For the last five weeks, we have looked at the career of James B. Osborne, Georgia’s first socialist. We now turn to his brother Benjamin, a man of fewer accomplishments and greater fame. It is tempting to see the microcosms of the themes of the late 19th century’s two most influential thinkers: In socialism Marx’s proletariat turning from alliances with middle-class reformers to a revolutionary consciousness of itself as the great agent of social transformation; in Benjamin’s tragic career Freud’s early concerns: hypnosis, diverted sexual passion and hysteria.
Benjamin H. Osborne was born in Atlanta in 1874 at his parents’ home at 165 Chapel St., the youngest of their four children. His father, James M. Osborne, was one of Atlanta’s best-known carpenters, a native of the north Georgia mountains. His mother, Mary Formby Sample Osborne, was from Troup County. Both parents had been widowed and Mrs. Osborne had two children by her first marriage.
Ben Osborne was a bright child who learned to read before he started school and had a remarkable memory. He was the star student of Walker Street elementary school. At age 12, he began to grow so rapidly that his parents consulted doctors who discovered that he had fluid on his brain. During Ben’s first year of high school a change came over him; at 15 he grew melancholy and withdrawn, convinced that his friends were plotting against him. He attempted suicide by taking poison and was taken out of school for a year. On his return he proved an outstanding student, but his parents withdrew him and sent him to a business college.
In late 1892 a young Atlanta woman began receiving letters from a man professing great love and admiration for her. When she failed to write back she got phone calls asking why she had not responded. Next came threatening and obscene letters from her “admirer” who variously signed himself K.H. Farringer, K.H. Zeymour and Robert H.R. Longing. The young woman’s father complained to the postal inspector who on Jan. 26, 1893, arrested a young man who called at the general delivery window for letters addressed to Messrs. Farringer, Zeymour and Longing. The young man was Ben Osbourne.
Osborne denied everything, but the evidence against him was strong. He was jailed in lieu of $750 bond and trial was scheduled in federal court; Osborne’s attorneys entered a plea of insanity. Doctors examined him and the judge accepted their diagnosis of mental illness. Osborne was sent to the state asylum in Milledgeville under the care of Dr. T.O. Powell, who pronounced him cured after eight months and sent him home.
Ben Osborne returned from Milledgeville to his family’s crowded home, where his parents, sister Anne, brothers Edward and James, and James’s wife and children were living. Tensions built up right away between Ben and his sister-in-law. Ben complained that she sneaked into his room and secretly rearranged his books. He said that she henpecked her husband James, the labor organizer—then at odds with the police and the officials of his union—and that she bullied James, “a little fellow,” as Ben said, into having him arrested on a lunacy warrant after a family spat involving jelly on the floor. The Atlanta police and newspapers were at the time utterly out of patience with Ben’s oldest brother, and the lunacy charges were dismissed, the Journal implying that Ben was the only sane member of the family.
While in the asylum Ben had studied engraving and on his release his brother Edward found him a position at the Atlanta Lithographing Company, which he held for nearly three years. Ben did excellent engraving work and showed no evidence of mental disturbance, but his co-workers found him stubborn and difficult to get along with. The Atlanta papers later stated that Osborne was fired from his job by his supervisor, Theodore Schrader, but his family maintained that he had quit “because he was too nervous to work.”
Old Mr. Osborne tried to set Ben up as a bookkeeper’s assistant, but Ben said he could not work at all. He lay sullenly around the house reading scientific books and refusing to speak to his family, finally locking himself in his room where he continued to read and to write, one of his essays being “The Culture and Education of Women.”
Ben Osborne soon found something to lure him out of his room. The sensation of the fall of 1894 in Atlanta was the stage show of Professor and Mrs. Lee, renowned hypnotists appearing for an extended engagement at the Lyceum Theater. Ben Osborne went and returned again and again, but merely as an observer.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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