Thursday, March 04, 2010

52 Weeks of Genealogy Sources: Week 6, Lunatic Inquest Book

Now before everyone gets mad at me for suggesting that they had ancestors who would have been listed in such a source as a lunatic inquest book, hear me out.  Our ancestors were institutionalized for lots of reasons.  They may have been sent to a mental health hospital because of being elderly with no one to take care of them, because they were poor, because they were obnoxious teenagers, because of a medical condition like epilepsy, even because they were (gasp!) a woman!

Now these kinds of records might be in a courthouse, state archive or as a transcription found in a book.  I've seen a book of those committed to an asylum at the courthouse.  I've also seen records from the local mental  hospital at a state archive.

So the other day I was looking through some records on WorldVitalRecords* and noticed Graves County, Kentucky Lunatic Inquest Book, 1894 - 1901This is a transcription, not a digitized image of the court records. What struck me was the descriptions of those listed. 

These records hold a lot of information including information on family members, income, and behavior.  Here's one example from page 13 (the image says a different page number but the page within the database is 13).

This particular woman sleeps with "two guns...and won't sleep without the weapons." While we don't have an official diagnoses for her, the information provides a picture of her life.  The cause of her raging seems to be chalked up to "female troubles."  We are also told that the way she is restrained is  "Only by holding her and scaring by threats."  Those suffering from mental illnesses, or even those where were institutionalized with little reason, were not always treated very well or with any respect.

My main reason for sharing this resource is to remind you that there are a lot of sources out there and you may not consider some of them because they don't seem applicable.  But just with my own ancestors and that of a cousin I have seen those that were institutionalized for being a woman, for being elderly and for being an immigrant.  No, I'm not a psychiatrist but reading their records, it becomes apparent that the era's  prejudices and lack of legal protections allowed all sorts of people to be institutionalized.  

One time I was speaking to a medical records supervisor at a psychiatric hospital and she was telling me that for their records dating back to the19th century she had tons of records of women who were institutionalized simply because they were women.  Their husbands had the power, and right, to institutionalize them with little evidence.

*I am an employee of FamilyLink which owns WorldVitalRecords and I do have a free subscription to the site.


Cindy said...

Gena - Thankfully we don't live in those times -I'm sure I'd be in an institution! Great tip on this post - most of us wouldn't go looking for this type of thing unless we had prior knowledge. I have a great uncle who was in an "asylum". When I asked my Grandmother about this uncle she tells me "he needed help all the time". Because he was in what they called an asylum I assumed he was mentally challenged, but he certainly may have had physical problems they just couldn't deal with.

Gena Philibert-Ortega said...

Cindy- I would probably be in the institution with you! I think we forget to place our family history in historical context. We make assumptions based on our knowledge of our own historical era. I like to let people know that what we know to be true may not have been reality in earlier times.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gena,
I love this article as it is one topic that gets overlooked frequently. I think one of my long ago relatives was left behind in one such institution when the rest of the family left Vermont for the state of Michigan. I found who I think is her in a census. Do you have any hints as to how I could verify that it is indeed her or not?
Love & happy to have found your blog.

Our Family said...

Hi Gena,
Another great article with lots of great information. I had an aunt who was in and out of "asylums" all her adult life. My family moved from Minnesota to Florida in 1961 and I lost local contact with her and family. They visited us in Florida one year and it was not a pleasant experience. Both my uncle & aunt have passed on.