Researching Ancestors in Asylums

Researching an ancestor who was in an asylum or state hospital is difficult, irritating, and (typically) emotional work. Success to find the information comes from  persistence and creativity. Listed below are some information and techniques to make use of when researching an ancestor in such an establishment.

The Emotional Facet of Researching Institutionalized Ancestors

Earlier than we get into discovering the information, I wish to level out a few of the “different” challenges in this sort of analysis. It may be heartbreaking to see your ancestor described as “a lunatic” or to learn the circumstances that they endured in an asylum.

Some may say, “However, Amy, these have been the phrases they used again then. They didn’t imply something by them.” I encourage to vary. In lots of instances, these phrases have been meant to label somebody as “lesser than.”

Why Had been They Despatched to an Asylum?

Barring discovering a physician’s testimony, a case file, or an in depth petition to the courtroom, you may not be capable to decide the actual reason behind the ancestor’s hospitalization. First, there’s the problem of obscure language. Was the “madness” truly melancholy? Was it epilepsy or different seizure-inducing circumstances? Was it PTSD?

You even have to contemplate the non-medical causes that an individual could possibly be dedicated. Below the guise of “madness,” husbands might have their wives dedicated (involuntarily) for arguing with them. One such case was Elizabeth Packard, whose husband had her dedicated as a result of she disagreed together with his non secular teachings, which was relatively embarrassing for him, as he was a minister. (You may learn extra about causes of ladies dedicated to asylum’s in “Lunacy within the nineteenth Century: Girls’s Admissions to Asylums in United States of America,” a paper by Katherine Pouba and Ashley Tianen of the College of Wisconsin.)

The Problem of Discovering Asylum Information

The fast query that involves thoughts when discovering that an ancestor was in an asylum or state hospital is usually, “Why was he (or she) there?” Sadly, state regulation or coverage typically restricts the information that may give probably the most direct reply — an admissions utility or the affected person’s file.

Kankakee State Hospital, 1893
Kankakee State Hospital, 1893

In Illinois, for instance, affected person information are closed by regulation. Rapid relations of a deceased affected person could make a request on to the state archives, the state hospital, or the Illinois Division of Human Providers. (A direct member of the family, on this case, is the affected person’s partner, kids, siblings, and oldsters.) However what when you’re not a right away member of the family? You get to attempt to acquire a courtroom order from an Illinois circuit courtroom.

My ancestor died in 1899 in what was then referred to as the Illinois Jap Hospital for the Insane (later referred to as Kankakee State Hospital). Regardless that she has been lifeless for 122 years, I’ve to persuade a decide to problem a courtroom order so I can see her information.

Some states are barely extra open. Ohio, for instance, use to require researchers to signal a paper that they have been the “closest relative” to the affected person. Now that’s solely required if the affected person’s loss of life occurred throughout the previous 50 years. Nevertheless, the books are nonetheless closed from public overview; researchers nonetheless should fill out varieties for particular information.

Steve Luxenberg’s guide Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Right into a Household Secret is a must-read for anybody pursuing this course of, particularly if the affected person died within the final 50 years.

[Note: the link to his book is an Amazon affiliate link, meaning that I might be paid a small commission if you purchase through that link.]

Different Information to Search for a Hospitalized Ancestor

Though affected person admission papers and case information are sometimes restricted, that doesn’t imply that there aren’t different information which might be out there to us. We have to shift our focus from information created by the state to information that have been created regionally.

That’s what I did when researching Grace Braddock, who was listed within the 1880 census as an inmate on the Athens Insane Asylum in Athens, Ohio. She was 59 years previous, widowed, a local of Eire, and listed as “insane.”

Though by regulation I can request Grace’s information from the Ohio Historical past Connection, COVID restrictions have prevented analysis on the archives. So let’s see what else I can discover about Grace and her dedication to the Athens asylum. The 1870 census locations her in Perry County, with head of family Michael (age 48, presumably her husband), and Catherine (age 20), Michael (age 18), and Mary (age 13).

Native Courtroom Information Dealing With Madness

Usually, dedication to an asylum or state hospital initiated in an area courtroom (typically the county probate courtroom). You stand a significantly better likelihood of accessing these information than you do getting the hospital information. There are numerous forms of probate information, so make sure you search for all of them.

Guardianships are sometimes concerned in commitments. Although we usually consider guardianships as being one thing for minors, they may be used if an grownup was deemed unable to behave in his or her personal authorized pursuits.

A docket basically acts like a desk of contents of the proceedings of a case, itemizing the kind of continuing and the place it’s recorded. Whereas a docket doesn’t inform you a complete lot per se, it factors you to extra information and it offers you a minimum of a timeline of the courtroom actions.

There could be completely different dockets, damaged down by the operate of the proceedings. In Perry County, Ohio, for instance, there’s a separate docket to report the proceedings of guardianships. Right here is the docket for Grace Braddock and her two guardianship instances.

Grace Braddock entries, Guardian Docket, p. 265, Perry County, Ohio Probate Courtroom. Picture courtesy FamilySearch. (Click on to enlarge; will open in a brand new tab.)

We will see from the docket that Grace’s case numbers have been 5102 and 5103. The primary continuing was the guardian’s 1st account on 31 December 1878. The final continuing of the second case was the ward’s ultimate account on 2 Could 1893.

This docket offers us not solely journals to lookup, but in addition particular case numbers. Case packets or free papers comprise issues like inventories, receipts, depositions, and so forth. They are often invaluable. On this submitting, Edward Mackin (Grace’s first guardian) reported that he obtained $71.50 within the sale of Grace’s private property.

Edward Mackin account, case 5102, Perry County, Ohio Probate Courtroom. Picture courtesy FamilySearch. (Click on to enlarge; will open in a brand new tab.)

The courtroom journal summarizes what occurred on the varied proceedings in courtroom. On this probate courtroom journal from Buchanan County, Missouri, William Cavanas was “adjudged insane & a match topic for the Lunatic Asylum.” It additionally lists a $1.00 expense for “Executing warrant by delivering Insane at Asylum.”

Probate journal, Buchanan County, Missouri showing William Cavanas judged insane and a subject for the lunatic asylum
William Cavanas case, 8 November 1875, Probate Journal J, Buchanan County, Missouri. Picture courtesy FamilySearch. (Click on to enlarge; will open in a brand new tab.)

You generally come throughout courtroom information that have been redacted within the microfilming or digitizing course of. Right here’s an instance from the gathering of Washington probate information on Ancestry:

redacted probate court docket
Whitman County, Washington, Probate Minute E book H, p. 102. (Observe: though it’s referred to as a probate minute guide, it’s functioning like a docket.) Picture courtesy Ancestry.

The individual doing the microfilming positioned clean playing cards over the entries that needed to take care of madness instances. Ancestry digitized from the microfilm, not the unique information.

When this occurs, search for different courtroom information. Simply because the docket is redacted doesn’t imply that the courtroom journal is. Most courtroom journals are organized chronologically and have a primary index on the entrance.

Additionally, simply because a docket or different report was redacted in microfilming doesn’t essentially imply that it’s redacted in individual.


Native newspapers, particularly in smaller cities, typically ran notices of courtroom proceedings. (Thanks, Jill Morelli, for this tip!) You may additionally uncover articles about an ancestor’s sickness or an occasion that triggered the courtroom motion.

Loss of life Information

In case your ancestor died within the asylum/hospital, take a look at loss of life information in that county. Establishments didn’t all the time report affected person deaths with the native well being division, however it’s price a glance. In truth, the Kankakee County, Illinois loss of life information are what result in my discovery that my ancestor was on the Illinois Jap Hospital. The Athens County, Ohio loss of life information embody the loss of life of Grace Braddock within the “Athens Asylum” on 11 June 1892; her reason behind loss of life was an aneurysm.

The 1880 “Faulty” Schedule

A particular schedule of the 1880 census was the schedule of “Faulty, Dependent, and Delinquent” courses, which supplies data on the affected person’s psychological standing and the therapies used on those that have been institutionalized. You may learn extra about this schedule on my submit, “Do You’ve got a Faulty Ancestor?”

Annual Experiences and Different Sources for Context

State hospitals, being state establishments, filed annual studies. You not often discover details about particular sufferers, however you can see contextual data, such because the buildings’ format, meals, and remedy philosophy. Google Books and Web Archive are good locations to search for these studies, as are state libraries and archives.

County histories are additionally good sources for context. Look within the histories of the county the place the hospital is (was) positioned.

Different Sources for Asylum / Hospital Info

The Asylum Tasks wiki has details about establishments throughout the US and around the globe.

There’s a rising variety of initiatives to acknowledge sufferers from these amenities, particularly those that are buried in hospital cemeteries (normally in unmarked graves). One such undertaking is the Central State Hospital Cemetery Undertaking, led by the Indiana Medical Historical past Museum. Use your favourite search engine and search for the identify(s) of the asylum. You by no means know what data you’ll flip up.

Wish to get extra out of your on-line searches? Click on to get a free copy of my information “5 On-line Search Methods Each Genealogist Ought to Know”

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