John Bridges: Maniacal, Mischievous, or Misunderstood?

On a rare few occasions, my grandpa told me about John Bridges, my fourth great grandmother’s second husband.  He never spoke in specifics.  He said that his great grandmother, John’s step-daughter, did not like him.  According to family legend, John was a drunk and a layabout who never worked.  He went to prison and was eventually put in the asylum because he was insane.  I never cared to look into it until I happened upon his two marriages to Serilda Gilliland.

I know nothing of John’s life before he married Serilda.  John Bridges is a fairly common name.  In fact, there was another John Bridges living in the same town at the same time.  In addition, multiple birth places are given for him and I have next to no information about his parents.

In previous posts, I revealed that John Bridges married Serilda Gilliland in 1857, and then again in 1871 because the first marriage wasn’t valid.  I also posted at length about the trial for the murder of Charles Baker and the subsequent sentence of life in the state prison in Jeffersonville.  I still had no answers as to how John could go to prison, in Clark County, for life in 1859 and then somehow be in Floyd County in 1871 to marry Serilda again.  So I kept looking.

I found him on the 1860 Census listed with the family, but in the 14th column, he is marked “convict.”  It also gives his birthplace as France.  It is important to note that he is listed as a ship carpenter, which means he did, at one point at least, have a job.  In the 1870 Census, John is listed among other convicts in the Indiana State Prison South supplement.  Here, his birthplace is Kentucky and he is still listed as a ship’s carpenter.  Then, in 1871, John is released from prison.

New Albany Daily Ledger, Friday, 3 February 1871, p.2, column 1, Stuart Barth Wrege Indiana History Room

New Albany Daily Ledger, Friday, 3 February 1871, p.2, column 1, Stuart Barth Wrege Indiana History Room

The case of the prosecution seemed shaky.  It relied heavily on the testimonies of people who were known to lie and people who simply overheard something, what is known in court as “hearsay.”  The paper had stated that there would be a move for a new trial.  I suppose that a pardon isn’t hard to believe.  This explains how John was able to get married in Floyd County on the very day that this article was published.  The fact that John was pardoned made me wonder what else in the family legend may have been skewed.  And the search continued.

In the 1880 Census, he was living with his wife and youngest step-daughter.  He is a laborer.  His birthplace is Kentucky, as is the birthplace of both his parents.  He managed to stay out of trouble for about ten years after his release, or at least anything that the newspaper would have found out about.  Until…

New Albany Ledger, Thursday, 20 July 1882, p.4, column 2, Stuart Barth Wrege Indiana History Room

New Albany Ledger, Thursday, 20 July 1882, p.4, column 2, Stuart Barth Wrege Indiana History Room

Somehow, he got out of it with only a fine.  The next item in the timeline for John Bridges is his entry into the Floyd County Asylum (aka. Floyd County Poor Farm) and subsequent death.  He entered the asylum on March 13, 1899 and his condition was “sickly,” not insane or feeble-minded.  He died on May 2, 1899.  His obituary confirms his condition.

New Albany Daily Ledger,  2 May 1899, p.4, column 2, Stuart Barth Wrege Indiana History Room

New Albany Daily Ledger, 2 May 1899, p.4, column 2, Stuart Barth Wrege Indiana History Room

I always have to take newspaper articles with a grain of salt.  In fact, never believe what you read in the paper unless you have another document to confirm it.  This one says that John was in the asylum for two years, when asylum records state it was two months.  It does confirm that he was in poor health.  It also suggests that he was able to work until recently.  His death record provides no new information, other than another possible birthplace.

Floyd County, Indiana Deaths, CH-18, p. 7 (transcription)

Floyd County, Indiana Deaths, CH-18, p. 7 (transcription)

Addressing the issues…

Was John Bridges a drunk?  It’s hard to say.  The only mention of alcohol was in the murder trial.  He was at a bar at about four o’clock in the afternoon and “seemed to be in liquor.”  Was this a regular occurrence or was it to do with the upcoming confrontation with Baker?  We’ll probably never know.

Was he a layabout who never worked?  Not from what I can tell.  He is listed on two census as a ship’s carpenter and as a laborer on a third.  His step-son said that he was a watchman on the river.  His obituary said that he had been “unable to work in recent years.”

Did he go to prison?  Yes.  He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Charles Baker.  He was pardoned after he had served twelve years.

Was he sent to the asylum for insanity?  No.  The asylum records indicate that he was “sickly.”  His obituary confirms that he had come out of prison in “broken health.”  There is no indication that he was insane.  That’s not to say he wasn’t, but there are no official records indicating insanity and that is not the reason he ended up in the asylum.  It is strange that he has three different birthplaces.  This could indicate insanity, or maybe he enjoyed tall tales.

I still have very few hard facts about John Bridges, but I feel as though I have a fairly complete story for him (minus his early life).  I also find that I don’t dislike him as much as I did before.  When I stop to think about it, it’s amazing the strong feelings I have for and about people I’ve never met simply because I am related to them.  I know it has to be the same for others, to some degree.  I see it when people talk about how proud they are of their Revolutionary War or Civil War ancestors, or how scared they are that they might find skeletons in the family closet.  To the latter, I say, keep researching, because what you think you know may not be what really happened.  John Bridges is a case in point.

2 thoughts on “John Bridges: Maniacal, Mischievous, or Misunderstood?

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