Okay, some posts a bit light and some serious and technical, this is how ‘The Deadline‘ rolls. Content warning: discussions of death and mental health (‘insanity’) that may be distressing for some.
So in my family there was this enigma about our founding ancestors, John and Bridget Brady (nee Lynch) that I was curious about. And with genealogy I find starting with how people finished a good place to start, so death certificates first and gravely work backwards. Sorry for the puns.
And John and Bridget’s story is a lesson in confirmation bias. Basically we knew they had pretty hard Irish migrant lives in the Victorian goldfields and they had both had alcohol related deaths. They, in my Dad’s language ‘drank themselves to death‘, so I am blundering along, assuming death by things like liver and kidney ailments.
In 1999, while I was studying Anthropology at the University of Queensland, my Aunt Anne handed me the Brady family tree she had been working on. It was a pretty good effort, but I had access to the Pioneer Index for Victoria from 1836 – 1888 from the university. This is the one of the source indexes that websites like Ancestry.com use. Given learning about genealogy is part of anthropology it was a perfect opportunity.
Anthropology has a tradition of participant observation (immersing yourself in your research with people) in the production of ethnography. It requires a certain level of introspection and techniques to position yourself in the research so as to avoid objective/subjective disasters. This project is an exercise in autoethnography.
So the exercise of learning about the first Irish-Australian ancestors on my father’s side was exactly an example of the need to think carefully about my assumptions. Given that a number of family members have struggles with alcohol, a lot of that has been almost an accepted part of the lineage. My father hated alcohol with a vengeance and was quite vehement that alcohol destroyed families and I saw my parents have a beer once a month at best.
Doing family tree research (for yourself or anyone else) requires a lot of moments of unpacking confirmation bias. What’s confirmation bias? Probably best if I give a fictional example. A long told family story about a female ancestor reveals they loved to smoke Tabaco in a pipe, and this was considered quite unladylike and contributed to her death. Some have said lung cancer because there is a recent family member who died from lung cancer. There is a family photo of her in the 1860’s with the pipe in her hand, rested at her side. You find her death certificate and it doesn’t shed much light, but her headstone reads ‘died of foul air’ on it, and you think that confirms the family story of complications from smoking Tabaco. But the ‘smoking killed her’ family theory may well be confirmation bias and it’s important to step back and look a bit closer.
The expression ‘died of foul air’ or ‘bad air’ is related to an old defunct disease theory – known as Miasma theory and usually relates to infectious disease and the idea that various fumes were causative (that we now understand to be bacterial). Your ancestor has died in her late 30’s and you start to look at the history of where she died and find a tuberculosis outbreak in the area at that time. Your ancestor lived in a community without much medical care and it’s unlikely she would have had a proper diagnosis to be put on her death certificate. But it’s also likely that TB was was the cause of her death and having smoked Tabaco a complicating factor.
So, this leads me back to John and Bridget and the moment during my examination of family history that changed everything for me – John’s death certificate.
Image description: Image is death ledger from October 29th, 1888 at Kilmore Shire. John Brady. Brewer. Male age 49 years. Result of inquiry – Death from a wound in his throat, inflicted by himself while in a state of insanity. Inquiry held Oct 31st 1888, Patrick O’Neill J.P.
I first looked at this certificate in 2000 and put it down to process it until I picked it up in 2020 again and The Deadline project was born. I was going through a period of intense suicidal ideation and treatment for that twice a week and I was trying to understand my experience.
Here’s some of the feelings it brought up (written in my dark take on the world!):
- The nature of the self inflicted wound to the neck. Holy hell. That’s committed. What on earth would drive you to that?
- A state of insanity. How does one do insanity in a field (Dad said he died stumbling around in a field)? Do you discuss this with the cows? When was he found? Who found him? Did someone witness the state of insanity? What did it look like?
- What warning signs were there? Why didn’t anyone listen? Did he talk about it?
- Was he medically unwell too? How did they define insanity? How did they conclude this?
- Is this my future, is this inherited? What the heck!
- And finally, THE NEXT CLUE to follow…he was a BREWER! Let’s find the old Kilmore Brewery. There was a lot of gold rush pubs (I knew this from earlier research) but unlikely to be more than one brewery.
So my journey to understand how John the brewer (not to be confused with John the Baptist, because our John was most definitely Catholic) to came to be in a field in a state of insanity began and unpacking exactly what ‘a state of insanity’ meant in 1888; began in earnest in January 2020.
So you and I, Dear Reader, are going to go on a dark journey and next we will take a look at the Kilmore Brewery. And at times I am going to drink Gin in very small amounts and read to you bits of info and I may podcast or video that, because as my dear friend Rene will tell you, I am a piss weak drinker.
And here’s one small spoiler alert – the history of John Brady’s ownership of the Brewery is referred to only once in official histories (or missing altogether) and less than a line long, although it was a significant timeline of events for the town. While I understand his death is sensitive for religious, social and legal reasons but why forget him altogether? Shouldn’t we have honoured his life anyway?
Was this mental health stigma in action? Do we, as a culture, just erase uncomfortable mental health history as well the persons contributions?
It’s enough to make me drink (but I promise you in moderation). Laterz. To the brewery we go. See you there.
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