Thursday, March 22, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: A P.S. to Asylums and Mental Hospitals

From the collection of Gena Philibert-Ortega
Yesterday's post resulted in some great discussion on my Facebook and Twitter feeds as well as a few private messages. Researchers shared their stories of their female ancestor committed to an asylum. One theme they reiterated was the problem of telling an family history story when few records exist.

Because I do believe in the importance of telling these stories, I think it's important that we go beyond just the possible hospital records that may or may not exist or that we are not allowed access to.

Two stories to illustrate this.

Yesterday, I relayed the story of a cousin whose grandmother was institutionalized. The hospital in question would not even acknowledge where their cemetery was (the grandmother was buried there). My cousin was a tenacious researcher. She went and talked to a hospital janitor who helped her find the largely unmarked burial ground. Because she herself was under a psychiatrist's care, she was able to get the medical records with that Dr.'s help. Even though it was about 50 years later, she walked her grandmother's old neighborhood (where she lived with her kids before being institutionalized) and asked people if they knew the family. She was able to learn new clues from that.

Many years ago, when I was researching for a client whose ancestor was institutionalized, I called the facility's medical records department. While I nor the family could get access to these records I did learn two important things. One, was if the patient died and the family didn't claim them for burial, their body was sent to a local teaching hospital and then later cremated and scattered by that facility (so no burial records except for a log at the hospital that was not widely known about). This helped me piece together some of the facts about the death I was researching. (Now this wasn't true for all facilities, many had a cemetery on the grounds.) Second, she told me that they no longer kept more than 1 page or so from the older files but she had, obviously, knowledge of these files and she was shocked how many husbands had committed their wives for reasons that today would have nothing to do with mental health.

As you think about your ancestor, think outside of the box. Seek records that might include:

  • Histories of the facility
  • Reports about the facility (might be kept in a state archive or university)
  • Academic articles about the facility, treatments, or women institutionalized
  • Books about women held in asylums
  • Records at a state archive that might include admission logs
  • Home sources (correspondence, receipts)

So what I'm saying is to do a bunch of catalog searches in WorldCat, ArchiveGrid, Google Scholar, and JSTOR. And try some Google searches as well. Be creative and tell yourself that you are studying women who were institutionalized in [fill in the decade/s] in [county, state or facility name].

When we are unable to find records, that's not the time to stop. Find out all you can about the place and what life was like and that will also help you tell the story.

Oh, and this is true for other types of institutions as well such as almshouses or poor farms.

Mad Literature: Insane Asylums in Nineteenth Century America by Emily Clark.

National Archives - State Archives

Digital Public Library of America

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