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Samuel Young: "An Aberration of Mind"

Editors’ Note: Today’s guest blogger is Taylor Bagwell, a student at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA. Taylor is double majoring in American Studies and Finance and enjoys being a sister of Alpha Delta Pi. She and her professor, Jonathan W. White, have been unearthing and writing about Civil War-era pardon case files—including those for several Eastern State Penitentiary prisoners—found at the National Archives in College Park, MD.


"The affidavit of his attending physician is to the effect that a disease in his head, he verily believes, had severely affected his mind."


In September 1862, during the early years of the Civil War, Samuel Young was sent by the Sanitary Commission to Antietam to carry supplies to wounded Union soldiers after the rebel invasion of Maryland. Ten months later, he scoured the bloody fields of Gettysburg searching for his two soldier brothers, George W. Young of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers and Benjamin F. Young of the 56th Pennsylvania Volunteers. To his devastation, Samuel and his father Timothy found his younger brother George on the battlefield after he’d been mortally wounded on July 1, 1863. He died the following week.

Samuel would return home with a dead brother and the knowledge that his other brother, Benjamin, was taken prisoner. (Benjamin would later be killed on May 25, 1864, at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia.) The loss of his two brothers “produced a very strong impression on his health and spirit” and what his friends noted as “temporary insanity” and “an aberration of mind.” The effects of his experiences during the war would eventually play a role in further life-changing events including his incarceration at Eastern State Penitentiary.

This “temporary insanity” would lead Samuel to act outside of his usual character of “honesty, reliability, and attention to his duties as a mail carrier” in Pennsylvania. For 12 years he had worked as a letter carrier with no accusations of wrongdoing, until December 7, 1863, five months after his brother died at Gettysburg. On this day, he opened two letters, destroying one and stealing $7 from the other. Soon thereafter, he would stand trial in federal court in Philadelphia for his actions where he pleaded guilty to stealing from the mail. At 37 years old, he was sentenced to 10 years and 3 months imprisonment at Eastern State Penitentiary for his crimes.

During Samuel’s imprisonment, a number of friends, family, and colleagues wrote to President Abraham Lincoln describing his “excellent character and honesty” in an attempt to help secure a pardon for him. On numerous occasions, Samuel’s friends argued that his criminal activity was due to a “temporary aberration of mind” and “temporary insanity” caused by his dreadful experiences at Gettysburg and Antietam. Nearly 90 members of the Pennsylvania legislature signed an affidavit attesting to Samuel’s “excellent character” and stated that his experiences in the war had caused a “disease affecting his head.” A family physician confirmed the detrimental state of mind Samuel lived with following the events of the Civil War. Robert G. Pidgeon, Samuel’s superintendent during his time with the mail service, argued that pardoning Samuel would not interfere with justice because he had served enough time for the small crime he committed. Moreover, Samuel’s father reimbursed the money that he had stolen.

The Lincoln administration declined to pardon Samuel in January 1865, but he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson on June 24, 1865 and released a few months later on August 17. Samuel Young would live another 40 years in Philadelphia where he would marry Barbara Braddock. Samuel and Barbara had only one child, a daughter, Mary Emma Young, born in 1875 when Samuel was 48 years old. Samuel lived a long life, living to see the turn of the 20th century and passing away on January 18, 1906.

Taylor Bagwell
Student, Christopher Newport University


Photo: Excerpt of Letter from National Archives – College Park, MD

Record Group 204 (Records of the Office of the Pardon Attorney), Entry 1a (Pardon Case Files, 1853-1946), National Archives at College Park.

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