Monday, June 13, 2011

Death of a Hermit

A man "who lived inside himself"

I came across a rather sad story in a hundred-year-old issue of the Kentucky New Era:


One of the County's Most Eccentric Characters

Strange Boyd Griffey, of South Christian, Succumbs to Pneumonia

Boyd Griffey, a very eccentric character of near Howell, Ky., died a day or two ago. He was Southern Kentucky's hermit, says the Clarksville Chronicle.

He lived on a small farm within three miles of Howell, on the Clarksville and Princeton branch of the Louisville and Nashville, R.R., but there are persons of Howell who, it is said, have never seen this strange individual. Griffey never visited in the neighborhood in which he was so long a resident, and never allowed himself to be observed. Possibly this was the main cause of his death.

On November 3rd hard-working Democrats were making an endeavor to get all the voters to the polls possible, and the name of the old hermit, Griffey, was suggested. He was sent for and finally prevailed upon to come to the voting place and cast his ballot. But no one deemed it would be the last time he would ever venture from his humble home.

He contracted cold, which developed into pneumonia, and he died alone at his farm-house.

His age, nor anything connected with his life, except that he lived within himself, could be learned regarding this strange man.

Source: Weekly Kentucky New Era, page 3 of the November 27, 1896, edition.

I ran Boyd Griffey's name through the search engine on and found that he had lived in Christian County, KY, for over 65 years. His family tree shows that he had family all over this general area. It strikes me as untrue that "nothing could be learned regarding this strange man." Surely at least one of his many relatives remembered his existence? I think the newspaper writer was striving for dramatic effect.

George Griffey Sr. (Boyd's father) is listed on the 1840 census for Christian County, KY. In that census, only the name of the head of household was recorded, so we must use our powers of reason a little. The Griffey household included 9 white people and 7 slaves. The summary for the Griffey family included:
Free White Persons - Males - 10 thru 14: 1
Free White Persons - Males - 15 thru 19: 2
Free White Persons - Males - 20 thru 29: 4
Free White Persons - Males - 50 thru 59: 1
Free White Persons - Females - 50 thru 59: 1

Working from the birthdates given in the family tree, it's safe to say that Boyd Griffey was the "Free White Person - Male - 10 thru 14." The female between 50 and 59 years of age was certainly his mother, and most or all of the other six young men in the household were surely his brothers.

In 1850, the first census on which Boyd Griffey's name appears, he was 21 years old. The household was much smaller than in the previous census-- now only Boyd, his father (George Griffey, age 63) and his brother (George Griffey, age 26) were in the home. Boyd's mother had passed away. George Sr.'s occupation was reported as "Farmer", George Jr.'s occupation was "Overseer", and Boyd's occupation was "Schoolteacher."

Ten years later (1860 Federal census), Boyd and his brother George are listed as separate farmers, but side by side on the page, as if living in the same house. Both are still bachelors, and George Sr. has passed away. Between Boyd and George, they own 15 slaves.

An 1861 marriage record shows that George D. Griffey (age 38) married Catherine. A. Rives (age 23). A Rives family is in the neighborhood with the Griffeys on several of the census pages, so his bride may have been a neighbor girl. 

In the 1870 census, Boyd Griffey has several black people listed as members of his household -- Thomas Wall (age 62, farm worker), Ellen Griffey (age 12, domestic servant), Jack Griffey (age 10, farm worker), Anderson Griffey (age 17, farm worker), and Ben Griffey (age 7).  Kentucky was in a period of upheaval and transition following the Civil War, and child labor was common across the nation, but still, does this group of children strike you as unusual? I wonder what the circumstances were.

Following the listing for Boyd's household, Brother George was listed as the next household. He was the only member of his household -- no wife recorded. Information for several black families follows George's name. They were probably working on the Griffey farms.

In 1880, Boyd Griffey was alone in the Garretsburg township of Christian County. His fondness for solitude may have been deepening. The next two households on the page (his nearest neighbors) were families of black people who were probably living and working on his farm. Clearly, Boyd and his brother George had parted ways. George was listed in District 11 of the Garretsburg township, but Boyd was in District 16. This census notes that George was divorced and Boyd was widowed. I wonder if the latter was accurate.

 All but a few pages of the nation's 1890 census records were lost in a Treasury Department fire, so nothing is available for that year. By then, Boyd may have avoided the census taker anyway, if the newspaper article about his self-imposed isolation is to be believed.

It is a curious and sad thing how a young man capable of teaching school became a recluse as he aged.  Maybe he suffered from depression or a more severe form of mental illness. And it's ironic that his desire for solitude moved me to draw attention to him.

I now withdraw the spotlight. Rest in peace, Boyd Griffey.

"Solitude" by Louis Rémy Mignot (1831–1870)

In 1907, a Commissioner's Sale was announced for a property along the Palmyra Road that was "known as the Boyd Griffey farm." The sale settled an estate between members of the Thweatt family. Apparently, the Thweatts bought the Griffey farm after Boyd Griffey's death.


Collagemama said...


Patsy Stapp Tooley said...

Ran upon your blog thru our local Library web site just this morning. I am a big fan of our local library and also a member of the Friends of the Library. Anyway my comment is in the form of a question and statement. My mother was a Thweatt and was from the Camp Area as it was called . Do you have any first names for the Thweatt that purchased this land? Thanks-your blog is great .

patsy stapp tooley

Genevieve said...

Thanks for your note, Patsy. You can read the entire "Commissioner's Sale" notice at this link. That's all I know about it.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.