Back in the Day

A tale of woe, from coast to coast

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The aged Mathewson cemetery on Simmonsville Avenue holds centuries of silent stories – town history, military history and other facts and figures written in the yellowed pages of old books.

But what isn’t as widely known are the personal histories of those buried within the hallowed grounds of this and our other local graveyards.

In the Simmonsville Avenue cemetery lie the remains of Capt. Reuben Mathewson and his wife, Waite Remington. Their son, Henry Remington Mathewson, was born in 1812 and went on to marry Mary Mason, with whom he had nine children. Two of those children died as infants before Mary died at the age of 33 in January of 1846.

Henry married again, in December of that year, to Marcy Kelly, and went on to father two more children. A farmer by trade, Henry decided in 1863 to go out to California and endeavor to establish a more successful farming career. This he did, settling in Rio Vista where his large acreage necessitated him to house his 20 laborers and domestic servants.

Marcy had been left behind to take care of things at home while Henry toiled on the West Coast. In an effort to ensure that all the property he owned back in Johnston could be legally and securely managed by Marcy, he had the deeds to the properties put in her name.

Henry brought his 20-year-old daughter Josephine, from his first marriage, across the country with him. While it appears evident that the girl, who had lost her mother when she was just three years of age, had exhibited concerning behavior in the past, an event in February of 1870 would be life-changing for the whole family.

Josephine attempted to commit suicide through the use of a knife and, in March of that year, was sentenced by a judge to the Stockton State Hospital, California’s first psychiatric hospital, which had opened its doors 19 years earlier.

The 27-year-old woman was diagnosed with Monomania, a type of “partial insanity” in which the mind is normal except for a single pathological preoccupation. These single obsessions with one delirious idea can manifest as kleptomania for one obsessed with stealing, pyromania for one obsessed with fires, or any other illogical compulsion. Josephine was apparently obsessed with harming herself and others, as hospital records state that she would become very affectionate with another person before striking out violently. She was described as being “filthy and destructive” and, in time, her diagnosis escalated to full insanity as her disease was “increasing” with “no rational intervals.”

Henry died in 1881. Ten years later, one of his children with Mary squared off in court against one of his children with Marcy, since deceased, over land owned by Henry which he had put in Marcy’s name for safe keeping. Josephine was still in the Stockton Hospital at this time though records indicate she was spared the straitjacket, straps and wristlets that some other patients were outfitted with.

She died on June 8, 1920, after contracting tuberculosis. Because she was buried in the hospital’s cemetery, she is missing from the ancestral grounds on Simmonsville Avenue. Amid the stones there that represent stories of founding families and military courage, not all of the Mathewson family saga is evident. Like most of our cemeteries, the personal stories of ancestral webs are rarely found in history books.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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