Eulogy for John Spencer

John/Joseph Edward Spencer
Grave #783
May 2018

A quote by the prolific British author Sir Terry Prachett reads, “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world would die away.” We stand here today to explore the ripples that continue to emanate from the life of John Edward Spencer, grave #783.

John Spencer, who was born Joseph Edward Spencer, came into this world around July 1879 in Chillicothe, Ohio, about one hundred and forty years ago. His parents were Edward Spencer of Virginia, and Mary Jane Gillispie Spencer of Ross County, Ohio. They had seven children in all.

John, who is buried here, married Carrie May Johnson in 1903 and they had 3 children. What else do we know about John? Written records collected by descendants who are here today reveal that their great grandfather was a “hard worker,” with dark hair and gray eyes. He was a brick mason, as were most of the men in his family. He also hauled coal and ice, and was a carpenter. Finally, he told the doctors who examined him that he was proud of his achievements as a boxer.

In August 1908 after five short years of married life at the age of 29, we learn of John’s mental health condition. He was arrested and taken to jail, not because of any crime committed. But because he had his first attack, which had come with rapid onset. The medical certificate further described John as much excited, very talkative, and having paranoia related to persecution and jealousy.  The probate judge found him to be fit for the Athens Hospital for the Insane to undergo treatment, and he was admitted. The papers revealed that at a young age, an aunt on the father’s side, who was unmarried, had also been placed in an asylum.

John would be released and then arrested less than a year later in May 1909. Again, not for a crime, but this time because of fear of safety for the community.  For the second arrest, the onset was gradual, and he was violent at times.

John Spencer would live the rest of his life on the Ridges, which would be for the next 23 years. At the age of 52, for the last ten months of his life, he battled tuberculosis, and then died on March 25, 1931. He was buried here the next day.

The ripples of John Spencer’s life emanate from Chillicothe, Londonderry, McArthur, and Athens, OH. John and Carrie had three children named Ethel, Nellie, and Hazel.  Hazel was 4 years old when her father John had to be hospitalized. Hazel would become the grandmother of our descendants taking part in the ceremony today. She went on to have six children in Chillicothe, one of whom was Wallace. Wallace is the father of the descendants participating in the ceremony today. Wallace had 4 children. Two of them are here today and they are going to be placing the wreath: great granddaughter Jenny Hughes (who is with her husband and John’s great grandson in-law Bill Hughes), and great grandson Gary McCloud.  John Spencer’s line continues with 3 great-great grandchildren, and finally 7 great-great-great grandchildren.

Great granddaughter Jenny Hughes contributed to this eulogy by writing, “Today, John would have been most likely diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and given medication and he could have continued to live a productive life. ‘Mental illness is not new in our family. It runs like a quiet, underground brush fire through the generations’ (quote by banjoist and composer Jayme Stone). But each generation can combat the stigma surrounding the illness and pave the way for the future generations who will need their compassion and understanding if they find themselves with a mental illness.”

Jenny and her husband Bill have indeed paved the way against stigma through advocacy, education, and creativity. In 2003, Jenny testified in Columbus for Ohio House Bill 398, which would bring into law the release of the names of the numbered graves you see before you. Ripples of inspiration from John led her to state in the hearing, “Because of John, I am here today…John was born for a reason…He had a purpose. We must make a difference and change the laws.”  Additionally, she and Bill were photographers in the Athens Photographic Project from its very beginning, which was founded by recently deceased Elise Sanford. The couple stayed on as aids, working for a decade with peer photographers.  Part of Jenny’s quest to understand and de-stigmatize mental illness led her to photograph her ancestor’s grave. It is at that space that ancestor and descendant would meet each other.

The eulogy concludes with a poem Jenny composed in 2001 as a tribute to her great grandfather.

Unanswered Questions-to a Man I Never Knew
How did you feel, what did you see?
The man in the grave, I wish you could answer me.
So many questions, filling my mind—
obsessing my thoughts—answers to find. What did you do on those long lonely days?
Did you work, did you read? I want to know the ways,
of how you passed away the time—
Did you have hobbies, did you write poems, maybe rhymes?
Did you have friends, entertain them with stories and such?
But I have to think you were missing so much.
A family on the outside—children growing up fast.
Did they come and see you? Childhood doesn’t last.
Or were you dismissed as some crazy man—
never allowed to see them again.
Did you roam about those asylum grounds,
In the quiet morning and listen to the sounds—
Of birds singing their morning song,
knowing that you would never go home.
To ever be with your family again—
always wondering what might have been.
Were you happy, were you sad?
Was it nice there or was it bad?
I don’t know what kind of thoughts raced through your mind—
when you were laid to rest—I hope some peace you could find.
Did someone there love you? –I hope you didn’t die alone.
As for answers to my questions, they will never be known.
When I visit your grave underneath that tall, tall tree,
I know you are a part of me.
For how you felt I will never know—
But when I walk those grounds
I feel your spirit in my soul.