What Happens in the Outhouse Doesn’t Always Stay in the Outhouse


If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance. 

~George Bernard Shaw


Several years ago my dad gave me his old Torts book from law school. He told me there was a case in it involving my great-grandmother Mary Fitzpatrick Rush, and that I might want to hang onto it because it was a bit of our family history.  The story was a curious one, but still I put the book away for safe keeping.

But recently I got a little more curious after watching the TV show Who Do You Think You Are.  Every week a different celebrity is taken on a journey of personal discovery into his or her family history.  Rob Lowe discovered that his five times great-grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War and Ashley Judd traced her family line back to the Mayflower.

The process typically starts with looking up census records and court documents and then they follow the twists and turns back in time, stumbling upon hardship, perseverance, triumph and even secrets and intrigue.  Above all, they always seem to come away with some sort of inspiration from their lineage.

So I decided to Google my great-grandmother’s case.

outhouse Mrs rush_opt

My grandmother, great-grandmother and great Aunt


Let me first say that this is not a story of Pilgrims and Patriots, but rather the New Jersey Supreme Court, tenant rights and an outhouse.  In its own unique way it goes deep (so deep I imagine my great-grandmother might’ve wished she’d been wearing waders).


What happens in the privy, does not always stay in the privy.

Here’s the gist of the case:
Rush v. Commercial Realty Co., 145 A. 476 (N.J. Sup. Ct. 1929)

The case for the plaintiffs was that they were tenants of the defendant, which controlled the house wherein they lived and also the adjoining house, and provided a detached privy for the use of both houses; that Mrs. Rush having occasion to use this privy, went into it and fell through the floor, or through some sort of trap door therein, descended about nine feet into the accumulation at the bottom, and had to be extricated by use of a ladder. The defendant denied that there was any pit at all, and claimed the floor was only about nine inches above solid ground.

The story as told by my Great Aunt Kitty to my dad was that my great-grandmother fell through the outhouse floor when the rotted portion of the floor in front of the toilet seat collapsed.

My great-grandmother was 5’2″ (and pregnant with my Great Aunt Anna) and the hole was nine feet deep.  So 14-year-old Kitty ran to the neighbor for a ladder so she could help her mother climb out of the um, accumulation.

It took years to finalize the case, but she won.  The judge blamed the property owner.

 In dealing with these, it should be observed that Mrs. Rush had no choice, when impelled by the calls of nature, but to use the facilities placed at her disposal by the landlord, to wit, a privy with a trap door in the floor, poorly maintained.

Now I imagine this had to be a humiliating experience, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my dad’s side of the family, it’s that we all thoroughly enjoy a good laugh.

And that’s what I found when I searched the internet.  It seems that the case of Mrs. Rush was a bit of a comic relief in Torts class.

On one of the blogs, a law student said he laughed until he cried.  When I asked my dad about it, he said his grandmother’s case has been the subject of limericks and poems in law school for decades.

But my favorite find was reading about law students showing up for their Torts final wearing t-shirts that said:

“Whenever you feel like you’re drowning in shit, remember Mrs. Rush.” 


Ah, sweet inspiration.

But there is something universal in this story, because in some way we ‘ve all experienced the crap dunk tank.  And we all know it’s not always easy to get out.  Sometimes we have to holler for help and sometimes we have to wait for a ladder.  But hopefully, like my tiny, great grandmother, we find a way to climb out of the accumulation.

Although, if you can, I recommend boots.


To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth.  Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps.  The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples.  I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests.  And so are you. 

~Elie Wiesel


Tell me, have you done any family research?  What have you found in your history?

I love when you share!

64 thoughts on “What Happens in the Outhouse Doesn’t Always Stay in the Outhouse

  1. OMG! What a story! I can’t top that! I was adopted, so I actually know absolutely nothing of my biological family history, and nothing I know about my family is in the league with your great-grandmother! Although half my family are lawyers… 🙂


    1. And I wonder if any of those lawyers heard of this case!?
      I always think other people’s histories sound so much more fascinating–but then I’m happy I’ve got something funny and even inspiring to share.


  2. Great story. My dad’s paternal family have taken great pride in tracing the family tree, long before ancestry.com. they’ve always had a detailed family tree. my mother’s family have provided their history over the last 15 years and it’s building into quite a sage. but no Mrs. Rush stories that I know of.


    1. That’s great Louise. My dad has done a lot of research, but the info doesn’t go that far back–not like it does on the TV show. Then again they have full access to the top genealogists and researchers–and travel!


  3. OMG ROFLMAO!! That is hysterical!!! LOVE IT! This is like the BEST family story I’ve ever heard…seriously…I only WISH I had tales like that to tell!!
    I think the best family history I have is when my grandmother, on my Dad’s side, came to visit. The Notebook had just been released so I thought I’d be a good granddaughter and take her to see it. When we came out of the theatre, I couldn’t help but notice grandma was crying, a lot. I asked her what was wrong and she told me that the movie was basically a retelling of her life story…turns out, grandpa wasn’t grandma’s only love!! I heard stories that day I hadn’t even known existed…
    All I said to Grandma was…”YOU go GIRL!!”


    1. That is a great story Natalie! I find myself at an age where I am curious about those kind of personal stories from my grandparents–but of course they are no longer around for me to ask. Back when I was a teenager I didn’t think to ask those kinds of things. HIndsight!


  4. This is such an awesome post, Coleen. Made me laugh, but yet I feel for your poor grandmother. I’m glad she didn’t end up with some terrible infection. Yuck! And did it get in her eyes? Poor woman! And to think of all the crappy jokes she had to endure for the rest of her life! Oh, my, my!

    Excellent quotes, too, Colleen!


  5. Fascinating post! I’ve always identified most with East Indian culture because several generations, including my mom’s grew up amd lived in Assam. Then last year, I nearly participated in a Swedish TV show, that would have put me in my ancestor’s homeland. I ended up learning so much about the Swedes in my bloodline–an invaluable experience.


  6. That is hilarious and wonderful that the story is so famous poetry has been written about it. The only thing that springs to mind for me is that my Great Great Grandfather was a Mayor, but that’s not very interesting. You could dine off your story for years!


  7. That’s crazy funny. I love that the law students wore t-shirts with that quote on it! My uncle has been researching our family history, but hasn’t found anything super exciting ~ yet. I’m sure there will be something. Over on my husband’s side, his aunt found a whole town in Michigan that’s filled with relatives. They even have their own graveyard. Thanks for the fun story and a bit of your past!


  8. ‘Accumulation,’ huh? Well that’s certainly a delicate way of describing what your grandmother fell into, isn’t it? Wonder how many baths she took when she got out? Yuck! Hilarious story, Coleen! I love it!

    Nothing to compare to that, but there are a few outhouse stories floating around in my family. Including one about the outhouse floating away during a flood…and someone a block or two away calling my grandparents to let them know it had come to rest in their yard. Kind of makes me wonder what their outhouse looked like that neighbors would recognize it… 🙂


    1. I thought it was funny that’s how they wrote it (accumulation) in the text book.
      I wonder if people in your grandparent’s neighborhood had signs on their outhouses? Very interesting! I’m just imagining the come get your outhouse conversation 🙂


  9. That story is priceless! You need to get one of those shirts. 🙂 I don’t know a whole lot about my Johnson family line, but they get together every three years. I will have to try and attend one soon. I have a couple of books on my Booth heritage. There is some interesting stuff in there.


  10. What a treasured piece of family history, Coleen. And your grandmother is famous for this episode! My brother has done research on both sides of our family tree. He learned that my mom’s grandfather killed his neighbor. So at least I know where those strange urges come from. LOL!


  11. Fun story! I haven’t researched my own family because, well, because I’m afraid to. I have spent some time exploring my husband’s though, only because basically certain information fell into my lap upon my mother-in-law’s passing. She had some pretty amazing stuff in her collection of stuff. There’s a really old bible from the 1800’s with names and dates recorded and hundreds of newspaper articles. Through them, I learned that my husband is a descendant of Ulysses S. Grant, former Civil War General and Commander-In-Chief! How exciting is that? Of course, the alcoholism part of that family tree was apparently one of the strongest genes that got passed on from generation to generation too. But my husband has kicked that habit and remained sober for 26 years now.

    Fun stuff you can learn when you do a little digging!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt


  12. Eeeew! That is why I never use outhouses! Thanks for solidifying that for me. Only indoor plumbing for this girl. 🙂 I don’t know very much about my family history. I guess I am a little interested, but since I haven’t spent much time with people I am actually related too, it’s not something I think about. I know plenty about the history of the family that raised me, on both sides. Oh, I have some interesting stories, but I wouldn’t want to share them online. 🙂


  13. LOL! Great post, Coleen. Love the t-shirt. The closest story I have to that is when my mother was little. Her family was poor and did not have indoor plumbing, nor even an outhouse! They used a log as the “seat” and a shallow hole dug behind the log. Guess which little girl had problems balancing on the log? Yup. I’m sure her mother was thrilled to have a little girl run into the house after falling into the, uh — ‘accumulation.’ 🙂


  14. Hahaha! You’re poor great-grandmother. Talk about an experience you’d never forget (even if you wanted to.). I would be horrified. I’m glad she won the case in the end. She should have!


  15. OMG that’s hilarious! And what an awesome story. My mom and dad love genealogy and have done a lot of research into our family tree. There’s a journal somewhere that describes a relative who was highly suspected of “offing” a husband or two. I really need to read that journal. Wonder what else is back there!


  16. Colleen, I neglected to get to the blogger posts yesterday. Your post was good for a great belly laugh — and the timing of how you told the story was great! That story would be a keeper! I’m glad to know someone else love “Who Do You Think You Are,” as I’m hooked. Have you watched the PBS special “Faces of America” with Dr Henry Louis Gates, similar but more indepth. A must see! You can get it on Amazon– well worth it. He goes back to our ealiest DNA and or origins as a humanity, as well as follows Queen Noor, Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma and others.

    I’m fortunate to have cousins on both sides of my parent’s families who have done a lot of research, and I know quite a lot. What I find interesting on the the TV programs, are the similarities in life paths going back over generation upon generation — educators, activitists,feminists, musicians etc. My favorite was Brooks Shields incredible journey.

    For years I worked as a legistive aid doing PR work for the Ohio Senate. Never did I realize that my 4th great grandfather was a general who fought with Wm. Henry Harrison, later became an Ohio State Rep and Senator, the 12th Governor of the state (1830s) who moved the Ohio State House to Columbus, and was a Congressman. I walked those halls, spent years in the chambers, the governor’s office, and walked past his picture daily — never knowing. My mother’s side goes back to 1602, and my 9th Great Grandfather was the first landed in Massachursets in 1635, and founded two towns in Essex County, MA. Some of the brothers stood up to defend and save the lives of five women during the Salem Witch trials. I just find it so interesting that in many ways we are all connected — the DNA studies show that. Hope you’ve seen Dr Gates, or rent it at the library. You won’t be sorry!


    1. I remember reading something about Faces of America. Thanks for calling it to my attention again–it sounds like something I will enjoy. Your family history also sounds like a featured story-wow! Fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing Patricia!!


  17. I’m glad your great-grandmother prevailed in court, Coleen. But what a shock it must have been to your father to encounter her case in his tort law book. Had he known about the lawsuit or did he learn of it in the classroom?


  18. Brilliant story and I loved the title of this post. It really drew me in. How funny that the law students are still wearing the t-shirt with the quote and remembering the case.


  19. What a great post. I love family history and all the stories that go with it. Yours is definitely up there as one of the best I’ve heard!


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