Top row, L to R: Robert Lee Ganus, Roderick Monroe Ganus, Newton Layayette Ganus
Bottom row, L to R: John Monroe Ganus, John Thackason Ganus, William Franklin Ganus

As much as I love the stories that I uncover, I think I almost love the pictures more. I find myself sitting and studying my ancestors’ pictures and wondering what stories their faces tell? What do their eyes say? What caused that wrinkle in their brow?  What does the way they hold their mouth and their hands tell me about their life and what they were like?  It’s all speculative, but it’s a game I like to play.  

I particularly love it when someone shares a story to go with a picture. Such is the case of the picture of John and “his boys”  shown above.  I can’t help but notice that Roderick (center back) obviously had his own ideas about how to dress for a picture. Story has it that while his father, John, and his brothers put on their “Sunday best”  for the picture, Roderick had been working in the field and said that he was not going to spend half the day dressing and undressing for a picture, so he came as he was.  The story makes me smile and reminds me that that ole Ganus spunk had trickled down through yet another generation.  

Newton L. Ganus

When my father first shared this picture with me, I noticed that while five of the men wore the typical solemn expressions, one son seemed not to care about how long he had to wait for the camera, nor whether the social norm dictated that a proper picture be taken in a somber manner and devoid of a smile. Newton’s smile stretched from his lips to his eyes and seeing that solitary smile among the six men never fails to make me smile. When I show this picture to others, they are often quick to point to him and say things such as  “He looks like fun.”  The truth be known, Newton had experienced more than his share of heartache, but for some reason, he broke tradition, smiled for the camera and made us all want to know more about him.

Newton Lafayette Ganus and his twin, Frances Olivia Ganus, were born the 17th of July, 1867 in Pine Bluff, Jefferson, Arkansas to John Monroe Ganus and Olivia Rainwater. I am not sure how long Frances lived, but I do know that she had died by 1870 when the family returned to Haralson County, Georgia.  The Ganus family would remain there until November of 1886, at which time they migrated by train to Colorado. Later, in about 1897, the Ganus family moved on to Oklahoma where John, Olivia and all of the sons lived until they died.

Not much is known about Newton’s childhood although most of his siblings’ descendants were told the story that when Newton was a child, he was kicked in the head by a mule.  In addition, all seemed to have been told that he was very smart when it came to math.  We do know that Newton never married and that he lived with his parents until their death, at which time, his married brothers took him in.  But life with Newton was not easy and it became more trying with time.  Among other issues, Newton had bouts with terrible headaches and when he did, he became angry and was difficult to deal with.

On August 30, 1921, at the age of 54,  Newton was taken to the Eastern Oklahoma State Hospital for the mentally ill at Vinita and examined by Dr. Hayes along with two other doctors.  Prior to that time, Newton had spent a year in Fort Supply, which was the first mental hospital in Oklahoma.  His brother, Robert, felt concerned enough about Newton’s mental state that he had traveled a little over 100 miles from his home in Okmulgee to take him to the hospital in Vinita, which was no small distance at that time.

When examined by the doctors there, Newton was asked if his mind was as good as any body else’s and he responded that he did not know.  According to records,  Newton said, “Seems like my head hurts me right smart.  I don’t know what causes it.”  Newton also indicated that he did not believe that his “mind would be as good and stout as one not in any misery.”  When asked why he had been sent there, he said, “For bad behavior I reckon.”  The doctor then asked Newton  if he had been bad and Newton indicated, “Not bad, I don’t think, just this misery and anger like I cursed a little but I don’t think I done bad.”

Newton L. Ganus

The doctors asked Newton a variety of other questions, including a series of mathematical questions.  Newton responded correctly to questions such as “if he received .125 cents an hour and worked 8 hours, how much would he have?” It is interesting that he was able to answer correctly every mathematical question  asked, yet his history indicated that he only had a 1st grade education.  By his responses to other questions, some of which were quite basic, Newton seemed to sometimes be a little confused and forgetful and yet his responses did not appear to be very far out of the ordinary.  I wonder what additional information may have been supplied by Newton’s brothers? With all three doctors in agreement, Newton was admitted and for the next 32 years, the hospital was his home.

Eastern Oklahoma State Hospital Cemetery
Thanks to John Schehrer for sharing the photo

On December 19, 1953, at the age of 86, Newton died of chronic myocarditis in Eastern Oklahoma State Hospital.  He was buried among countless other hospital patients on the hospital ground cemetery.  Confined for much of his adult life in the hospital, Newton had managed to outlive all of his brothers and died without any descendants of his own.  I find myself wondering just how he spent his final days? Did he have any visitors?   Did he have friends?  Did anyone weep when he was gone? 

I have one additional picture of Newton and this time he is alone.  While I can’t be sure, I suspect from his clothing and his age that it was likely taken in the hospital.  This picture is a stark contrast to his picture from earlier days where he is seen smiling alongside his father and brothers. In fact, the first time I came across this picture, I was surprised to flip it over and read that it was in fact Newton. As with most of us, he had changed a lot over the years. This picture shows an older, thinner Newton, a Newton that no longer felt compelled to smile for the camera.  This time his face tells a different story, a story that I wish had had a happier ending.

Copyright © Michelle G. Taggart 2013

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22 thoughts on “The Stories Their Faces Tell

  1. What a sad story, Michelle. I've heard that a head injury can make some drastic changes to one's personality, and this seems to be a demonstration of that. Thank you for remembering Newton by sharing his story.

  2. Don't you just sometimes feel like weeping for some of your ancestors and their situations, Michelle? Such a sad, sad story. I think it's good that you researched his life and told his story. And I'm like you about the photographs. I look and look to see what I can notice.

  3. I actually sat and wept as I wrote his story. So many times I feel that I know the story, but something about sitting and writing it makes it all sink in and I tend to see things a little differently. I hadn't thought about the fact that none of his brothers were living by the time he died and that he had lived to a ripe old age. I also hadn't realized how long he had lived in the hospital until I wrote it down. Thanks Nancy for your comments.

  4. Your photographs, observations, and research about Newton were very compelling, Michelle. There's always something to look at and find in a photograph. Newton's the only one 'intruding' on others – touching one shoulder, and leaning on another. Head injuries are the pits – sounds like he had some of the usual results – terrible headaches, impulsivity, and more. Such a shame. Thanks so much for your very sensitive post. Love the photos indeed!

  5. Congratulations on being featured on GeneaBloggers. Newton's second picture is so different from the first. I think most people that went through the years in the hospital probably would change too. Poor Newton. I enjoyed your story and the perspective you wrote it from.


  6. Thank you so much Betty. Yes, the things I have read about mental hospitals in the 20's and 30's in particular paint a pretty grim picture. We've come a long way I think in that regard. But I agree—poor Newton.

  7. I hadn't thought about the fact that Newton was leaning in and touching others like you said–thanks for pointing that out. Thank you so much for your comments and for visiting my blog!

  8. I found your blog from Pinterest and Newton's smiling photo….I so hoped as I read this post that he wouldn't end up in a home… paternal grandfather had a brother that every census states :insane since childhood" I have one photo of him and he looks so sad…perhaps depression?
    My maternal grandmother had a sister that supposedly got scarlet fever and her temp went too high and she was brain damaged at the age of 10…I have to give it to my ancestors, they kept her home and after her folks died she lived with my grandparents, she didn't end up in a home until everyone else had died….Jessie outlived them all….
    I will be back, this is blog is a wonderful time capsule…:) Sandy

  9. I just found your blog and am thoroughly enjoying reading all your stories. I wish I had your ability to put the stories into words. 🙂 I found an ancestor that had died in the Western Lunatic Asylum in Staunton, Va., in 1889. I want to know more about her, but think I have to travel to the Library of Va. to research more. On a census, it says she was in the asylum for melancholy. 🙁 Would love to have just one picture of her!

  10. I just read more about you on "Let Me Introduce You To." I just joined Geneabloggers in September, and it has been a great ride. It is giving me a way to share what I find. I love research, but haven't been as good about writing. This is a great blogging community and I enjoyed sharing "An Early Christmas Gift" with them. Like you I have one ancestor who I just keep finding more on, Stephen Sherwood. I never know what will turn up on him. Yesterday I received an e-mail about a brickyard he owned and some homes that had been built out of those bricks. Who would have imagined? I can't wait to get that document. Sorry, I'm writing too much about me. Thank you for sharing the story of Newton!!

    Regards, Grant

  11. Thanks Sandy. It's a heart breaking story. It is just amazing what people have endured in life and continue to face. Reading their stories really does give me the courage to face my own trials. Thanks for dropping by!

  12. Just read your bio on Geneabloggers…am late in saying this, but welcome to genea-blogging! I'm glad to see another blogger writing about Southern families, too, and I am enjoying your stories. Just want you to know that I have seen the name Ganus while doing family research in MS.

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