Say Her Name

One of the joys of exploring family history is uncovering the stories of lost souls who may not otherwise be remembered. This is one such story, that of my great great grandfather’s cousin Esther Cowley, 1847 – 1876. A short and sad life, different times, very different times. A story with so much resonance, not least that she suffered from epilepsy – a disease that has touched our lives with tragic consequences; and that during her short life she lived on the very same row of cottages where we currently live. Sadly, having lost both parents whilst very young, Esther was in the care of her aunt and uncle and became too difficult for them to manage and was admitted to an asylum for her care. I feel blessed to have been able to see the records from the asylum and whilst it has taken me days to recover from the emotional impact of reading them, I am incredibly grateful to all who were involved in preserving them and particularly to the records staff at Liverpool Library who facilitated my visit and examination of those records.

My dear Esther, I am so sorry for your suffering, and I hope that it helps in some way that I can share your story and say your name, God bless you and keep you.

Let’s start at the beginning when her mum Anne Shaw (b 13th March 1823), pregnant with Esther, married Robert Cowley (b 5th September 1823) on 15th March 1847. How much hope must they have had on that spring day, their whole lives ahead of them, their first child on the way? Two months later their daughter Esther was born on 23rd May 1847.  Seven months later, when Anne and Robert were just 24 years old, Robert died from “malignant fever” a term that described typhus. What a difficult situation for Anne to find herself in, widowed with a young baby.

On the 1851 census, just a few years later, we find Anne and Esther living with Anne’s mum (also a widow) and her family. Later that year, on 17th November, Anne marries bachelor John Lyon. A few months later Anne gives birth to twins who they name Jane (after John’s mother) and Moses (after Anne’s father). Their joy is short lived when both infants die in the December of that year. They must start 1853 hoping for better times but the year will bring more loss when Anne’s mum passes away in August that year.

On 3rd March 1855 Anne again has twins, Elizabeth (named for her mother) and Thomas (named for John’s father) but again fate strikes a cruel blow when Thomas dies the next day and even more desperately Anne dies on 13th March from typhus.  Elizabeth doesn’t fare much better when she passes away in the August, just five months old. What happens next, I am not sure but the next time we find Esther is on the 1861 census living with her mum’s sister Ellen, her husband Richard Parr and their daughter Ellen.

The next event in Esther’s short life is her admission to the asylum on 13th December 1866. It’s so difficult to imagine the circumstances and how the Parr family felt at this time. Their daughter Ellen was about to get married. They have presumably nurtured little Esther, with her epilepsy, depression and difficulties for the last five years at least, and possibly as many as eleven years. Esther is nineteen at this point and perhaps with no sign of ever being independent. Did they know what the asylum would hold in store for Esther? What alternative was there?

At this point I will let the asylum records speak for themselves, just to note her admission record states she is “dangerous”.

Admission #2643
December 13th, 1866
Esther Cowley
19 years old
Previous occupation – none
Previous place of abode – Bickerstaffe
Parish – Ormskirk
By whose authority – TM Ashton (Justice of the Peace)
Form of mental disorder – Imbecility & Epilepsy
Cause – unknown
Bodily condition – moderately well
Congenital idiot
Imbecility from birth
Facts certified “is constantly wandering about and will not speak, sleeps very little and requires
constant watching. She is violent and has struck the inmates.”
Physical symptoms “in fair bodily health & physical condition, has a goitre swelling on the right side
of her throat”
A case of imbecility, accompanied with occasional excitement, her memory is such impaired & she
talks in a childish manner, mentally incapacitated from occupying herself

Case notes (supposed to be completed once a week in the month after the initial admission and in chronic cases every three months)
DateCase NoteMy commentary
Mar 1868
(15 months after her admission)
No improvement. In fact, she seems to get more stupid. Her fits are more frequent than they were.21 years old, lost her dad as a baby, mum remarried, by the time Esther is 8 years old three of those siblings and her mum are dead, her surviving sister died a few months later. Is there any comprehension here of the grief? She has epilepsy, a misunderstood condition that some people interpret as evil, she will be confused.
Oct 1868
(7 months since last)
Remains in about the same condition. 
Sep 1869
(11 months since last)
This girl has improved slightly since she took the bromide of potassium her fits have not been so frequent neither have they been so violent in character. She is about as surly as ever & sometimes refuses her food but when shown the stomach pump she will begin to take it. Bodily condition very good.Potassium bromide discovered as an anti-epileptic by Sir Charles Locock in 1857, an obstetrician who believed that epilepsy could be caused by masturbation and was associated with menstrual periods.
Apr 1870
(7 months since last)
Remains about the same. She has had to discontinue the Potassium Bromide as it was affecting her physical condition. She is now in fair bodily condition again. Mentally if anything she is not so well.                                                                     Sir Samuel Wilkins and Sir William Gowers are credited with popularising bromide treatment and noting it does not cure epilepsy but only causes relapse of symptoms, needs titrating so dosages remain below a toxic level, and should never be abruptly discontinued.
Aug 1870
(4 months since last)
This girl is again taking the bromide and so long as she takes it in 30 gram doses her fits are kept in abeyance but return when it is discontinued, she has taken it now for some time and her system has not suffered from in this time. In other aspects the same.Now 23 years old
Dec 1872
(2 years and 2 months since last)
This girl remains in the same conditions both mentally and physically, she is still taking the pots bromide 30g and has but a few fits.25 years old
Nov 1873
(11 months since last)
Is credited with having 35 fits since last note. Is rather more feeble, still taking the bromide which has been increased to 40g26 years old
Oct 1874
(11 months since last)
Very feeble. Still has numerous fits. Taking pot bromide 40g27 years old
Feb 1876
(16 months since last)
Now taking the bromide mixture at night only. Does not seem to have had more fits (the change was made in Dec 74)29 years old, she died on 10th March and I wonder how much of this entry was reconstructed after that fact?

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