Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Alvarus Eleazer Gilbert (1825-1891)

From the History of Waukesha County, 1880.

   The life of obscure Wisconsin political figure Alvarus Eleazer Gilbert is profiled today, and I'm certain that the following article will be one of the more somber ones you'll read here. Mr. Gilbert served two terms in the State Assembly during the late 1870s and was considered a figure of distinction in the county of Waukesha both prior to and after his election. Gilbert's life ended under peculiar circumstances in August 1891 when he committed suicide by hanging, in what was described by the Waukesha Freeman newspaper as a "fit of insanity". 
   Alvarus Eleazer Gilbert was born in the small town of Alexander, New York on August 17, 1825, one of the ten children born to Daniel and Catherine Showerman Gilbert. The Gilbert family resided in Alexander until August of 1839, when they relocated to Milwaukee. Their stay here was short-lived, and after a few weeks resettled in the town of New Berlin. It is recorded in the History of Waukesha County ( published in 1885), that the Gilbert family resided in a single room log house with the ten-member Hiram Hollister family for a short span of time, and it's truly amazing that one log cabin could support twenty-two people! It should also be noted that Daniel Gilbert eventually built a cabin of his own, and also had numerous acres to go along with it.
   Alvarus Gilbert attended schools local to the New Berlin area and was engaged in farming for most of his adolescence. In October 1849 he married Harriet Hollister (daughter of the aforementioned Hiram Hollister) and eventually became the father to six children: Minnie, Willis, Florence, Herbert, Ernest, and Willie. Alvarus and his family removed to Illinois in the early 1850s and following his settlement engaged in railroad work, being the head of a construction crew. During their Illinois residency two of Gilbert's young sons (Willie and Ernest) died and in 1861 the family returned to the New Berlin-Prospect, Wisconsin area. Shortly afterward Alvarus purchased a 190-acre farm where he would reside for the remainder of his life. 
  Gilbert first became active in public office during the 1860s when he was elected as New Berlin town clerk. He would go on to serve in other local offices, including stints as town treasurer, town supervisor and as a member of the Waukesha county board of supervisors. In 1877 he was elected to the Wisconsin State House of Representatives, representing Waukesha County in the session of 1878. In the following year, Gilbert eked out a narrow reelection victory (1476 votes to 1326) over his Democratic opponent, William E. Hennessey. A passage with those election results was featured in the 1879 Wisconsin Blue Book and has been posted in its entirety below. The Blue Book also notes that during his second legislative term, Gilbert held a seat on the committee on Incorporations.

  Gilbert returned to his farm at Prospect Hill, Wisconsin at the conclusion of his term and is also mentioned as having involvement in the "town insurance society". Little else could be found on his later years with the exception being his death......and this is where his story takes a very melancholy turn. I was lucky enough to stumble across an archived version of the August 27, 1891 edition of the Waukesha Freeman, and this newspaper gives the only available write up on Gilbert's tragic passing. The accompanying information and snippets were located in the aforementioned newspaper.

   The fact that Alvarus Gilbert contemplated suicide was quite surprising to me when I first discovered it, but the reality that he succeeded in going through with the act is still quite a shock. As the Freeman related in its coverage of the incident, Gilbert had been in impaired health for at least a few months prior to his suicide and notes that he had never been confined to his home because of it. Curiously, the Waukesha Freeman gives no mention as to what his illness may have been but does note that he was "known to be in a serious condition. His family and friends were especially concerned over the deep melancholy  in which he was constantly brooding." This seems to imply that Gilbert suffered from a deep depression for at least several weeks prior to his death.

   In the above passage, we can read that Gilbert's "mind had become obviously affected, and so melancholy and dejected did he become that his family feared suicide, especially as he was wont to discuss the question of self destruction in a manner that left no doubt as to his wishes." Gilbert's disturbed state of mind worried his family to such an extent that they began keeping a "strict watch" on his behavior, but all to no avail.

   The Waukesha Freeman notes that in the early hours of August 20, 1891, Alvarus E. Gilbert dressed, took his hat and cane, and made his way to a barn located on his property. It was here that he hanged himself from a barn timber, using "a rope halter used in tying stock". His body was discovered by a family member a few hours later and a certain Dr. Ingersoll concluded that Gilbert's death was caused "by his own hand while in a state of insanity was rendered."
   One can only wonder what underlying mental illness Gilbert may have had, and one could also venture a guess that monetary or business problems could have been a contributing factor in his taking his own life. The newspaper mentions "illness" numerous times but gives no clue as to whether or not he was ill with cancer or some other malady. While the ending of his life may have been tragic, Alvarus Eleazer Gilbert should be remembered as a prominent figure in 19th century Wisconsin, and now, over one hundred and twenty years after his death, more people will know of his career in the public arena. 


  1. Careful about the content. Also, it's known as the Assembly in Wisconsin, not the House of Representatives and he may not have actually been elected in 1878.

    1. Sorry, he was apparently at least re-elected in 1878, possibly was originally elected in 1877.