Part 1: Thomas Seth Benson (1830-1888) – An Illiterate Doctor

After a lengthy break (thank you, gentle readers, for your patience), I’m back with a look at the life of the enigmatic, 39-year-old, American-born Thomas S. Benson, living in Springfield, Kings County, New Brunswick during the 1871 Census of Canada. Benson was listed as a “Doctor” living with the Jacob Spragg [Sprague] family, whose daughter, Judith, married Benson in December 1868.

In addition to the memorable enumerator’s note, “Quack! Quack!! Quack!!!”, three other boxes on that form were checked for Thomas Benson, “Doctor:”

  • “Over 20 and unable to read.”
  • “Over 20 and unable to write.”
  • “Infirmities: Deaf and Dumb.”

Could this possibly be correct? What doctor was unable to read or write? A deaf doctor couldn’t effectively assess the condition of his patient’s lungs or heart, much less learn a patient’s symptoms or medical history. Maybe the opinionated enumerator had a valid point. I searched for records to support or refute Benson’s claim he was a doctor.

The Christian Visitor (Saint John, New Brunswick) of 17 December 1868 printed Thomas and Judith’s marriage announcement:

m. 3rd inst., at residence of bride’s father, by Rev. W.A. Corey, Thomas Seth BENSON, M.D., Studholm (Kings Co.) / Judith D. youngest d/o Jacob SPRAGG, Springfield.

Two years or so before the 1871 census, we can confirm Benson identified himself as a medical doctor. Moving back in time, in census records, I learned Thomas Benson was not in New Brunswick, but living in the USA.  The United States Federal Census picked up a Thomas S. Benson, age 30, born in Maine (USA) and living in Kingsfield, Franklin County, Maine:

Thomas S Benson – 30 – $200 Real Estate – $150 Personal – Farmer – Born Maine;
Ruth A Benson – 23 – Born Maine 
Ida May Benson – 1 – Born Maine
Isaac B Benson – 65 – Farmer – Born New Brunswick

While this could be our Thomas Seth Benson, the document that clinches his identity is a record of military service, specifically, Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the Civil War:

Thomas S Benson, age 32, occupation Physician, signed on at Farmington, Franklin County, Maine 26 September 1862, and was enlisted as a Corporal in the Company H, Massachusetts 3rd Cavalry Regiment on 27 October 1862.  He was mustered out on 24 Aug 1863 at Baton Rouge, LA.

Well, not only does this track, it gives us new information: Thomas is married to Ruth and has a year-old daughter; the 65-year-old Isaac B. Benson is likely his father. Thomas could read and write, and had no physical impairments. Somehow, Thomas S. Benson morphed from a farmer 6 June 1860 (date of the census enumeration) into a physician by his 27 October 1862 enlistment with  the Massachusetts 3rd Cavalry regiment.

While the education and training that qualifies MDs today takes a minimum of six years, standards for medical practice in the mid-nineteenth America did not exist. The Civil War Society’s Encyclopedia of the Civil War puts it this way:

During the period just before the Civil War, a physician received minimal training. Nearly all the older doctors served as apprentices in lieu of formal education. Even those who had attended one of the few medical schools were poorly trained. In Europe, four-year medical schools were common, laboratory training was widespread, and a greater understanding of disease and infection existed. The average medical student in the United States, on the other hand, trained for two years or less, received practically no clinical experience, and was given virtually no laboratory instruction.

Bowdoin College operated the Medical School of Maine (1820-1921), but it’s unlikely Thomas attended. As today, there were also fraudulent medical schools that issued “diplomas.” As a farmer, husband and father, he likely had no medical training when he enlisted. Perhaps, he parlayed a genuine interest in medicine, knowledge of animal husbandry and folk medicine to get assigned as a “Physician.”

Thomas spent just ten months doctoring in the military. Shipped with the Army of the Gulf to hot, humid, and muddy Louisiana, he tended more men suffering mosquito-borne fevers, dysentery, and other complaints than combat wounds. He’d had enough and at the end of August 1863, he made his way from Baton Rouge (LA) north. 

Did Thomas Benson rush home to the waiting arms of his wife Ruth and little daughter Ida May? Maybe he did, but it’s hard to know. His widowed father, Isaac B. Benson, living with him in 1860, died in May 1864. And then, on November 2, 1864, in Harvard, Massachusetts he got married to a local girl, Clara Whitney.

That’s right, Thomas Benson’s wives, thus far, were Ruth in 1860, Clara in 1864, Judith in 1868, and he had two more I will tell you about next time.

 

Sources:

1860 United States Federal Federal Census; Kingfield, Franklin, Maine; Roll: M653_435; Page: 820; Family History Library Film: 803435.

1871 Census of Canada; Springfield, Kings County, New Brunswick; Library and Archives Canada (http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/).

Daniel F. Johnson : Volume 26 Number 1936; Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (http://archives.gnb.ca/).

Civil War Home: Medicine

Civil War Home: Medical Staff

Medical School of Maine: Historical Records and Files, George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library. (https://library.bowdoin.edu/arch/archives/msmg.shtml)

Civil War in the East: 3rd Massachusetts Cavalry

The Civil War Index: 3rd Massachusetts Cavalry

American Civil War Medicine & Surgical Antiques

US Army Medical Department History

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“Quack! Quack!! Quack!!!”

John Urquhart – The Opinionated Enumerator

Perusing the 1871 Census of Canada recently, I was jolted by a comment written in the far right column, on the line for the entry of Thomas Benson, a married man of 39 years, whose occupation was given as “Doctor.” It read,

Quack! Quack!! Quack!!!

Cures by laying on hands

Wowee, that’s not information typically recorded on a census. Governments charge census officials to collect specified, statistical data, not opinion. And that wasn’t the only one provided by John Urquhart on his house-to-house survey in April 1871.

Urquhart, like most enumerators, was a resident of the district he was assigned to cover, Springfield, Kings County, New Brunswick. (They were paid $3 for each day of service.) According to the 1871 Census of Canada “Manual Containing Instructions to Enumerators,” a successful census required “intelligent, honest and well-trained” individuals. They were directed:

  1. Not to omit anything of importance.
  2. Not to record the same thing twice.
  3. Not to exaggerate anything.
  4. Not to underrate anything.

“…the enumerator is never to take upon himself to insert anything which is not stated and distinctly acknowledged by the person giving the information.”

On the official form, the far right column had two uses, to record “the date of each day’s operation” and “to be entered any remark which may be found necessary ; but in general enumerators should not have to resort to explanations, unless in special cases.”

After the quackery remark, I combed the entire census in search more of Urquhart’s “special cases.” Sadly, no other comments reach that level, but the following clues us in to things that bugged John about his Springfield neighbors:

“Lives all alone”

William Corey, a 35-year-old Baptist clergyman, who happened to be Irish.

“Religion not defined”

Caroline Sims was a 60-year-old widow, born in the United States, who lived with her 30-yr-old son William and apparently refused to declare a church affiliation.

“Don’t live with Wife”

Thomas Wilson was 33, also born Ireland, and residing in the Charles Gunter  household.

“Lives alone in his Shop”

Smyth Keirstead was a 25-year-old Merchant, born in New Brunswick, and a Baptist of German ethnicity.

Urquhart disapproved of young men who lived alone, and a possible female freethinker. However, we can’t write him off entirely as a judgmental grump. In the comments column for a widow, Mary Ross, who gave her age as 106, he wrote,

“Slightly advanced in years.”

Yeah, John Urquhart had a sense of humor – or he just couldn’t help himself.

 

Next time: There’s something about Thomas Benson

John Urquhart may have known more about “Doctor” Thomas S. Benson than we can know from mute documents. Benson was born in the United States and his young, New Brunswick bride, Judith Spragg, wasn’t his first wife, nor would she be his last, and do his medical credentials exist?

Sources | Resources