Welcome to Right Ancestor!

Welcome to Right Ancestor, a blog highlighting my genealogical research. This features information and exciting finds not only in my family tree, but in the family histories of my clients. I'll also share the weird coincidences, unsolved mysteries, and ruminations on generations past.

Sometimes in genealogical research, we find someone we think is related to us, only to find out later that they're not. Please visit Wrong Ancestor for a growing collection of
mistakes in genealogical research that could benefit others.

If you're interested in having me research your family history, please contact me at rightancestor@gmail.com.

Thank you,

The Gralla Family c.1907, Detroit, Michigan

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Village Idiot? What?

For a while now, I've suspected that this case in Scottish legal history, might be tied to my family tree and after further research, I'm almost certain it is.

My fifth-great-grandmother, Anne (Yoolow) Duncan (b. 1776) was the eldest sister of David Yoolow (1783-1855). According to their father's will, David was "weak of both mind and body". In the will, the middle child, Agnes (1778-1836), was charged with David's care and awarded a sum of money for his and her living expenses. Agnes died in August, 1836 and per the will, David was placed in the "care" of a group of "trustees". David Yoolow's nephew, 30-year-old Peter Duncan, brought a case against his uncle, David Yoolow. My comments are [in the brackets].

Here's an excerpt from the report:
29 December 1836:

"Mr. David Yoolow is a person of weak intellect: his mind is what it was when he was nine years of age. He never had any brothers, but he had two sisters, one of whom died in August last. [Agnes Yoolow] This sister was unmarried ; and she contrived to get her father, who was wealthy, to leave all his wealth to her, cutting off the other sister, who was married, with a mere pittance. Miss Yoolow went on accumulating money,—she retained the custody and keeping of David Yoolow,—and when she died, having conceived a most unnatural dislike to her sister and her family, [my 5th-great-grandmother, Anne (Yoolow) and her husband, James Duncan] she executed, on deathbed, a deed, leaving the custody of her weak brother to a pampered menial, and the management of the farms, and custody of the wealth, to strangers. This menial, and these strangers, are the parties at present in the charge of the farms and of the person of David Yoolow. Indeed, the menial has every thing at his disposal,while the sister and her family are treated as aliens and enemies to David Yoolow. Nay, the poor, weak man, has been made to believe that his own sister, the only relative he has in the world, (with the exception of her family,) is his devoted enemy.

These are the true state of the facts. The respondent is the son of David Yoolow's sister, and his nearest male agnate. David Yoolow is weak and fatuous, and the respondent has purchased and published a Brieve to have him declared so by a respectable Jury, so as he may have the custody of his weak uncle out of the hands of strangers. In such circumstances, do the ends of justice demand delay ?"

It's a strange read because David Yoolow is referred to as an "imbecile" and an "idiot" in a very plain, cold,legal sense. However, I know these words didn't hold the same meaning as they do today. Based on the descriptions of David Yoolow I've read here, his behavior appears consistent with that of a mentally-challenged person today. (Sorry to be "politically correct", but I'm not about to drop the "R" word. Besides, I don't know enough about those conditions to speculate a diagnosis.)

Dr. Christison was the first of the medical men examined for the claimant. He was of opinion, that Yoolow has " a great " degree of imbecility, and is unable to manage his affairs, and " of unsound mind."

Dr. Malcolm defined an idiot to be a person totally void of understanding, " but that (he said) did not apply to Yoolow's " case." He farther said, " Yoolow is a man of unsound mind, " and incapable of managing his affairs, and has no chance of " improvement."

Mr. Symmons, the Superintendent of the Perth Asylum, said, " He has the mind of a child, imbecile, and totally incapable of managing his affairs, and is of unsound mind."

Mr. James Miller: " I came to the conclusion, that he was a person of weak intellect, by which I mean of unsound mind."

Mr. George Andeeson : " A weak intellect, and imbecile mind, and not capable of buying and selling."

Mr. William Purves : " His mind imbecile, not capable of -' buying or selling, or of transacting business or managing his affairs."

Dr. James Anderson : " He is decidedly imbecile, but ca" pable of answering a simple question, but not an abstract one. " In the literal sense of the word, he is not of sound mind, but
"in the medical sense of the word as meaning insanity, it has no "application to Yoolow except when in a state of excitement; "fatuity is applicable to him.

Even supposing that this was the whole of the medical evidence, you will ask yourselves whether it amounts to a proof of fatuity and idiocy against Yoolow, or only to a partial derangement of the intellect, to which the brieve of fatuity and idiocy does not apply. You will also keep in your recollection the groundsfrom which those conclusions have been drawn, and judge whether some of the questions put, as observed by Yoolow's counsel, were or were not applicable to his limited state of knowledge and acquirements, considering the secluded manner hi which he had lived since he was a child of ten years of age, and to the deficiency in his education, considering that the Bible seems to have been the only book almost which he read, or was possessed of.

But the medical evidence does not rest there. Professional men, of equally high character, drew very opposite inferences.

Dr. John Argyle Robertson, who was first examined for Yoolow, said, "From Yoolow's want of experience, his attainments are limited. "Did the conclusion you came to, lead you to think that he was fatuous or an idiot ? " Quite the reverse. " By fatuity and idiocy, I understand the want of power to ac" quire knowledge." And the Doctor said that Yoolow possessed the power of acquiring knowledge.

Dr. Nimmo was decidedly of opinion that David Yoolow is neither an idiot, fatuous, nor non compos mentis.

In a larger context, this document demonstrates how words change their meaning over time.

In the end, Peter Duncan lost the case and David Yoolow died in April, 1855. In his will, he left nothing to his sister or her family. There are 135 pages of this report and I'll probably end up purchasing a hard copy of it. In the meantime, I'll continue reading up on the Yoolow/Duncan family at google books.


  1. A very interesting read. I'm very surprised that "being of unsound mind" that David was even allowed to make a will. Did perhaps Agnes have something in her will that stipulated that upon David's death nothing was to be left to Anne and family?

  2. Alana,
    Thanks for the comment. The phrase "unsound mind" came up frequently in the report especially in relation to memory (apparently DY had quite a good memory at least in terms of Biblical readings).

    Nonetheless, Agnes may have had some say in the will before she died. Of course, there's a 19-year gap between her death and his. However, I imagine the "trustees" had some influence on this, too. Thanks again for the post!