Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Clara Elizabeth Taylor Burt: By Aunt CB and Pat Kinsella Herdeg

Clara was the oldest child of B.W. Taylor and Emma Carson. She was the big sister of Leon, the twins--Floyd and Lloyd, Mildred, Harold and Florence. Like the other Taylors, she was born and raised at Woodlawn, the family farm in Oakfield, NY.

Clara was another family tragedy. When Florence (her sister ten years younger than she) brought home scarlet fever from school, she shared it with Mildred and Clara.

Mildred ( age 5) had scarcely recovered two to three months before from typhoid fever (which almost every family member had at one time or another-- never did they realize that its source lay in their drinking water, from the well just beyond the back door and adjacent to the cow door of the barn).

Poor little Mildred just couldn't take another such disease and died. Clara, who had done most of the raising of Mildred, went round the bend. As is typical of a schizophrenic, this was her first break, just past her teenage years. She was kept in her room, meals and all, for a month, quiet being the cure they felt. Mental hospitals were terrible then.

As for schooling, because Emma needed her help in the house, Clara could not attend school regularly and did not graduate from high school. But, Emma greatly believed in education and argued with B.W. to provide some--she did win for Clara a six month stint in 'Domestic Science' (house keeping) in Mechanics Institute in Rochester, now well known as Rochester Institute of Technology or RIT.

To do this she boarded with a family here and cooked and cleaned for them. This is all the schooling Clara had, then came home, once again to help at home. She did, in later years, take a course in Millinery (making hats) and had a room for business in Batavia my older sister said. She was always very clever at sewing, decorating things, doing craft work.

Bryant, son of Floyd and so, my cousin, had a picture of himself in the 1930s in a long white apron and a chef’s hat. His Aunt Clara had made it and taught him to make rolls and other things.

Where she met Maurice (her husband, Maurice Burt) I don't know, but I wonder if it was while she may have been apprenticed to a milliner in Buffalo. Her next big mental break came after Maurice left her (1925 or so?).

When I knew her, growing up in the 1930s, she was a wonderful aunt. She used to get samples of material (2" x 3") and save them for us for our paper dolls. I remember her as a marvelous cook. By 1944 or 1945 or so, when I saw her at our house in Waterloo, she was going off into her own world, carried a notebook and wrote down facts as she was an FBI agent she said.

I think this is when she came to visit Florence, lifted items from stores and eventually was put in mental hospital near her. She was diagnosed schizophrenic-paranoid when I visited her in 1949 on Long Island at Kings County Hospital with Aunt Florence.

After the War, when NY State was clearing out mental institutions she was transferred to Willard Hospital, near Waterloo, as being nearer her birth county. Here, she died in 1958.

Willard was her home for perhaps ten years. The State Hospital, opened in 1869, finally closed in 1995. As the closed buildings were given final walk-throughs, someone pried open a door to an attic. There, with pigeons swooping in and all around, were rows and rows of suitcases, filled with the personal treasures of almost four hundred of the patients.

Our Clara’s was not one of them, but an amazing traveling exhibit has been created, using a smaller number of the suitcases to surround and make more human some of the patients--Check out this website: http://www.suitcaseexhibit.org/. The website has oral histories from former staff members that you can listen to—touching and painful to listen to.

Read the book also written about these amazing attic finds: “The Lives They Left Behind—Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic” by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.
Another amazing look at Willard Hospital, this time in pictures, can be found at:
nysAsylum.com, run by Roger Luther. He has kindly provided me with these vintage pictures of the Hospital.

While almost half of the patients who entered Willard Hospital died there, as did our Clara, many were buried in a mostly unmarked cemetery on the grounds, taken care of for years by a patient.

Clara was taken home to her beloved Woodlawn and buried in Cary Cemetery, surrounded by her parents, various siblings--including her dear Mildred, and many Taylor relatives.

Picture One: Clara and sister, Florence, taken 1904
Picture Two: Clara, taken 1907
Picture Three: Bryant Taylor, 1930, wearing hat made by Aunt Clara
Picture Four: Willard Hospital
Picture Five: Willard Hospital Sewing Room—with her love of sewing, would Aunt Clara have worked here during her last years?


Aunt CB said...

I do not know whether she worked in the sewing room, I am in the process now, with my DR , of trying to get some of her records from the state!!! I did visit her there at Willard with Mom and Daddy. She was still happy working with Maurice as FBI agents!!

A close childhood friend, living in Ovid worked as a physical therapy person there at Willard. She taught dancing to many patients and I like to think that Clara may have had some happy times there with her! When I think of my long happy life I cry for her who worked so hard and had so little!

CB{again} said...

We will correct one mistake! Clara WAS raised at Woodlawn but not born there. She was born in West Bethany at her Carson grandparents home. I am sure she felt as her sister , Florence did when grown, The Carsons were much more fun than the Taylors!! The Taylors were more "straight laced" BW never thought any neighbor boy good enough for Clara so she never dated while home. She was, like her other siblings, very active in church young people's groups and she could play the piano so was much in demand to do so with Taylor quartet!

Diana said...

What an interesting but sad story. You know we forget how hard it was living then when the most common of aliments could be a death penalty.

Thank you for sharing.

Sue Kinsella said...

I still remember vividly when Mom asked me if I wanted to go with her to a funeral for Grandpa Taylor's sister, Aunt Clara. I had never known that Aunt Clara even existed until that moment. My memory is so clear that I have long thought I must have been at least a preteen, but this story says Clara died in 1958, so I would have been only seven. I remember seeing her in the casket and wanting to know so much more about her.

Many years ago, I read one of Clara's mother's diaries from a year when Clara was probably either in her late teens or very early 20s. I was especially struck by the overwhelming amount of effort it seemed to take them to do the housework.

Not only were Emma and Clara cooking all day, making clothes, and caring for the younger kids, etc., but they also took one room at a time and did heavy-duty cleaning and refurbishment. I mean, Emma described how they would wash all the walls, beat the rugs, clean the floors, repaper or paint the walls, clean all the fixtures, make new drapes and on and on. When one room was renewed, they moved on to another until, by the end of the year, the whole house would have been deep-cleaned - and then they'd start all over again!

I know that everybody was working hard - the men were farming and everybody was stretched to the limit with keeping everything and everyone going. But this Cousins Blog story makes me feel even sorrier for Clara than I felt when I read that diary. Her life seemed to just be about doing extremely demanding housework for the family all the time, with very little for herself.

It's no wonder that she must have found imagining a life as an FBI agent far more enticing!

Evelyn Taylor said...

I am reading this article very late in January. It is most interesting and sad. I remember Aunt Clara coming to our door (didn't want to come in) one night in probably 1946 or '47. I cannot remember what it was all about, but she seemed out of it. I wonder if she was an FBI Agent then?
Evelyn - In case "Anonymous" comes up.

Pat said...

Thanks, Evelyn.

Yes, Clara's life story always got to me. And, then, to find out that Willard Hospital found all of those forgotten suitcases just seemed like such a strong symbol of those people's lives.

WE have not forgotten our Clara!

Much love,