John Coulson did not have an easy start in life. Born with a severe mental handicap to a poor family in Chesterfield England, Coulson’s father was an abusive alcoholic who abandoned his family forcing John’s mother to care for the family on her own. With a severe mental handicap and a pressing need to support his family, Coulson left primary school barely able to read, write or count. At the age of twelve his mother was sent to a workhouse and he was placed in an orphanage. At the age of thirteen Coulson became a home child and was sent to work as free labour on a farm in Manitoba. On the farm, Coulson was bullied by other children for his handicap and small height. Seeking an escape form abusive home life, Coulson lied about his age and enlisted with the CEF in 1915.
Coulson, having the mental age of a child, struggled in the army. His fellow soldiers delighted in tormenting the naive and frightened man. Coulson was regularly robbed or the victim of similar “pranks” which caused no end of suffering for Coulson. Despite his suffering, Coulson proved an admirable soldier who followed orders without question and tried to support his fellow soldiers when possible. While bringing water to the trenches at Courcellete in September of 1916, a shell exploded just a few meters from Coulson burying him for hours before he was dug out. Coulson was evacuated to hospital where doctors initially believed Coulson to be suffering from severe shellshock. Coulson was unable to speak for the first few weeks after the explosion and suffered from depression and severe anxiety. The CAMC decided Coulson was no longer capable of serving and discharged him in early 1917.
Upon his return to Canada, Coulson found work as a farmhand and once more found himself the target of abuse from his employer and fellow farmhands. However, unlike in previous instances, Coulson responded to abuse with violence injuring another farmhand. For his “unprovoked violence” Coulson was sent to Selkirk Asylum. At Selkirk, the doctors believed Coulson’s symptoms to simply be a product of his mental handicap and not mental illness. Selkirk discharged Coulson in July 1917 and he returned to work at the farm where he faced less abuse then before. In February 1918 Coulson re-enlisted with the Canadian Army in a special service company and served as a guard in Fort Arthur and mail orderly.
In 1921, Coulson was admitted to Deer Lodge Hospital for melancholia after he became a social recluse and developed an impaired memory. Doctors disagreed on Coulson’s initial diagnosis with several arguing he was suffering from shellshock while others said it was merely a symptom of his “mental inferiority”. Regardless of the exact diagnosis, the doctors unanimously agreed it was aggravated by service and successfully petitioned the pension board for a 10% pension. After two years in hospital, Coulson experienced significant improvement. He lost most of his antisocial tendencies, overcame much of his anxiety and began to develop positive relationships with his fellow patients. Coulson came to believe he was ready to be released. However, doctors refused to discharge him believing that as a mental deficient, he was incapable of living outside the asylum. With doctors refusing to discharge Coulson, the Pension Board reclassified Coulson as 100% disabled and granted him a 50% pension to be paid to the Asylum on his behalf. In 1936 after nearly twenty years in hospital, Coulson finally, with the help of a former British soldier Coulson had befriended named Kempster, secured his release.
Coulson resided with Kempster and his wife and found work as a farmhand and general labourer for the next eight years. In 1944, Coulson was readmitted to Deer Lodge, this time for diabetes. Unfortunately, by the time Coulson began treatment, his legs had become infected and he was admitted to the hospital indefinitely for treatment. Due to his mental handicap, Coulson did not understand his condition and staff frequently had to confiscate sweets and sugary foods from Coulson. At the age of 57, Coulson was formally given an IQ test for the first time and was found to have a mental age of 7. Coulson was eventually transferred to Winnipeg hospital in 1947 where he lived until his death on October 17th, 1950 from pneumonia.
Click here to access John Coulson’s military service file at Library and Archives Canada