Fanny and Thomas. Two stories about young people with learning disabilities in the 18th century

Stories adapted from Simon Jarrett’s Those They Called Idiots. The idea of the disabled mind from 1700 to the present day. Buy it.

Fanny’s story[1]

In 1764 a baby girl was born to a rich and well-connected family near Bath. They named her Fanny. It soon became clear she was not developing the way typical children did. She couldn’t count to twenty, didn’t know her left from her right hand or the names of the days of the week. Once while out walking in thunderstorm, delighted by a bolt of lightening, she asked her companions to “do it again”. Even as a young adult she needed help dressing and protection from dangers like the garden pond.

In 1786 when she was twenty-two she was kidnapped by an army lieutenant called Henry Bowerman, who tricked her into going to a nearby village by telling her there would be strawberries and cream. Here she was separated from her trusted companions and taken to France, where Bowerman tried to find a priest who would perform a marriage ceremony so he could take her inheritance. Bowerman struggled to find a priest to do this because it was clear Fanny did not understand what was happening. Eventually Bowerman and his co-conspirators got an English priest drunk enough to agree to conduct the service.

We can only imagine what Fanny’s mother went through.

When she found out where her daughter was, she sent four investigators to locate Fanny and bring her home. The investigators found her and, accompanied by three French Cavaliers, they took her away from Bowerman and returned her to her mother.

Bowerman appealed to court, claiming the only reason Fanny did not understand what had happened was because her mother gave her alcoholic drink and that the marriage should be considered legitimate. The court quickly rejected this ridiculous excuse after it became clear Fanny could not give logical answers about who she wanted to marry and how much property she owned.

Fanny’s mother reluctantly agreed to have her daughter declared an ‘idiot’ so she could have official guardianship of her and so legally protect her. She had not wanted to do this before “on account of her maternal affection and extreme tenderness for her daughter,” which meant she loved her so much she did not want to do something that might embarrass her.

The marriage was annulled. Fanny was returned to her mother who now had legal guardianship of her.

Thomas’ Story[2]

In 1780 a poor young skin-gatherer who worked in a London meat market appeared in court accused of taking part in a riot. Regularly teased by other boys, Thomas Baggott was accepted to be an ‘idiot’ who did not really understand the value of money and would do no work unless he had to.

Witnesses claimed he had been seen drunk helping destroy a house. Shocked by the level of violence in the riot the government encouraged harsh sentences. Thomas could be hanged. His life was at stake.

At Thomas’ trial six witnesses appeared in his defence, which included his workmates, his employer, his sister and his mother. Three other people provided character witness statements.

All the witnesses provided Thomas with alibis – claiming he had been with them at the time of the riot. The only thing consistent about the statements was that Thomas wasn’t at the riot. He couldn’t possibly have been with all the people who said he was with them at the same time!

The judge clearly knew this and warned the witnesses they could themselves get into trouble for perjury, which means lying to court. He told them to be careful. They did not change their stories with one saying “I am very careful, and very sure he was employed in the yard until dinner-time.”

It seems pretty clear Thomas had in fact taken part in the riot but the jury chose to go along with the stories and acquitted him. Thomas left court free and went back to his life in the community.

Thomas’ life was not perfect. He was teased and probably often treated badly. But when his life was at stake the people who knew him were willing to risk their own freedom to stop him being punished for committing a crime they knew he might not have really understood.

When push came to shove, he was one of their own.

[1] Simon Jarrett. Those They Called Idiots. The idea of the disabled mind from 1700 to the present day. Reaktion Books. 2020. P38

[2] Simon Jarrett. Those They Called Idiots. The idea of the disabled mind from 1700 to the present day. Reaktion Books. 2020. P46


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