Mad as a March Hare

It was the year 1854. Cholera broke out in many parts of the world, and decimated countless families. My family was among those affected, and very probably among one of the epidemic’s numerous victims was my 6x great-uncle, Elias de Agra, who passed away in his 77th year. “Great-uncle Elias” had no wife and children, but he did have quite a bit of money, which he divided equally among his many relatives upon his death. 3/6 of his fortune were given in equal shares to his three surviving siblings, while the other three remaining parts were divided equally among the children and grandchildren of his other three siblings who had predeceased him.

Rúa do Preguntorio, in Santiago de Compostela.

As Elias had no children of his own, he was probably nursed in old age by his niece Bonifacia Gudín, who moved in with him at his town house in Santiago de Compostela. As a thank-you for her cares and attention, Bonifacia got a considerable chunk of her uncle’s property, including his house in the Rúa do Preguntorio. At the time, Bonifacia was already 40 years old and probably expected to remain a spinster throughout her life. Upon her uncle’s death, she now stood to inherit half of the money Elias had set aside for her mother, who was by then an old lady herself. Before the year was out, Bonifacia was already engaged to marry a man nine years her junior.

The man in question was Salustiano Aseguinolaza Aramburu, a young, probably attractive and certainly promising Basque man who had just moved to Santiago after completing his Pharmaceutical studies in the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. The wedding took place on 6th December 1854, and the couple soon settled in the bride’s recently inherited house in the Galician capital. It was there that their only child, a girl called Matilde, was born toward the end of the following year.

The 1850’s were years of tremendous changes in Bonifacia’s life and fortunes. Aside from becoming a mother in 1855, she also lost both her parents toward the end of the same year, implying that she inherited half of what her mother had got from the death of uncle Elias the previous year (the other half went to Bonifacia’s only surviving elder sister Josefa). Bonifacia’s husband Salustiano Aseguinolaza, on the other hand, seemed to be making great progress in his professional career: in 1858 he became a substitute professor in the University of Santiago; five years later he was made head of department in the faculty of Pharmacy. His thesis, which analysed the advantages of botanical pharmaceuticals, was published in Madrid in 1861. But Salustiano was not a great writer; aside from his thesis, very few of his publications have survived, aside from a few articles which were published in the El Restaurador Farmacéutico. At any rate, life seemed to be smiling at him and his wife.

Salustiano Aseguinolaza Aramburu.

However, things changed when in 1865, shortly after becoming head of department, Salustiano began to show signs of an abnormal, extravagant behaviour, which may have been the result of some sort of periodic mental derangement. Those who surrounded him recognised these oddities, but failed to diagnose the illness. Soon, the University’s Rector wrote Salustiano a letter begging him to be more circumspect in his public and private affairs – what the Rector  exactly meant by this is a mystery. In order to calm his spirits, Salustiano was given two weeks sick-leave. He was certainly displeased, and wrote to the Rector claiming that, “just as the best fruit is always the one birds peck the most, so are the most dignified of men the victims of other people’s calumnies”. On 11th January 1866 Salustiano Aseguinolaza wrote a letter, which was duly published in the journal La Iberia, criticising the Rector and the Dean for their passed attitude.

Palacio de Fonseca, Santiago de Compostela.

A few days later, Salustiano was arrested in his house -probably in front of his wife and child- for having forced a local man at gun-point to leave his shop and then walk about the streets of Santiago; Salustiano caught other people’s attention when he drew his pistol out and pointed it at a police constable because he was “not doing his duty”. Both men were unharmed, but bizarrely Salustiano was freed from police custody on the same day; the next morning he escorted a University gardener to the Palacio de Fonseca and ordered him to dig holes on the paved stony floor of the historical palace, in order to plant trees and bushes. Salustiano was soon forced to give up his foolish venture.

Having become notorious for his behaviour, on February 23rd Salustiano was suspended in his position as University lecturer. By then, however, he had escaped, and was found days later in his native village of Idiazábal. It is not known whether his wife and daughter accompanied him on his trip. When he broke down, lamenting his failure to crush a demonstration led by railway workers, a local doctor certified that indeed Salustiano Aseguinolaza suffered from “irritability, exuberance and exaltation”.  However, as time went by, Bonifacia’s husband seemed to be feeling better in his native land, and only showed signs of psychological instability when asked about his life in Santiago. Consequently his doctors made it clear that Salustiano would probably soon become his old self once again.

The lunatic asylum in Valladolid.

Indeed, Salustiano did get better, and returned to the Galician capital, where he resumed his obligations as University professor. Three years later, Salustiano’s mental health began to deteriorate once more, and Bonifacia was ainstructed to take her husband back to Idiazábal, where it was assumed his condition might improve. Bonifacia challenged the doctors’ advice and instead took her husband to the city of Pau, in the French Pyrenees, where Salustiano was committed to a lunatic asylum. However, Salustiano did not stay there long, as he disappeared a few days later, only to be found soon thereafter in his own house. Once again he was taken by force to another asylum in the Spanish city of Zaragoza, where he remained until the beginning of 1870. Apparently recuperated, he returned to Santiago and resumed his duties as professor, but two years later he asked for an authorisation to enter, by his own will, a lunatic asylum in Valladolid. The head of the asylum declared that Salustiano suffered a hereditary incurable disease which manifested itself periodically.

Although we do not know how long Salustiano remained in Valladolid, we do find him once more in Santiago in 1875 when he was appointed University Dean! He only remained in the position for a year, but was elected once more to the same position in 1877, and occupied it until 1883. Between 1889 and 1890 he once again became Dean -this time substitute Dean-, his illness apparently over.

Salustiano Aseguinolaza’s turbulent life ended in 1894, when he died aged 68. Little else is known of his wife Bonifacia or daughter Matilde, but I cannot help wondering what the “hereditary incurable disease” might have been, or if indeed he has living descendants today.

Most of the information contained in this article, including some of the images, have been extracted from this source.

This entry was posted in Death, Engagement, France, Galicia, Genealogy, Illness, Marriage, Money, Property, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, Women. Bookmark the permalink.

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