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Boston Globe 


July 18, 1999

In this day and age, Josiah Spaulding Jr. might be considered "learning disabled." Attention deficit disorder comes to mind when special-education teacher Bob Hinds considers the behaviors Spaulding exhibited. "An interesting sense of humor," is another way Hinds describes what he knows about Spaulding.

Born in a different time, Spaulding's fate was to be shackled to the floor and then, when he refused to remain quiet, to be locked in a wooden cage for 57 years. The label he acquired was "raving maniac.

Attention deficit disorder also sounds right to Patricia Silver, a University of Massachusetts professor specializing in learning disabilities, when considering Spaulding's symptoms. "Conduct disorder" is a diagnosis she might make. But basically, Spaulding was what we would call "incorrigible," she said.

The son of a Congregationalist minister in Buckland, a Franklin County hilltown that today has a population of less than 2,500, Spaulding was born in 1786. Although they share a name, Wang Center president and CEO Josiah Spaulding Jr. does not believe he is related to him.

The 18th-century Spaulding was, by some accounts, a mischievous youth. As a child, it is said, he brought live animals into the house to scare his mother and sister. He once put tacks under the saddle of his father's horse, causing the animal to rear up. He tied a sleeping dog's leash to a chair his father leaned on while giving living room sermons and then spooked the dog with a burning stick, causing a commotion in which a vat of blue dye spilled. But his biggest transgression, it seems, was resisting his father's commands to join the clergy.

Bob Hinds came across this story when he was researching a term paper for a graduate school class, taught by Silver, on "Disabilities in Historical Perspective." The assignment was to research a historical trend in the disabilities field, preferably in one's own community, using primary sources such as personal narratives, old news accounts, and public or private records. Topics could include such things as deinstitutionalization, mainstreaming, eugenics, and sterilization.

Hinds didn't have to look far for material. A neighbor brought Spaulding's story to his attention. The house in which the first 13 years of the preacher's son's incarceration took place was just down the street. The current inhabitants, Christine and Earl Purinton, invited Hinds in to see the gouged floorboards where Spaulding chafed his chains to attract attention. They also had news clippings from the late 1960s when Neil L. Perry, a reporter for the Springfield Morning Union, wrote about this case.

Hinds, 57, already had a career as a hand-tool merchant behind him when he decided to go into teaching. An opening in the special-education department in the Mohawk Trail Regional High School in Buckland prompted him to get a master's degree and certification in that field. Today he works with 13 students in what is called the "alternative learning program" in the high school. Some of the behaviors around obstinateness, use of profanity, and a tendency to escalate challenging situations he seesin his students today remind him of the things he read about Spaulding.

Therein lies some of the rationale for her course, said Silver, which attracts mainly mid-career teachers. Looking back "brings things to the surface," she said. Hinds's observations as a special-education teacher are that abuse, though obviously not on a par with what Spaulding endured, occurs in homes to this day where children suffer from physical, emotional, and cognitive disabilities.

Spaulding's story came to light when Perry, the Springfield Morning Union reporter, came across a line in the Buckland town history mentioning his death at age 81. The entry states that Spaulding was for many years mentally insane and was "tenderly cared for by his family."

This set off a quest undertaken during many weekends. Perry leafed through town meeting records, archives of yellowing newspapers that yielded an obituary notice, and finally a letter written under a pen name by one of Spaulding's contemporaries protesting his captivity.

The story Perry pieced together is of a boy prone to disruptive behavior whose austere father, the Rev. Josiah Spaulding, had very specific ideas about the path his son's life should take. His father founded the First Congregational Church of Buckland around the time the young Spaulding was born. The child received special consideration in school, given his family's status in the community, was said to have excelled in Latin, and was destined for the ministry. Though the types of pranks he pulled as a boy subsided as he grew older and his desire to comply with his father's wishes seemed to grow, problems with concentration stifled his academic ambitions. It was hard for him to "settle down."

Spaulding spent an intensive year studying for admission to Williams College when he was 21, but was turned down. After that, his father found him a job as a teacher in the neighboring town of Ashfield, all the while continuing to tutor him for eventual admission to Williams. The younger Spaulding's enthusiasm for reading and learning slowly evaporated and he became "sullen." He was eventually dismissed from his teaching position due to a "disciplinary problem in the classroom."

After that, loud arguments ensued between father and son. He was 24 when his father informed the congregation that Josiah Jr. had "lost his reason" and would have to be chained to a round staple in the floor of his room. According to Perry's report, "on being restrained in this manner Josiah became boisterous and, his heartsick father said, used extremely offensive and profane language."

Evening prayers in the living room were punctuated by the clanging and chafing of chains upstairs, leaving grooves in the floor still visible today.

Spaulding broke loose after more than half a year of rubbing his chains together. His father and a neighbor apprehended him while he was trying to get a horse out of the barn at night. A blacksmith then built him a sturdy wooden cage, not big enough to stand in. His tendons shrank over time, making it impossible for him to stand upright. When his parents died within a short time of each other 12 years later in 1823, Spaulding's sister Lydia had him moved to her house. Naked and in chains, thenow 37-year-old "struggled with his escorts" as he was led up the hill to his new abode with four men behind carrying the cage. His sister's husband, Ezra Howes, went on to serve as a state representative.

Lydia died in 1836 when Spaulding was 50. His brother-in-law and then later his brother-in-law's new wife, the former Mrs. Lois Warriner, kept him locked up. She, according to Perry's report, was "the only person Josiah ever established a real communication with." She kept his cage clean and, on occasion, cooked his favorite foods.

When Warriner died in 1864, the Buckland selectmen transferred Spaulding to the town poorhouse, where the proprietors conducted tours on weekends for the curious to view this aged "maniac huddled deep in his blanket and crouching in the corner of his cage." He died three years later on Christmas Eve 1867 at age 81 and was laid at his father's side in an unmarked grave. A century later, the Buckland Historical Society, in what a news report at the time described as a "symbolic act of atonement," unceremoniously erected a headstone to mark the spot.

In her course at UMass today, Patricia Silver tries to put stories like Spaulding's into historical perspective. She points to milestones in the shifting attitudes toward mental illness and learning disabilities like Dorothea Dix's 1843 speech to the Massachusetts State Legislature calling for humane treatment of the mentally ill. In that speech, the crusader who went on to be the highest woman officeholder in the Union Army during the Civil War, mentioned other caged people in towns all overMassachusetts.

The latest major development in the field was the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, said Silver, which lent a great deal of visibility to issues surrounding a wide variety of disabilities.

Historically, she said, people with "differences" have often been treated badly. "I don't think we should dismiss that," said Silver. "We have a lot of implicit assumptions about people with disabilities, we have to look at where those come from.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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