Cause of Death: Exhaustion from Dementia Praecox

What originally caught my attention about Jesse Johnson’s tombstone at Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery was that he died on his 34th birthday in 1929. If you look closely, his death certificate reports his year of birth as 1897, but because census and draft cards also report his birth as being in 1895 I believe the tombstone to be correct.

Jesse’s parents were Seth A. Johnson, a farm laborer, and Helen Price Johnson. In 1900, Jesse and his parents lived in a rented home in Clayton, North Carolina, just outside of Raleigh. Jesse was an only child although according to the census, Helen had given birth twice. (I couldn’t find any information on the deceased/stillborn child.)

 Jesse’s draft card from 1917-1918, which was difficult to read, tells us that when he was 21 he worked at the Raleigh Cotton Mills Company. (In 1996 the former textile mill went condo.)

Jesse had one sister, he was described as “tall,” and either had black hair and brown eyes or brown hair and black eyes. I looked at other draft cards from the same county to see if I could sort that detail out, but they were all in the same barely legible condition.

The next piece of information about Jesse is his death certificate issued in October 1929.  His cause of death was listed as “Exhaustion from course of Dementia Praecox” and he died at the State Hospital after being institutionalized for “5 years, 4 months, and 4 days.” How he ended up dying on his birthday is probably just a bizarre and unfortunate coincidence.

Dementia praecox was a term coined by Emil Kraepelin in the late 19th century and used to describe a set of symptoms and behaviors which would later be reclassified as schizophrenia. Dementia praecox usually presented itself between the late teenage years and early adulthood and those diagnosed with the condition faced a rapid and progressive deterioration of emotional and cognitive abilities.  There were many symptoms associated with dementia praecox, and a fairly detailed list can be found here.  Jesse Johnson may have experienced any combination of those symptoms, which included poor impulse control, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, catatonia, and antisocial behavior. Because he was institutionalized in his late twenties it’s probably safe to say that however his mental illness manifested, it prevented him from being able to function independently in society.

Original image housed by the Library of Congress

Reading about the history of the asylum, also called the Dorothea Dix Hospital, it seems as though Jesse was a patient there in 1926 when a fire consumed nine of the wards and the main building. It must have been quite a scene, with at least 400 patients evacuated and the National Guard’s presence to maintain order.

Without knowing how severe Jesse’s condition was it’s impossible to say what his daily life at the asylum was like. Patients had access to movies, an “Amusement Hall,” tennis courts, and dancing “lessons” from staff. Music was considered a powerful treatment for psychiatric symptoms. I sincerely hope that Jesse’s final years were filled more with music than darkness.

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