Did “close application to work and studies” cause the death of Georgia Goff, age 28?

Leora was the oldest of the ten Goff children. She had two sisters. Georgia Laurayne was four years younger, and Leora was nearly 10 when Ruby Belle was born. She said that Georgia was the only nearly blonde one in the family.

From Leora’s memoirs: “Georgia was hurt by falling downstairs while we lived at Key West [Minnesota]. She was about 9 years old. She went upstairs to ‘make the beds’–spread them up. She got her job finished and, like young ones are apt to do, two beds were just right to hold to each foot of the bed and swing. Georgia did that, as she could remember, and lost her hold some way and fell and bumped her head on the foot of the bed or the floor. Then she sat at the top of the stairsteps and fainted and fell down the stairs.

“Mamma and I were doing things in the kitchen and heard a bump sound on the stair door and then another sound. Mamma  said, ‘I wonder what Georgia is throwing downstairs,’ and went to see, and Georgia rolled  down unconscious. I rushed to get cold water and cloth while Mamma was putting her on a couch. Georgia ‘came to’ in a little while, but felt kind of sick for awhile. We never got a doctor. She got a bad bump on her forehead.”

Georgia Goff, about age 13, 1907, Audubon, Iowa


The family moved back to Iowa. Georgia and Ruby, as well as their older brothers, weren’t allowed to go to high school. But when their parents eventually moved to a Victorian house in Guthrie Center, the sisters studied piano and took other classes at Des Moines University, although Georgia had “spells” once in a while. According to her older sister, she could attend a lecture and remember nearly the entire thing.

The Goff sisters also worked for the Carl Weeks family, who later built the Des Moines treasured Salisbury House. Georgia accompanied the family to Clear Lake in 1921 to help with their active sons. Later, she gave piano lessons in Guthrie, but she eventually had to give up those lessons, and a beau, when the spells worsened.

Ruby and Georgia Goff

Their mother, Laura Goff, thought maybe having a diversion would help Georgia feel better, so her daughters had sister portraits taken in fancy clothing.

Georgia and Leora Goff Wilson

At his wit’s end, Sherd Goff took his daughter to Clarinda Mental Hospital, where she was admitted August 22, 1922. 

A letter from the Clarinda Treatment Complex states that Georgia Goff was intelligent and obedient to her parents, was a student of music and dramatic art, and also studied “applied psychology by intensive concentration.” The reason for admission: “Over study and nervous breakdown.” Diagnosis: “Manic Depressive Psychosis: Mania.”

Congestion of the brain

She died September 7, 1922. Cause of death: “Exhaustion and acute Mania: Congestion of the brain.”  Her funeral was held in the parlor of the Victorian home.

The house was full of mourners because 28-year-old Georgia had taught piano to the children of so many families. She was the first of the family buried in Union Cemetery.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell states that early educational reformers were concerned that students could get too much schooling. A study of 1741 cases of insanity by Edward Jarvis, published by the US Commissioner of Education in 1871, concluded that “over-study” was responsible for 205 of the cases. He wrote, “Education lays the foundation of a large portion of the causes of mental disorder.”

Even pioneer of public education Horace Mann believed that “Not infrequently is health itself destroyed by over-stimulating the mind.” Education journals worried about overtaxing students! Was this mindset still common 50 years later?

Do you suppose that Georgia Goff might have suffered from a brain tumor instead?


One comment on Instagram suggested epilepsy. I think that may be the most likely reason for her symptoms.

From: Leora’s Early Years: Guthrie County Roots


  1. What a tragic story. It sounds as though the fall down the stairs did some damage to Georgia’s brain. Coincidentally, one of my great-great uncles died in the insane asylum with a similar cause of death. He’d first been admitted with “brain fever” from over-study for the bar exam. From an account of his behavior while hospitalized, I’m certain he had schizophrenia. (The account I read was in the Dartmouth College alumni magazine, written by his doctor . No HIPPA there!)

    • Both of Clabe Wilson’s parents also died at that hospital. They sent copies of documents, which certainly helped me understand better what Clabe’s homelife was like growing up. Also for his sisters. The granddaughter of one sister said her grandmother was a gloomy woman. There are reasons. (These stories are part of Leora’s Early Years: Guthrie County Roots, being formatted these days.)

    • My mother was about four when her sweet Aunt Georgia died. She remembered when she had a “spell,” where she made guttural noises when a player piano roll made flapping noises. It scared little Doris. Someone suggested that she might have developed a form of epilepsy after a brain injury. That even makes more sense to me. The quickness of her death–she may have just given up her will to live at that point. Yes, very sad.

  2. Quite a sad case, and the possible epilepsy makes some sense, but not the death. I don’t think the care in asylums in those days was very good – and sometimes quite abusive. I couldn’t picture how she swung from the foots of the two beds or how it led to falling down the stairs.

    • When dad built Mom’s “mouse-free house,” we rented a small house with no indoor bathroom. The upstairs was so small that the landing was miniscule. I can imagine a kid holding onto tall footboards for a swing, then losing her balance.

  3. Such a sad turn of events for Georgia. I’d love to know what her diagnosis would have been today and what might have been available to help her. Such a shame

    • Same here. I would have loved to know her! I met all of Leora’s siblings but two bachelor brothers who lived in the East Coast. (Then had their bodies sent back to Guthrie Center so Leora could bury them in the Goff plot their father bought when Georgia died.

  4. Wow, Joy, that is a horrible story. that poor girl. I guess there are a lot of things that could have caused it all. Do you think that the injury contributed? That “mania” bit is confusing because the description of her does NOT sound manic. I have a person close to me who has bipolar 1, and it’s a horrible disease. No way would she be considered “obedient,” etc. heh

    • Doris remembered one of her aunt’s “spells,” when the flapping of a roll of music from a player piano triggered guttural noises. Doris was about 4 and it was frightening for her.

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