Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Hospital Commitment and Related Records

Used with permission of Gary W. Clark.
One place that researchers find female ancestors is the "insane asylum." 19th century women found themselves committed, often by male family members, for a variety of reasons that today would be seen as "normal." In some cases the committal could be because of reasons we today would recognize as  medical issues like postpartum depression or non-medical issues such as not living up to societal expectations. Continuing into the 20th century, you may find a female ancestor (and yes, a male ancestor as well) spending their last years in a state mental hospital due to dementia or the inability to take care of themselves as they age.

One of my cousins had a grandmother who was admitted to an asylum because she was suffering from some medical problems and was deemed "crazy" because she was a non-English speaking immigrant (apparently no one around her spoke her Eastern European dialect). As mentioned before, an ancestor could also be committed because of the effects of growing older and having no one to care for her like in the case of a great-great-grandmother of mine who found herself committed during the World War II years because she was a 78-year-old woman with "senility." Yes, she had family but for whatever reasons, most likely because they didn't live near her,  committal to a state hospital was chosen. This was a choice in  a time when modern-day rest home or convalescent facilities didn't exist.

"By the middle of the century [19th], women outnumbered men in asylums...Women were the majority of inmates for several reasons: middle-class norms were extremely important in defining the sane and insane; women had few rights when it came to confinement laws; women were rarely allowed to testify in court; and women's reproductive organs were seen as a cause of insanity."*

Tracking down the records for a female ancestor who was declared insane and committed can be difficult at best depending on the place. It's important to remember that several different types of records might exist. mental hospital or "asylum" records themselves might be off limits due to HIPAA laws. Don't forget to looks for court records that might include hearings that led to her committal to a facility. I found my ancestor mentioned in an admitting record that was stored at the state archive. The state archive is a great place to search for records having to do with the hospital where your ancestor lived. I've also seen women's committals mentioned in newspaper articles.

To learn more about asylums and women's experiences in mental hospitals, check out academic articles in JSTOR.


Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

GenealogyBank Blog - Researching Ancestors Who Were Committed to Asylums, Using Old Newspapers

Lunacy in the 19th Century: Women’s Admission to Asylums in United States
of America by Katherine Pouba and Ashley Tianen.

*Insanity, Rhetoric, and Women: Nineteenth-Century Women's Asylum Narratives. A Dissertation by Madaline Reeder Walter (2011).Page 7.

Special thanks to Gary W. Clark of PhotoTree who shared with me his great-aunt's committal documents. He wrote her story in a book titled, Cruel Irony available on his website.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Bastardy Bonds

Sure, we tend to think that the "right" order of things in regards to our ancestor's intimate relationships is that a couple falls in love, marries and then has children. But life is not always so orderly for any number of reasons.

Delaware Public Archives.

Communities have always felt the need to ensure that they are not stuck with paying the bill for those living in poverty. In an earlier time, a woman with a child but no husband might be at risk for living in poverty.

And so we have bastardy bonds.

I probably don't need to explain what the term "bastard" means. But you may be wondering what a bastardy bond was. "Bastardy bonds were typically posted by putative fathers of illegitimate children to insure that the child was supported without public expense."*

"Bonds and records typically give the name of the father, his bondsman, as well as that of the mother and child, and the amount of the bond posted. Bastardy records may also include presentments against and examination of unwed mothers and mothers-to-be, warrants to bring putative fathers to court, and receipts for payments made on behalf of bastard children."*

So a female ancestor who had a child out of wedlock might be documented in a bastardy bond. These are great records for placing her in a time and location as well as confirming her as the mother of a child and possibly linking the father to them.

Look for these records through the FamilySearch Catalog, local courthouse or state archive. You might also want to read up on the existence of bastardy bonds in the location your ancestor lived.

The Legal Genealogist - Looking for Bonds
Delaware Public Archives - Taking Responsibility
FamilySearch - Catalog - Bastardy bonds and records (North Carolina), 1736-1957
FamilySearch - Catalog- Bastardy Bonds, 1880-1911 (Georgia)

*Bastardy Bonds and Records 1735-1966. State Archives of North Carolina.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Membership Records

OES Chapter from Brooklin, Maine. From the collection of Gena Philibert-Ortega
Our ancestors joined organizations, church groups, and volunteered. But knowing what they were a member of can be difficult at best. I think about my own paternal grandmother, who I knew, and I can't think of anything she was a member of. But as I think of other family members I can remember the church they attended, what they believed in, resulting in some ideas for possible membership groups surface.

Of course, a female ancestor may have also have been a member of an auxiliary to a male membership organization that her husband or father was a member of. Think in terms of the Grand Army of the Republic and women who were part of the Women's Relief Corps.

Looking at groups in the community might provide ideas for possible membership organizations. Searching city directories or local histories might also be of assistance. Those membership groups you identify kept records that now may be part of an archive.

Membership records can provide information like name, date, place as well as familial relationships, death information, and more.

Consider this entry from a ledger of meeting notes from the Order of the Eastern Star of Brooklin, Maine.* It includes information about a meeting held in honor of a member. It doesn't provide a death date but it appears that the date given may have been when she was buried.

From the collection of Gena Philibert-Ortega
Consider what memberships your female ancestor held and seek out those records. They can provide you a much more complete picture of her life including providing you with a glimpse at her FAN Club.


*This ledger is one a I purchased. If  an archive from Maine or the OES would like it, I'd be happy to donate it.