Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 018/A.J. Gourley

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A.J. Gourley
Born1871 (Day and Month Unknown)
OccupationTombstone Maker


A.J. Gourley was a poor man who lived in rural Tennessee in the early 20th century. He never maintained a steady job, but provided for his large family by making tombstones later in his life.


A.J. Gourley (1871 - unknown) grew up in a poor rural area. He never went to school, but still learned to read and write. He married a woman (name unknown) while young and had six children. After she died, he caught the Dengue Fever and was committed to an insane asylum in Austin, Texas for seven years. While there, he was subjected to horrific physical abuse by the hospital guards and doctors, despite recovering fairly early in his stay. After being released for unknown reasons, he left Texas for Tennessee. In Tennessee, he remarried and fathered seven more children with his second wife. Out of all thirteen of his children, only one died in adolescence. His children grew to be mostly farmers, though one did become a radio personality and another a preacher. Gourley was devoutly religious for his entire life, even going so far as to claim to communicate directly with God. He provided for himself and his family by doing odd jobs, but he principally made tombstones late in his life. He then died in an unknown year.

Social Issues[edit]

Treatment of the Mentally Ill[edit]

In the early twentieth century, treatment of the mentally ill was frequently characterized by mismanagement and abuse. Many institutions were poorly funded and there was minimal governmental oversight. People were often wrongfully committed against their will into overcrowded asylums. The predominant management policies of these asylums often focused on discipline as a treatment of mental illness. This ‘discipline’ often manifested itself as physical abuse. The mentally ill were frequently beaten, underfed, under clothed, and under cared for[1]. A great social stigma surrounded the mentally ill at this time, stemming from a belief held during the Middle Ages associating mental illness with demonic possession. This stigma continued well beyond the Middle Ages, causing families to be ashamed of their mentally ill members. In the nineteenth century, the mentally ill were hidden away, often by their families, in attics or basements. Eventually, these injustices were brought to light by advocates like Dorothea Dix, who pushed for better institutional facilities and treatment of the mentally ill[2]. These advocates pushed for the creation of institutions around the turn of the century as a way of addressing mental health issues. However, these places were riddled with problems, and the mentally ill often remained poorly treated well into the mid-twentieth century. While there were still advocates for better treatment, the road to mental health care reform was long and complex, lasting throughout the twentieth century.

Early Days of Social Security[edit]

The Social Security Act was passed in 1935 as a major feature of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was designed to provide initial Old Age Assistance to citizens over 65 and provide for future Old Age Insurance for all retired workers, beginning in 1942[3]. Ideally, this would encourage older workers to permanently leave the workforce and open up job spaces for young unemployed people. The program would support itself by requiring workers to pay taxes during their working years in order to receive benefits once they retired[4]. This entitlement format is still how the program is funded today. The act was drafted by a special Committee on Economic Security that was created to determine the state of economic security within the United States and make recommendations about how to solve the issue. They drafted the initial version of the Social Security Act and submitted it to the president.[5] This legislation was very difficult to pass, and required a lot of political concessions on Roosevelt’s part. For example, Southern representatives pushed to have agricultural workers excluded in order to maintain their cheap labor force of impoverished, mostly minority, sharecroppers. Other excluded groups also included people who were irregularly employed or not employed on a traditional payroll. Most of these stipulations have since been removed by successive amendments to the Social Security Act. The initial act also included provisions for unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children, and grants to states to provide their citizens with health care.[6] The Social Security Act had to undergo a second round of amendments in 1939 in order to expand it into the massive entitlement program present in America today. They included the creation of dependents benefits (payments to the spouse and dependent children of a retired worker) and survivors benefits (payments given to the family of a deceased worker).[7].

  1. Yocum, C.S., Ph.D. Care of the Feeble-Minded and Insane in Texas. Austin: U of Texas, 1914. Babel. Web.
  2. Grob, Gerald N. "Mental Health Policy (United States)." In Encyclopedia of Social Welfare History in North America, edited by John M. Herrick and Paul H. Stuart, 235-38. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2005. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412952521.n94
  3. “Social Security Act.” Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. Ed. Robert S. McElvaine. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. p896-904. COPYRIGHT 2004 Macmillan Reference USA, COPYRIGHT 2006 Gal
  4. Ibid.
  5. Social Security Administration. "Historical Background And Development Of Social Security." Last modified 2015. https://www.ssa.gov/history/briefhistory3.html
  6. ibid
  7. Cates, Jerry R. "Social Security (United States)." In Encyclopedia of Social Welfare History in North America, edited by John M. Herrick and Paul H. Stuart, 356-59. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2005. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412952521.n141.