Week 46: #52 Ancestors – Random Fact
By Eilene Lyon
“Benjamin Hull Jones, a native of Ohio, became dissipated, and by accident shot away a large portion of his face.”
I found that statement more random and shocking than anything I’ve come across in my decades of research. When I began examining the life of Dr. Benjamin H. Jones, I wasn’t aware of our family connection. He and his brother, Samuel Jones, are key figures in my gold rush story. Later, I discovered that they are my first cousins, four times removed.
From a Jones family member, who has a Bible transcript belonging to Benjamin and Samuel’s younger brother, William, I learned that Benjamin died in March 1864. Because he was a doctor, I began searching for personal information about him in county history books. They invariably profile doctors, lawyers, politicians, and prominent businessmen.
What I found was that single sentence at the top of this article. Nothing more. It led me to assume two things: He died from the gunshot and it was probably a suicide. Both assumptions proved to be incorrect.
I won’t give you Benjamin’s full story here – he is a central figure in my book – but I will tell you that his sad situation has seared my soul. As Walt Whitman put it, I wish to “discorrupt” him and rebuild his tragically exploded life. But we don’t get to resurrect the dead and fix their problems, anymore than we can change our own past.
Because of his role in procuring the funds, Benjamin H. Jones was the principal witness in a lawsuit against his brother, Samuel, and 15 other men. The suit arose from the debt they incurred to finance the trip to California.
On December 30, 1853, Benjamin gave a deposition in the case, because the parties in the suit thought he would die from his injuries. That is how I discovered when, where, and how the accidental gunshot occurred. When he surprisingly testified in court the following March, he detailed the damage to his face that he lived with for the 10 remaining years of his life.
After the Civil War, and later, after World War I, such facial deformities would become a regular sight, but it was probably uncommon in the 1850s. I randomly came across an essay that shed some light on what it must have been like for Benjamin and someone encountering him.
“In my neighborhood there walks a man who…has had the left side of his face blown away. Where features once were, a drape of flesh has been drawn. He is small, tidy, wears a cap, and through his walk and general demeanor gives an impression of thoughtfulness. The effect upon first seeing him is jolting. Life must be hard for him, and one wonders if he has ever grown inured to watching strangers recoil upon initial sight of him. But why is one jolted, why does one recoil? As much as from anything, I think it has to do with one’s inability to read his face. One cannot sense his mood or know what he is (even roughly) thinking – and the result is disconcerting in the extreme.”
I have never found any photos of Benjamin Jones. However, I do have photos of his sister, Rebecca, brother, William, and daughter, Lucetta:
Feature image: Home of Dr. Emma B. Lewis in Camden (now Pennville), Indiana, about 1880. Dr. Benjamin Jones lived in Camden, but never owned property there. He was a poor physician living in humble circumstances, probably something more like the modest building to the left of Dr. Lewis’s fine home. (H. H. Hardesty & Co. 1881)
Biographical and Historical Record of Jay and Blackford Counties, Indiana. 1887. The Lewis Publishing Co., Chicago. p. 210.
Epstein, Joseph. “About Face.” 1991. Published in The Oxford Book of Essays. Oxford University Press. p. 671.
Historical Hand-Atlas Illustrated, Containing…Twelve Farm Maps and History of Jay County, Indiana 1881. H. H. Hardesty & Co., Chicago and Toledo.
Makepeace v. Samuel Jones et al. 1851. Delaware County Circuit Court. Available online at Delaware County Record Image Search: http://digitalresource.munpl.org/default.asp?PageIndex=800