A troubled Sage

Courtesy of Colorado.ourcommunitynow.com.

In my mother’s house, there was a small placard stuck to the fridge near the breakfast nook. It was one of those silly magnets mom had probably picked up at Target a long time back, you know, before Y2K might have destroyed the world as we know it. A notion really, the placard was inscribed with one of those quasi-wise sayings that, along with our mother’s penchant for feeding all the neighborhood cats, spoke more about mom’s philosophy of life than she’d ever care to admit. The placard read:

“Insanity does not run in my family, rather it strolls through taking its time, getting to know everyone personally.”[1]

Now, I never paid a lot of attention to the placard, or its words. I always assumed it was just a funny ha-ha item that mom had posted in the kitchen for any of us naysayers to read as we made our way through to more important places like the actual refrigerator. I figured that any true familial insanity was, well, far beyond the scope of our own nondescript little bloodlines. After all, insanity is something for other people, right? Oh, sure, we’d probably had some good old “romantic insanity” somewhere back in the day, but even that surely had to be many generations removed from us. You know, like the mad duke who fell in love with a farm girl and took her away to the South Seas? Nah, insanity’s fickle quill wouldn’t have dared to mark us in any other way than this… Yeah, right.

Oh, sure, we’d probably had some good old “romantic insanity” somewhere back in the day, but even that surely had to be many generations removed from us.

Now, my mother’s family: well, they were the Jedi masters of keeping secrets.[2] Their familial sequestering of the truth has always been problematic for me, as, like most of us here, I am wont to shake out any “loose change” from the old family tree. But I have to tell you, I really didn’t even go looking for it – for insanity that is; instead, it decided to come looking for me. (Hey, no wise cracks … please!) You see, while endeavoring to take a closer look at the lives (and secrets!) of the siblings of my great-grandfather, Samuel Silas Sage, insanity stumbled upon me.[3] The truth is, I’d been so vain and full of myself that I hadn’t bothered to take a closer look at one of Sam’s brothers, one John P.H. Sage.[4] And, yes, there it was – insanity.

Hey, now, I’m not a total loser – I mean, I had recorded most of Uncle John’s vitals, but I must admit I had sort of skipped past the whole of his life, relying too heavily on Genealogical Record of the Descendants of David Sage… in looking for old Uncle John.[5] (Sorry, Alicia!) I mean after all, John P.H. Sage wasn’t so far removed from us – so, surely, if there was any notable issue worth recalling – somebody would have said something, right? Or would they? I resolved that I needed to take a closer look.

Right off the bat there was an issue with old Uncle Johnny Sage.

Right off the bat there was an issue with old Uncle Johnny Sage. Could I be seeing his residence correctly? The U.S. Federal Census Record (1910) showed “John Sage” living at the Colorado State Insane Asylum? Okay, so maybe 1910 was a tough year – we’ve all have bad years, right? Maybe Uncle John was just a little down on his luck. Heck, everybody went into the “insane asylum” for literally everything in those days. It was like an Airbnb or a home away from home.[6] No worries! Let’s see what Johnny’s up to in 1920 and 1930. (Uh-oh, no change….) Yikes! Maybe I have the wrong “John Sage?”

So I took a look further back… (It’s what we do, huh?) But old Johnny Sage had gone missing in 1900 – truant from his wife and kids. This is never a good sign. His wife, the possibly quite amiable Sarah (Rishling) Sage, is enumerated as a “widowed” head of household living with her two sons, one from a previous “relationship,” and one, the heir apparent of my Uncle John Sage.[7] (It always sucks when a woman felt compelled to claim “widowed” on the census to placate society over a crazy husband.) Still, just maybe I have the wrong John Sage?

Nope – no such luck. A quick look at John and Sarah’s marriage record tells me I have the right guy.[8] Dang it, so much for the mad duke running away with the farm girl to the South Seas. But, Johnny, just what the heck did you do? So I took a stroll down memory lane, and returned to one of my favorite places, the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection, to see if maybe they might tell me a little bit more about what had happened to John Sage.

Well, there’s nothing like one’s name in bold type newsprint! Never let it be said that when my family “does insane,” well, that they go big or they don’t go home. (No pun intended.) But there was old John in the newspapers on trial for assault to commit murder.[9] The sad part (for me) here is that John just seems to have totally lost it – firing a gun into someone’s home –  someone that he appears to have possibly concocted a grudge against – and perhaps against someone he didn’t even know all that well. And by this, through a jury of his peers, John Sage lets himself become one of the very definitions of insanity.[10]

So I guess I’ve learned that no family is excluded from the insanity factor; indeed, that it may lurk a bit more closely than what we might otherwise prefer. I’ve also learned, too, that the siblings of those older generations (and those not so far removed) really do tell a very full story. And, yes, I’ve learned to not just accept “by rote” the listing of vital records that may or may not tell too much of their story. In the end I don’t know what more to think about John Sage – a great-uncle who would have been a contemporary of Sage family members I knew growing up. Perhaps if they hadn’t been so masterful at keeping secrets, well, maybe we might have at least been able to understand something more about the life of John Sage. But, hey, in this family, insanity or not, when it comes to keeping secrets … we are nothing if not Jedi masters.


[1] Quotation attributed to Daynda Jones, Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012).

[2] Jeff Record, “White lies,” Vita Brevis, 31 May 2017.

[3] Samuel Silas Sage (1863–1947).

[4] John P.H. Sage (1854–1936).

[5] Elisha Sage, Genealogical Record of the Descendants of David Sage… (Batavia, N.Y., 1919), 31.

[6] “Airbnb” refers to Airbnb, Inc., a vacation home rental company headquartered in San Francisco.

[7] John Frederick Sage (1884–1947).

[8] Nebraska, Marriage Records, 1855–1908, Ancestry.com, for marriage of “Jno P.H. Sage to “Miss Sarah Rishling” on 8 March 1883.

[9] Colorado Historic Newspapers Collections, The Weekly Courier, Fort Collins, Colorado, 16 September 1903.

[10] Colorado Historic Newspapers Collections, The Weekly Courier, 9 March 1904.

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

27 thoughts on “A troubled Sage

  1. loved your post – lots of humor. Found a 3rd greatgrandparent listed “insane” in a census. Makes you wonder what that actally meant back then..

      1. I am a direct descendant of David Sage and Richard Warren.
        Very interesting information to add to my tree, when I get back up that way.


  2. It reminds us that ‘dysfunction ‘ is not a new event in many families, just a modern word to describe it. In my family, ferreting out the truth helps explain a lot of ‘oddities’.

  3. I spent about four years during the 1960’s living at Boston State Hospital. Fortunately, I was one of the ones wearing whites and carrying keys!

  4. I had two in-law second great aunts who spent the last (10 -40) years of their lives in the Milwaukee Insane Hospital, one after incidents reported in local newspaper. It seems Mary went on a rage (my words) and the cops were called and took her away. After jail and a hearing (have never found this hearing record). She spent the rest of her life there. My guess is a husband too fond of drink and “discipline “, too many children in short period of years and not enough resources or support, she just finally had enough and flipped out. My guess is based on family reports of spouse and child abuse even 3 generations later. Is this genetic or societal, or learned, or a combo of patterns? May Mary finally have found peace. She rests in same cemetery plat with husband who predeceased her by 20+ years. No obit found for either of them.

    1. Janet, Your comment really hit home for me. I’m so sorry to hear about your Mary – I wish I had some kind of a better answer to your question:

      “Is this genetic or societal, or learned, or a combo of patterns?”

      Whatever the reason, there seems no excuse to treat the ones we supposedly love with such cruelty – and then to keep them locked away in secret and in the dark.

      I too hope Mary found some peace –

  5. I, too, am descended from David Sage. My great great grandmother was Chloe Sage Lees. She was the daughter of Stephen Sage. They were from Sandisfield, MA. There is some insanity in this family. I would like to exchange information with you. Carol

  6. My 2nd great grandmother was at the asylum in Pueblo. This happened after her divorce in the 1890’s. The newspaper said she was not a danger to others but to her reputation. So they took her off the streets. Put her remaining minor child in care of the county. She lived there until she died in 1931, being there almost 40 years. Some years ago I was able to get her intake papers and some nursing notes from them.

    1. Roger, I have always been a danger to my own reputation – I hope you’ll forgive me for saying so! And, I hope your great-great grandmother, well, that she gave ’em Hell! It seems the least one can do after being confined without resolution for more than a generation…..Roger, thanks for your note.

  7. Jeff once again you have inthralled me. I realy do need to get off my duff and start researching again. I will say you have inspired me.
    Did the Sage family cross the Lee or Evans family? Seems very likely.

    Thank You for publishing the above and for sharing.
    Cousin Joann

  8. Another sad story of insanity. Excerpts from a long article in the Lincoln County Daily Courier, Lincoln, Logan, Co., IL, 7 Mar. 1904:

    Eliza Pierce, Once One of the Prominent and Prosperous Women of the County Suicides.

    “Between 6 and 7 o’clock Saturday night, on the steps of Coroner Boyen’s office, on Pulaski street, an elderly and portly woman was seen swallowing something taken from a paper.”
    The substance was strychnine.

    “For years her mind was affected and she lived in various places and was morose and despondent.. She was an inmate of St. Clara’s hospital for a long time, then lived for brief periods with old acquaintances who could not keep her, as she was a burden, being blind and so old she was no longer able to work. . . The deceased had a horror of becoming an inmate of the county house and repeatedly declared she would commit suicide rather than go there and she kept her word.”

    Eliza (Horn) Pierce had been married to Hiram L. Pierce for 20 years and had four children. He divorced her in 1881 claiming she had an affair with his brother, Milo Pierce. However, I believe this accusation may have possibly been made up for getting out of the marriage since Hiram’s brother can be documented as being in southern New Mexico at the time of the alleged affair. Hiram and Milo were brothers of my Great Grandfather Sherman Pierce. What amazing stories we find in our research!

    1. Carole – What a tale you have here in Eliza Pierce! Yes, indeed what amazing stories we find in our research. I think the only thing we can do is to make sure that people like Eliza Pierce and John Sage get to have their stories told, regardless of their circumstances, or how society may or may not have percieved them to be.

      Many thanks for helping me to learn about your Eliza!

  9. When I decided to check state census records as well as federal for a pair of my great great grandparents about whom I didn’t know much, I found my 2 greats grandmother Melinda
    (after whom I’m named) listed as insane and living in an asylum.) Total surprise and totally unmentioned in family lore.

  10. I love your writing style and story! I found one great-grandfather in a Poorhouse in Scotland (actually, he had been in and out of it over the course of 5 or 6 years). Despite efforts and contact with folks on the ground there, I don’t know why he was institutionalized. (Sick, ill, drunks, troublemakers, and just poor were residents, I guess.) There are rumors that he was a drunk – and/or that he fell out of a window of the institution – but I can’t substantiate. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1912. But in the 1911 census, his wife claimed he was already deceased. I was so sad to see that he has an unmarked grave near the poorhouse. And I don’t know if family attended his funeral/burial – though they were notified. Gee, I guess this is a sad story!

  11. My husband and I found my husband’s great granduncle, James A. Claxton, in the 1900 DC census living at the Government Hospital for the Insane (now St. Elizabeth’s). Looking into the records at the National Archives, we discovered that James had been there since 1889 and had died there in 1902. In addition, his wife, Emily, had also been admitted in 1889 and died there shortly thereafter. She is buried on the grounds. Equity cases in the Supreme Court of DC (also at the National Archives) described “lunacy hearings,” at which both James and Emily were declared lunatics, and that they had a 6 year old son, also named James A. Claxton. Later we found a newspaper report from 1889 that stated that James, wife and child were found in bad condition on the street in DC by a police officer. The family was turned over to a Sanitary Officer, who sent the parents to the Almshouse and the child to Children’s Hospital. Going over this several years later, I wondered about the son–had he survived? Was he also mentally ill? After several months I learned that young James had been informally adopted by the superintendent of the Industrial Home School in DC and had joined the Navy at the age of 14. He had a successful Navy career, with no sign of mental illness in his military records. I was so glad he had survived a very difficult childhood.

  12. I always enjoy your posts, but this one especially, as it strikes close to home and made me laugh. Thanks for outing your Jedi masters!

  13. Jeff, is this family part of the family my grandfather, Ernest Payne, married in to?
    Kathryn White

  14. Loved it. Kept waiting for the punchline to be that WP Bosworth was the father of the child from ‘another relationship.’ Might want to dig a little deeper on that angle… just sayin!

    1. Jennifer, Actually, John Sage believed that Mr. Bosworth had poisoned Sage’s horses – and given the time and location of this alleged crime (and the importance of horses to one’s livelihood) it almost makes sense why John lost it….
      Jennifer, many thanks for your sleuthing ideas here on John’s “issues!” I appreciate it.

  15. Reviewing the comments made me remember a “joke” from a long ago younger years: “A business man has a flat tire outside the grounds of an insane asylum which he proceeds to change, all the while noticing an inmate standing at the fence watching the tire changing event. The man is at the stage of replacing the stud-nuts and notices he missing a few lug nuts He has a tantrum and exclaims he doesn’t know what to now, he can’t drive away – the tire will fall off The inmate still watching says, “Why don’t you alternate the lug nuts and you will have enough to hold the tire on to drive away. Seeing no alternative, the businessman proceeds to to do this, sees that it is workable and thanks the inmate saying he didn’t think a crazy person would know this and the inmate says, “Well, I may be crazy, but I am not stupid”.

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