election.

People were mobilized to support ideas that were important to them.  The campaign was unusually heated and vigorous.  Slavery had a singular impact, with an estimated 83% of the electorate turning out in the free North to combat slavery’s advance in Kansas.  Indiana saw particularly intense voting in 1856.

With all the issues being bantered about–from slavery to nativism to temperance–it’s hard to tell what compelled any one person to get out and vote.  But there’s no question that a lot of people were very interested in casting their ballot and having their voice heard in 1856.

Wayne County, Indiana went Republican, even though the state as a whole chose James Buchanan, the Democratic candidate.

The question I have relates to my three-times-great uncle’s admission to the Indiana Hospital for the Insane.  In October 1858, twenty-four-year-old Cornelius Harris was admitted for various reasons that had evolved over the previous couple of years.  Several court documents detail certain aspects of Cornelius’ behavior (including “girl trouble”) that warranted a stay in the asylum.  The one document I can’t figure out is an admission form that includes the following under the category of “remarks”:

“He lost his mother about the time of his trouble with the girl.  His father, however, considers that his voting in Rush Co. election in 1856 while he was a citizen of Wayne Co.  He was a witness before the legislature of session 1856-7.”

This is all it says.  Even putting the questionable grammar aside, I’m not sure how to interpret these sentences.

If you have any ideas, feel free to leave a comment on the blog or on facebook.  Or you can email me at


This entry was posted in Harris family, Wayne County Indiana and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Insanity and the Election of 1856

  1. Priya says:

    While I do not have anything constructive to contribute here, Kevin, I am still leaving a comment. It is because I again wish to express my appreciation of your constructive curiosity. Please accept it.

    And this curiosity has a way of trickling down, you know. I would love to hear what your readers have to say about this. Maybe together you will be able to solve the intriguing mystery. I will be all ears (eyes).

    • Thank you for your kind comment. Any sort of comment is constructive, in a way. I appreciate your reading and commenting on my blog.

      I’ve gotten several emails privately, but no one has been able to shed much light on the mystery yet. I will try to post a follow-up if I learn anything useful.


  2. bronxboy55 says:

    There’s not much to go on, Kevin. If he was twenty-four and his mother had died, his father likely would have been there answering questions for the admissions person, who was attempting to transcribe his responses. Maybe the father was distraught, groping for explanations and talking too fast. The second and third sentences almost sound as though he was giving two different sides of the situation. Did he vote in the wrong county because he was confused? Then was the statement about the legislature added to show the level of respect and importance the son had achieved? It’s really hard to say. Wish I could be more help. Great post — I love the title.

    • That’s an interesting interpretation. My thought was that Cornelius voted in another county (a non-contiguous one, no less) in order to skew the vote, then got called before the legislature to testify regarding voter fraud. That was my first gut reaction and you’re the first person (of many who’ve looked at it) to propose any other option.

      Several people have responded to me privately. One suggested that perhaps the father was giving the son’s voting record (and fraud) as supporting evidence for his admission to the asylum. Another person pointed out that the Rush County election would have been so small that everyone would have known everyone and his fraud would have been very clear. Someone also suggested that maybe there was actual violence threatened (due to the craziness of the election) that caused Cornelius to want to vote elsewhere.

      I’m hoping I can find the legislative journals of that year (although my attempts so far have not been successful). It’s fun to imagine what the real story might be.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Julia says:

    Cornelius has always been my favorite of your family progenitors. Hapless figure, crazy (or maybe not? hmm — could this be a prehistoric case of conspiracy?) with an oddly misplaced royal name — remember that wacky priest from “The Fifth Element?” Wasn’t his name Cornelius? Who knows. At least he voted, right? No cause to accuse him of political apathy.

    • Cornelius is quite a character. It’s a fun name to say too.

      I think he was quite the opposite of politically apathetic. He was probably a little too passionate about his voting (he may have voted in both Wayne County and Rush County or maybe he traveled to Rush County to sway the election there).

      More information is forthcoming, I hope.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. pokedpotato says:

    They obviously mean that he was insane without a doubt.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s