The pernicious habit

An habitual inebriate

She’d been a belle of the Confederacy, without any doubt.

320px-Opium_poppyShe was the child of southern privilege, who continued a life of relative ease even during and after the Civil War.

It’s that combination that most likely killed her.

And it’s certainly that combination that got her name in the court records of Mississippi.

Frances A. “Fannie” Swoope was born in Alabama in 1837.1 Her mother Frances Saunders had married, first, Matthew Clay, a son of a Virginia Congressman; then on his death she married Fannie’s father Jacob Swoope, son of another Virginia Congressman; and on his death she married Col. Thomas Billups of Columbus, Mississippi.2

Fannie married Richard E. Moore in Lowndes County, Mississippi, on 6 August 1857.3 By 1860, she had a young child — a daughter, Sarah,4 who did not survive.5

The Civil War swept through Mississippi and the rest of the nation in the decade that followed. Fannie’s husband served as a cavalry officer in the forces of the Confederacy,6 but survived to return home. The couple appears in the 1870 census with two more children, a 10-year-old son, Edward, and an eight-year-old daughter, Frances, in the town of Columbus, Lowndes County.7 They had another child, Jacob, born in 1870.8

And by 1880 she was dead. The cause of death listed in the federal census mortality schedule was consumption,9 but there’s likely another cause — at least contributing to her death.

Fannie was addicted to opium.

And we know that because, on the 8th of August 1873, three of Fannie’s brothers went to the Chancery Court in Lowndes County and asked a judge to lock her up in a last-ditch attempt to save her life.

The brothers, Matt Clay, Charles C. Swoope and J.S. Billups — one from each of her mother’s marriages — told the court that:

…their sister Fannie A Moore wife of Richard E Moore is a citizen of (Lowndes) County & is now residing at the home of her husband in the city of Columbus … That said Fannie A Moore for many years past has been the unfortunate victim of and sufferer from Opium Eating, a habit contracted in severe sickness, and being injudiciously prolonged has been hopelessly fastened upon her appetite. That like all persons similarly afflicted with the depraved taste for opium she has of late acquired a taste for Alcoholic Stimulants which indulged in by her in connection with said opium has made serious & alarming inroads upon her health, and the undersigned believe that her life will be sacrificed thereby unless she is subjected to such scientific treatment as will cure her of said pernicious habits. That the undersigned as well as the devoted mother and attached husband of the said Fannie have from time to time used all proper means at their command to regulate her said infirmity, but that they have been utterly unable to effect any permanent relief. That recently the passion for said stimulants has so far overpowered her will that she has acquired a fixed habit of inebriation from which they do not believe her able to reform unless with the assistance of the means used in modern asylums for inebriates which are scientifically arranged for such cases.10

The brothers were men of substance. Matt Clay was a physician in nearby Noxubee County,11 Charles Swoope a wealthy planter from neighboring Lawrence County, Alabama,12 and James S. Billups the surviving son of Thomas C. Billups, a well-respected local politician who’d been a member of the 1866 Mississippi Constitutional Convention.13

And on the 12th of August 1873, the Chancellor of the 5th District, Theodore C. Lyon, signed an order committing Fannie to the custody of the Pennsylvania Asylum at Philadelphia “until her cure and reformation or until the further order of (the) Chancery Court.”14

The brothers were able to ask for the order — and the court to grant it — because the law in Mississippi had just changed. Until April of 1873, the only persons who could be involuntarily confined were those who were insane: the “lunatics, idiots and persons non compos mentis” in the language of the law. But in 1873, the Mississippi Legislature amended the statute and allowed the Chancery Courts to take the same actions for habitual drunkards as for the insane: they could appoint guardians for their persons and property15 — and those powers included locking them up for their own good.

Was Fannie really a drunkard, in addition to being an opium addict? The records don’t say more. It’s possible that alleging alcohol, in addition to opium, was simply a means to the end of bringing Fannie under the umbrella of the law — which only reached the drunkard, not the drug addict.

Was Fannie ever cured? The records don’t say that either. All we know for certain is that Fannie was just a month short of her 43rd birthday when she died in February 1880. She was home, then, in Lowndes County, when she died, and the cause listed was consumption16 — a term usually used at the time for tuberculosis, but which really meant any wasting away of the body.17

What stories… what sad stories… court records can tell…


SOURCES

Image: Opium poppy, by SuperFantastic, CC BY 2.0 license

  1. Friendship Cemetery, Lowndes County, Mississippi, Frances A Swoope Moore marker; digital image, Find A Grave (http://findagrave.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014).
  2. James Edmonds Saunders, Early Settlers of Alabama, Part I (New Orleans: L. Graham & Son, 1899), 359; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014).
  3. Moore-Swoope, “Mississippi Marriages, 1776-1935,” database and index, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014).
  4. 1860 U.S. census, Lowndes County, Mississippi, Columbus, population schedule, p. 158 (penned), dwelling 1128, family 1143, R E Moore household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 586.
  5. Friendship Cemetery, Lowndes County, Mississippi, Sallie Lou Moore marker; digital image, Find A Grave (http://findagrave.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014).
  6. See Friendship Cemetery, Lowndes County, Mississippi, Richard E Moore marker; digital image, Find A Grave (http://findagrave.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014).
  7. 1870 U.S. census, Lowndes County, Mississippi, Columbus, population schedule, p. 259A (stamped), dwelling 1099, family 1552, R E Moore household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 738.
  8. 1880 U.S. census, Lowndes County, Mississippi, Columbus, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 97, p. 209C (stamped), dwelling 45, family 104, Jacob Moore; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 655. See also Friendship Cemetery, Lowndes County, Mississippi, Jacob Swoope Moore marker; digital image, Find A Grave (http://findagrave.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014).
  9. F. A. Moore, 1880, Lowndes County, MS, “U.S., Federal Census Mortality Schedules Index, 1850-1880,” database and index, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014). See also Friendship Cemetery, Lowndes County, Mississippi, Frances A Swoope Moore marker.
  10. Lowndes County, Mississippi, Chancery Court, In re Moore, Inebriate, Case No. 1762, petition 8 Aug 1873; digital images, “Mississippi, Probate Records, 1781-1930,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 1 Jan 2014).
  11. 1870 U.S. census, Noxubee County, Mississippi, Township 16, population schedule, p. 201A (stamped), dwelling 497, family 502, Dr Matt Clay; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 743.
  12. 1870 U.S. census, Lawrence County, Alabama, Township 5 Range 7, population schedule, p. 69B (stamped), dwelling 25, family 26, Charles Swoope; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 22.
  13. See “Lowndes County Church Histories,” Mississippi Genealogy Trails (http://genealogytrails.com/miss : accessed 1 Jan 2014).
  14. Lowndes County, Mississippi, Chancery Court, In re Moore, Inebriate, Case No. 1762, order, 12 Aug 1873.
  15. “AN ACT to amend Article eleven, of Chapter nine of the Revised Code of Mississippi,” 17 April 1873, in Laws of the State of Mississippi, … 1873 (Jackson, Mississippi: Kimball, Raymond, State Printers, 1873), 61-62; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014).
  16. F. A. Moore, 1880, Lowndes County, MS, “U.S., Federal Census Mortality Schedules Index, 1850-1880,” database and index, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 Jan 2014).
  17. Donna Przecha, “Breaking the Medical Code: Understanding Outdated Medical Terminology,” Genealogy.com (http://www.genealogy.com/ : accessed 1 Jan 2014).
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8 Responses to The pernicious habit

  1. Candace Gray says:

    Judy, what a great piece!
    The cemeteries in and around Columbus were a favorite of Eudora Welty. She was a great photographer as well as a great writer. Mississippi is a great place to do research. As a graduate of Mississippi University for Women, and a teacher in the area for some years, I came to love this place.

  2. Kat says:

    Was Fannie sent to prison or to an asylum? This is a tragic story.
    My grandmother told me of drugs that doctors prescribed in the 1890′s and early 1900′s. She didn’t like giving them to her children.

  3. Rondina says:

    Although the asylum may have stopped the opium habit, I doubt that being sent to Philadelphia from Mississippi helped her mental state. The point of your post wasn’t to demonstrate Fannie’s sad, seemingly hopeless, life—but to point out that taking the time to investigate court records on everyone we research is an important research step. I have a question, however.

    Court records are normally voluminous. The indexes, if they exist, don’t normally contain witnesses. (At least those I’ve dealt with.) Sometimes the records for some acts, say the designation of roads, road crews, and tavern licenses, are in separate volumes. These do not take an inordinate amount of time to read if legible. My practice has been to look at the indexes in books covering cases (which may contain errors or omissions) and do page by page searches if I believe there is an event that may have occurred within a window of time. Considering that I am using my client’s money to do so, would you recommend a different research practice? (I will qualify this by saying that there are exceptions to this habit, of course.)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The only thing I’d add to that, Rondina, in terms of genealogical best practices is ensuring that the researcher is aware of, and consistently uses, any word-searchable tools that may exist for a particular time and place. An example would be a set of published court opinions that have been digitized by one of the big services like Google Books, HathiTrust or Internet Archive. That may provide a lead back into a specific set of court records. But otherwise the index followed by the page-by-page-in-a-time-window is usually the only way to go.

  4. Laura says:

    What a story! And so masterfully told, thank you for sharing.

  5. Great post, my guess would be that Fannie would have taken the opium because is a cough suppressant. She would have done that to counteract the constant coughing from the TB.

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