Life stories help people to belong, because they enable individuals to be heard and understood as a fully-rounded human, rather than be labelled in a particular way by those who know nothing about them. Part of belonging is to have a history, a sense of those who have gone before you and what their life stories were. This also helps us to understand how people lived in the past and how we might learn from their lives.
This paper tells the stories of four people who, in the language of their time, were described as 'idiots' or 'imbeciles'. The stories are drawn from the records of civil court cases, where decisions such as whether a person had the capacity to marry or inherit money were made, as they still are today. Contemporary newspaper and journal accounts are also used. Much information about the people concerned had to be discussed in court to enable these decisions to be reached.
In the eighteenth century, Sir John Vade was a wealthy property owner from a noble family, who died in 1739. He was seen by those around him as a lifelong simple 'imbecile' who was exploited by hangers-on. Was that true? Then there was Fanny Fust, a rich heiress described by her mother as an 'idiot … of as weak a state of mind as when she was only three years of age.' In 1736 Fanny, aged twenty-two, was kidnapped by a fortune-seeking army lieutenant who took her to France to try to marry her and gain access to her fortune. Was the marriage legal, or not?
In the nineteenth century twenty-three year old Rose Bagster was, like Fanny, whisked away by a young fortune hunter, in her case during a visit to London Zoo in 1832. Rose, described in the harsh language of the time as an 'imbecile' and an 'exceedingly slow and stupid scholar' was taken in a stagecoach to Gretna Green and married. But, afterwards, not everyone agreed that she married against her will, and an argument raged in court. Thirty years later William Windham inherited a huge fortune, aged twenty-one. Weeks later he married a 'kept woman' with a notorious reputation and spent enormous sums of money on her. Within months she had left him, taking a large part of his fortune with her. Was he an 'imbecile' and did he understand what he was doing? It was for a court to decide.
As well as telling the stories of the lives of these people from the past, this paper also asks what we can learn from them, and what they can tell us about our own attitudes and assumptions today.
Simon Jarrett - Simon is a Wellcome Trust PhD researcher in history at Birkbeck, University of London. His research examines how the idea of 'idiocy' changed in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries and how people labelled 'idiots' lived in those times. Before becoming an academic, Simon spent many years working in projects supporting people with learning disabilities and people on the autistic spectrum.
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