Sylvester Scovil left home when his son was a baby and never returned or communicated with his family.

Sylvester Scovil’s life appears to have begun normally enough.  He was born November 20, 1821, into an old and respected New England family.  His father, Sylvester Scovil Sr., was a descendant of John Scovell, who had arrived in the New World, almost certainly from England, sometime before his marriage in 1666.  In 1686 the family was settled in Haddam, Connecticut.  Sylvester’s mother, Phoebe Burr, was from an equally old and established family.

Sylvester was the middle child of seven, three boys and four girls.  All of his siblings remained near home all their lives, the most adventuresome having only strayed as far as nearby Middletown.  The records indicate that Sylvester was on a similarly respectable path:  He was a farmer, a teacher, and a captain in the state militia.  He also held several public offices, including justice of the peace and delegate to the state Democratic convention, while he was still in his twenties.

Two of Sylvester’s first cousins, Daniel and Hezekiah Scovil, founded the D & H Scovil Manufacturing Company, famous for its hoes and other metal work, and a pillar of the Haddam area.

I became interested in Sylvester Scovil while researching the story of Phoebe’s Quilt.  Phoebe L. Scovil, the owner of the quilt, was Sylvester’s sister.  Two other sisters, and their mother, were signers of the quilt, as was Sylvester’s wife, three of her sisters, and her mother.

On June 7, 1854, Sylvester married Frances Louisa Bonfoey, the daughter of Benanuel Bonfoey and Eliza Burr.  He was 32 years old, and she 23.  Seventeen months later, on November 12, 1855, their only child, Sylvester Eugene Scovil, was born.  A few months after that, Sylvester disappeared.

We know nothing of why, nor how, other than the above quotation from Homer Worthington Brainard’s A Survey of the Scovils or Scovills in England and America : Seven Hundred Years of History and Genealogy.  The implication is that his departure was intentional, though Brainard offers no evidence that he did not meet with an unknown accident or foul play.

Becoming a parent changes people.  Most, thankfully, take a leap forward in maturity.  Some, however, cannot handle their new responsibilities.  Was Sylvester one of them?  Did he begin to manifest the mental illness that apparently plagued him later in life?  He might even have been a homosexual who could no longer face pretending to live a normal life.  Or maybe he was just plain mean and selfish.  If there was another woman involved, no evidence of that has yet surfaced.

Sylvester’s family—his wife, his son, his widowed mother and his three living siblings—never knew what happened to him.  He was there, and then he was not.  Was he dead?  Was he alive, a villain who had deserted his family when they needed him most?  Or had he been, perhaps, the victim of an attack that left him with amnesia?  Such things have happened.

His mother lived another 30 years not knowing her son’s fate.  Frances never remarried, remaining in the shelter of her own extended family to raise her son.  She died on January 12, 1897, and on her gravestone she is memorialized as “Frances L. Bonfoey, wife of Sylvester Scovil.”  Fatherless Sylvester Eugene grew up in the shelter of his mother’s family, then married Eva Luella Burr and had four children.  They moved to Bridgeport, but when he died age of 76 he was buried back home in Haddam.



As difficult as it must have been to be left with so many unanswered questions, was this family better off not knowing what I learned about the remainder of Sylvester’s life?

It’s almost 1400 miles between Haddam, Connecticut and Grasshopper Falls, Kansas (now called Valley Falls), where Sylvester Scovil next appears.  He shows up in 1856, as recorded in the Kansas territorial census, and is still there in the 1860 Federal census, listed as a farmer. (I will spare you the details of how I sorted him out from all the other Sylvester Scovilsand Scovills, Scovels, Scovilles, Schovilles, etc.)

The next 15 years are still a mystery, as I found nothing more until 1876, when he showed up almost 1600 miles further on, in Walla Walla, Washington.  He seems to have evaded the 1870 census, which is not surprising considering he would have been crossing through territories that would not achieve statehood for several more years.

What was Sylvester doing in Washington?  Did he lead a normal life before breaking into the headlines?

From the Walla Walla Weekly Statesman of May 27, 1876:

Crazy Man.—Some months since we had occasion to notice the mysterious conduct of a man who imagined he seen [sic] spirits, and entered private houses for the purpose of interviewing these messengers from the unknown regions.  At that time he occasioned considerable alarm, and the propriety of sending him to the insane asylum was seriously discussed.  His insanity, for such it undoubtedly is, quieted down, and for several months he passed along our streets moody, but apparently harmless.  Yesterday morning, however, he seemed to have a new attack of his complaint, and entering O’Brien’s Hotel, he rushed up stairs, and without ceremony entering the rooms, occasioned serious alarm.  Many of the ladies were awakened from their slumbers to confront a wild, crazy man, and the shrieks that followed can better be imagined than described.  The poor unfortunate was at once placed under arrest, and as soon as the necessary hearing can be had before Judge Guichard, he will be sent to the insane asylum.

From the following issue, June 3, 1876:

A Monomaniac.—We made notice in the last issue of the Statesman, that a man, whose name has been ascertained to be Sylvester Scoville, had been arrested for mysterious conduct, supposed to be insanity.  Last Saturday this man was brought before the Probate Court for examination as to his isanity [sic].  Doctors Bingham and Burch were called in to conduct the medical examination, and pronounced Scoville a monomaniac on the subject of spiritualism.  He is otherwise quite rational.  The unfortunate man was born in Connecticut, and is about 54 years old.  The Probate Court, upon the written certificate of the physicians, adjudged him insane and dangerous to be at large, and placed him in the custody of Sheriff Thomas, to be by him conveyed to the asylum for the insane at Steilacoom.

Census records show that Sylvester remained in the asylum, now called Western State Hospital, from 1876 until his death on March 10, 1888.  He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Western State Hospital Memorial Cemetery, near Tacoma.

Two more articles from the Walla Walla Weekly Statesman indicate that Sylvester’s mental instability was not the worst of his problems:

May 27, 1876:

Insane Asylum.—Dr. Sparling, of Seattle, has been appointed superintendent of the insane asylum.  We are not acquainted with the new superintendent, but if he is not an improvement upon the late incumbent, Hill Harmon, then he is a worthless cuss.  For years the insane asylum has been a disgrace to the territory, and we can only hope that under the new management it may be something more than a slaughter-pen for the unfortunates who are bereft of reason.

July 14, 1877

Walla Walla Insane.—Dr. Willard, physician in charge, reports the following persons sent from Walla Walla county as now under treatment at the Insane Asylum:  Noah Isham, Elizabeth Pitcher, Matt W. McDermott, James Atcherson, Mary Dougherty, John Crow, Sylvester Scoville.  Strangely enough when Dr. Willard took charge of the hospital he found these patients, but no record of their previous history or any information in regard to the peculiarities of each particular case.  Such carelessness in the management of a public institution amounts to a crime, and shows that Hill Harmon was kicked out of the hospital none too soon.

We can hope that conditions improved under the new management during Sylvester's stay, but at best it would have further broken the hearts of his family back in Connecticut.  It's worth noting, however, that despite whatever sins were committed by or against him, despite the difficulties of pioneer life, despite illness and probable abuse, Sylvester outlived all but one of his six siblings.  Phoebe, the quilt owner, survived him by 24 years.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 13, 2015 at 7:17 am | Edit
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Great detective work and post! This should go on Vita Brevis.

Posted by Eric on Thursday, August 13, 2015 at 6:30 pm

Thanks, Eric.

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, August 13, 2015 at 8:40 pm

That is pretty interesting. Sad, but interesting.

I'm itching to get back to it. After the trip to Ireland and meeting the people who live on the old Harvey homestead, I dug up Frazer Harvey's will. Confirmed the children I had listed from another person.

Posted by dstb on Sunday, August 16, 2015 at 2:22 pm

Wow, I had no idea about this. I am Ben Scovil, son of Glenn Harmon Scovim, who is son of Harmon Sylvester Scovil, who was son of Wilton Burr Scovil, who was son of Sylvester Eugene Scovil, who was son of evidently the man this story is written about. I guess that makes me Sylvester's great great great grandson. My father knew nothing of this and my grandfather Harmon never told me of it, he died at age 90 in 2007 in Wallingford. To my knowledge, I am the last male in this line of Scovil geneology. Can anyone let me know if I am right or not? I think it is really sad what Sylvester did here, I can't believe he went from CT to WA. Thank you so much for your research.

Best Regards,
Ben Scovil
Concord NC, age 25.

Posted by Benjamin Scovil on Wednesday, October 28, 2015 at 5:06 pm

This is exciting, Ben; thank you for writing. I will do a some more looking around to see if I can find more about Sylvester Eugene Scovil and his descendants.

Posted by SursumCorda on Wednesday, October 28, 2015 at 6:37 pm

As far as I've been able to determine, Ben, you are indeed the last male in Sylvester Scovil's line. Sylvester, as far as we know, had just the one son, Sylvester Eugene Scovil. Sylvester Eurgene had four children (Frances, Harry, Wilton,and Eva) only two of which carried on the Scovil name. Harry had one daughter. Apparently Harmon was Wilton's only son—you would know better than I, but I have only been able to find one, Harmon Sylvester. Harmon, I believe, had two children, a girl and a boy (Beverly and Glenn). Unless you have a brother, that makes you the last of the original Sylvester's line—unless you have a son yourself.

Have you done any genealogy research? If you do poke around on, you might find a line that gives Sylvester Eugene Scovil's parents as Hezekiah and Caroline Anne (Bonfoey) Scovil. That is wrong. Caroline was Sylvester Eugene's aunt. He was also related to Hezekiah, but more distantly (first cousin once removed).

If you want to continue this conversation privately, you can e-mail me at this address.

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, October 31, 2015 at 10:10 pm
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