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.


Jill Morelli said...

Gena, I may be one of the few who has obtained mental health records of my IL ancestor through the courts. He was committed in 1872 and died in the asylum in 1905. I have done extensive research on this topic and would suggest that NGS Magazine will be publishing my article in the near future about where records can be obtained of the insane in public repositories and in court protected states. Illinois State Genealogical Society and the Southern CA GS have my webinar--"Finding Dirk: Insanity in the 19th Century" behind their member wall.
Some excellent resources include the website and the Newberry Library. If you want to know more about women in asylums I recommend:
Pouba, Katherine & Ashley Tianen. “Lunacy in the 19th Century: Women’s Admission to Asylums in the United States of America.” Oshkosh Scholar. 1 (April 2006): 95-103.
An easy read about compliance law:
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Books, 2011. The rise of compliance law; a great read; now a movie starring Oprah Winfrey.

Gena Philibert-Ortega said...

Thanks for your comment Jill! The Pouba and Tianen article is linked in the Resources above.