‘The mysterious disappearance of Paul Massie’

As many of you know, I’ve been transcribing and researching the letters William Macon Waller wrote home to his family over the fall and winter of 1847 and 1848, while he was walking a coffle of slaves from Amherst County, Va., to Natchez, Miss.

Once in Mississippi, he sold the slaves to settle some debts.

In the letters, Waller writes about lots of things: a family of dwarfs he saw in Southwest Virginia, the fact that sweet potatoes were a big crop in a particular area he was passing through, that he ran into so-and-so and his wife, who is a terrible cook.

Like I said, lots of stuff.

In one of the letters Waller writes home to his wife, Sarah, he mentions someone named Paul Massie. The Massie and Waller families knew each other and lived in the same general area.

Dr. Thomas Massie, Paul’s father, was a prominent physician and slaveholder. At some point, he also married Waller’s sister, Lucy. Here’s what Waller said about Dr. Massie’s son, Paul:

… in another paper [I read about] the mysterious disappearance of Paul Massie. … His fathers [sic] anxiety must be excruciating.

So, of course I wanted to know what happened to Paul Massie. I hit the Internet and it didn’t take long for the story to unfold. On Nov. 30, 1847, under the headline “Missing,” the Richmond Enquirer reported the following:

The New Haven Courier says that Paul Massie, of Virginia, a member of the Freshman Class of Yale College, left that city on Monday, under circumstances that create anxiety; and any information communicated to his brother here, P.C. Massie, or to his father, Dr. Thomas Massie, Tye River Mills, Nelson Co., Va., will be gratefully received by them. He is about five feet eight or nine inches high — stout built — black hair — dark complexion; and had on a brown frock coat, dark green pantaloons, double breasted black vest, and cloth cap.

Upon reading the article, I was even more intrigued. Had Paul been kidnapped? Was he a drunk? Was he crazy? Was he ever heard from again? So I got on FamilySearch, a great (and free) genealogy website, to see what I could find.

In the 1850 U.S. Census, I found out that three years after Paul goes missing, he’s not listed with his family in Nelson County, Va.

I kept poking around on FamilySearch, looking for Paul Massies of the right age, who were born in Virginia, etc., and eventually, I found him. In the 1850 census, he shows up at Mount Hope Hospital — described as “An Asylum for the Insane and Invalids” — in Baltimore:

Paul Massie, 19, student, born in Virginia, insane, entered hospital in 1849.

Sadly, I also found Paul at Mount Hope in the 1870 and 1880 censuses. He died in 1894 — possibly at Mount Hope, because he’d been there so long already — and is buried with his family at Blue Rock, the family home in Nelson County. He was 63 years old.

At the Virginia Historical Society, in its Massie family papers, there are more clues about what led Paul to Mount Hope.

On Nov. 6, 1847, Dr. Massie writes Paul, then at Yale College, a letter. Among other things, he encourages Paul to “study well and take exercise enough to keep your health good and your mind clear” and to try and tolerate the college’s rules, which are “necessary to preserve order among so many different kinds of young men collected from every portion of our wide country.”

In the next letter I read — I admittedly did not read the entire Massie family file — Paul’s brother Patrick, also a student at Yale, writes his dad, saying that Paul has disappeared.

In the letter, dated Nov. 16, 1847, Patrick writes that “Paul has seen proper to leave college, and has not been heard of since yesterday noon.” Later, he explains that Paul has “for some time expressed his dissatisfaction with this kind of life and that he wished some more active kinds.

“He had been melancholy for a few days before his disappearance, and frequently expressed to some of his class mates [sic] his intention of leaving.”

Also, according to this letter, Paul has withdrawn all of his money from his bank account and, as Patrick puts it, “His conversation and conduct for several days past would lead one to conclude that his mind is somewhat affected.”

When Dr. Massie writes back, it’s apparent that Patrick has gone looking for his brother, but is now back at Yale and attending his classes. This pleases his father, who also writes, “It is useless to hunt for Paul as no one can tell what course he took.

“I have [sic] no idea there was any mental derangement in his case. But that the act was deliberate and premeditated, although its excessive folly would lead to the belief that no sane person would do it.”

In the same letter, perhaps more telling, Dr. Massie writes about Paul:

Boys whose heads are cold to natural affections, and who of course have no experience to guide them, are prone to go wildly wrong and the only medicine that can cure them is suffering.

Eventually, Paul is found — where and how I don’t know — and he lands at Mount Hope.

In 1871, more than 20 years after Paul’s disappearance, his brother Patrick gets a letter from the hospital about the bill for Paul’s care. Among other things, the writer, a nun named Sister Catherine, informs Patrick that “I take great pleasure to report that [Paul’s] general health is good.”

More about Mount Hope:
Mount Hope Hospital, also called Mount Hope Retreat, was founded in 1840. When I searched for Mount Hope on Chronicling America, the newspaper archive of the Library of Congress, and also on Newspapers.com, I found interesting stories about other people sent to Mount Hope.

It’s pretty amazing, the gossipy, scandalous things that newspapers used to report.

For example, under the headline, “Insane Through Religion,” an Oct. 25, 1884, story in the Sacramento (Calif.) Daily Record-Union, tells of a 19-year-old Baltimore woman, “Miss Igo,” who was “found in her bedroom Wednesday evening, wholly nude and a raving maniac.”

According to the story, Miss Igo had long wanted to be a nun, but her family disagreed with her plans. So, she “thereupon became somewhat sullen with disappointment. Her troubles weighed on her mind to such an extent that she gradually showed signs of a weakening intellect.

“She went to her bedroom and, taking off her clothes, lay down on the floor and commenced to scream. It has been found necessary to remove her to the insane asylum at Mount Hope. Miss Igo is of attractive appearance and graduated last year at a prominent private school.”

A second article, in the Alexandria (Va.) Gazette, said that Miss Igo was the niece of a Baltimore grocer named Michael Igo.

I’ve done a little online research, in an attempt to determine exactly who Miss Igo was, but I’m not sure if I’ve found the right person. There was a 16-year-old girl, living in the household of grocer Michael Igo and his wife, Mary, in Baltimore in 1880 who might be her.

According to local newspapers, she also graduated from a local Catholic academy, which goes along with the nun story.

I hesitate to assign this bizarre behavior to someone erroneously, though. If nothing else, I’d hate to get nasty emails from her descendants. So, for now, the identity of Miss Igo will remain somewhat shrouded in mystery (unless, of course, you look her up yourself).

In searching Newspapers.com, I found numerous stories, written between the 1880s and early 1900s, about people being sent to Mount Hope Asylum. Like Miss Igo’s case, the stories often included information about the strange behavior that led the person to be committed to the hospital.

Perhaps I will share some of them in a future post.

Learn about ‘Victorian Times’ Sunday, June 4, at Presbyterian Cemetery

Learn about ‘Victorian Times’ Sunday, June 4, at Presbyterian Cemetery

On Sunday, June 4, Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery will host its third “Sunday Stroll” of the year. The hour-long, guided tour, “Victorian Times,” will begin at 2 p.m. at the cemetery office. The cost is $5.

The tour, given by Judy Harvey, will highlight mourning practices during the Victorian era. The time period, named for Britain’s Queen Victoria, runs from 1837 to 1901, the length of her reign. The tour also will include stories of people buried at Presbyterian Cemetery during Victorian times.

Augustus Winfield Scott 1843-1905
The weeping angel atop the grave of Augustus Winfield Scott (1843-1905).

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch. Notable people buried there include Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington), Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist commonly known as “Queena” Stovall) and others.

There also are more than 200 Civil War soldiers buried at Presbyterian Cemetery.

I have written other posts about the “residents” of Presbyterian Cemetery, including five girls who died in a fire at the Presbyterian Orphanage and the Stephens children, who are buried together under four little stone lambs.