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.
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.
Tell me, have you done any family research? What have you found in your history?
I love when you share!