I was happily informed the other day by my dear friend Sue that one of my blog articles was used as a citation in a recent Crossroads article. The article was Reconstructing a Life from Biographical Fragments: Oliver Dresser, Who Hails from Maine by J.H. Fonkert. It referenced my previous blog post about my 3rd great-grandfather, Jesse Archer, who appeared in the 1870 census as a “loafer” and what that occupation could possibly mean, historically speaking. Reading his article made me think that I should write a follow-up since I have new records and information on Jesse since I wrote that post years ago.
In that original blog post, I referred to an article that was sent to me by Genealogy Jen that explained loafer was an idle person – a term used for those out of work twelve months or more. She also talked about other articles she’d read and how it could be a term for alcoholics and “it was a widespread issue after the devastation of the Civil War” while pointing out that many soldiers who came home were never the same afterward.
Some months ago, I received Jesse’s pension file from NARA and I wrote a post but it was mostly about his daughter, my grandmother Esther’s signature on one of his forms. His pension was a hefty 268 pages! Excited and full of anticipation, I jumped into the PDF hoping to find some wonderful insights and clues to Jesse’s life but all I found was crap… literally. Jesse’s pension was just chock full of his complaints stemming from his painful bouts of severe, chronic diarrhea and the malnourishment that he claimed started with his service and that interfered with his life so badly that he could not work.
Jesse had his own family physician who backed up his claims but the government sent him to their doctor who, of course, was not supportive and called Jesse a “fraud” despite the fact that he went from 120 pounds down to 86 pounds in a matter of a few months. He also had quite a few testimonials from friends and neighbors discussing his painful condition and verified that he could not work except for short bouts. Jacob Wickham said Jesse could only do about a quarter of the day’s labor a normal man could. Adam McElfrey testified that when Jesse came home from the Army, he lived with the McElfrey’s and that Jesse had to be particular about what he ate due to his ailments so as to not aggravate them. The most supportive witness was his tent-mate during his time in Greenville, Tennessee (autumn 1864) who verified this is when Jesse’s stomach ailments began. If you’ve ever read about the intestinal distress prisoners from Andersonville and other camps suffered post-war, it might explain some of Jesse’s pains from malnourishment. On their march South, they were so hungry they reportedly stole from the horse’s feed on the threat of death if caught stealing. They only survived on what they could forage as their ration was bare minimum.
Most curious, though, is that Jesse’s pension was full of these body diagrams which would have been labeled with injuries if he’d had any. His were completely blank – which is tremendously interesting since the poetic tribute/obituary written for him by his son, Asbury, indicated that Jesse had “bullet marks and saber wound” neither of which were documented or even acknowledged in his pension form.
After seeing this pension file and reading the testimonials, including one from his brother-in-law Jacob Wickham whom Jesse was living with during the 1870 census prior to his marriage to Jacob’s sister, gave me a new understanding of his occupational listing as “loafer.” It makes perfect sense to me now. I mean, it’s altogether possible that he could have been drinking as well to self-medicate the pain from bloating, joint pain, and lumbago but I feel, with this particular case, that “loafer” simply referred to his being out of work for twelve months or more, likely in conjunction with his ailments. But I’ve still not solved how he had all that money in the 1870 census that was mentioned in my original post! That mystery may never be solved.