Digging into Our Ancestors’ Lives: Finding Social History Records – Part 6, Mental Health and Care

It seemed natural to follow the social history post about the poor and almshouses with those who suffered from mental health issues, as, sadly, their futures, in many respects, were quite the same and very limited in terms of future comfort and happiness.

Like the term for a place where the poor resided, facilities for those who were mentally unfit had several names. Often, they were outright called a lunatic asylum. A more politically correct term that came into use was state hospital. they were also called mental hospitals and sanatoriums. I’m not going to even mention the slang terms that people used. Various iterations of these institutions have existed throughout time.

Have you come across the story of a someone who was institutionalized because of mental capacity? If so, first note that there were many reasons for being declared mentally unfit. In the 1800s, a husband could have a wife involuntarily admitted because she was “difficult.” Those with epilepsy or other medical conditions that were apparent to others could also be placed in care. Seniors who lived long enough to display dementia symptoms could similarly be declared unable to care for themselves.

Where are these records found? We are back to the court system again – a court had to declare a person mentally unfit in order for them to be placed in an institution – and the order books and/or minutes might have to be read page by page to locate a specific order.

I’ve come across this type of record in court minutes before, but I wasn’t looking for that particular record or person. I did make a note to myself that usually several witnesses testified as to the behavior and actions of Person X and the judge/jury would declare X as mentally fit or unfit. I also noticed that specific details weren’t really mentioned, just vague statements like “in business, they don’t bargain well for themselves” or they were taken advantage of by someone else. When out-of-the-ordinary physical behaviors were observed, a statement to the effect that the person was seen in public doing odd things might be all that is recorded.

Where else might an individual’s records be found? Of course, at the institution where he/she was committed. However, they are not easily accessed. First, if the institution is gone, the records are likely long gone as well, right out of existence. Second, if hospital records were saved, they are often protected by stringent access laws, right down to having to hire an attorney to petition a judge to unseal a record that might be 150 years old. (HIPAA laws cover access of records, regardless of how long ago they were created.) Even then, the judge may say no! In short, it is likely an individual’s hospital record might never see the light of day, if it even still exists. Not impossible, but not likely either.

Census records should include inmates, as patients were called, in enumerations.

I was quite surprised as I researched the life of a young man who owned a beautiful hotel in Augusta, only to find him in the 1880 census as an inmate in the Maine Insane Hospital. The hospital was quite large, as the patients whose names began with B and C each filled a 50-line page of the census. At that rate, there would have been over 1,000 people in that hospital.

Newspapers might also contain details of a person’s hospitalization. A caveat, here, however – for most families, this would have been a very socially embarrassing situation that would be hidden as best it could. IF the hospitalization occurred as part of odd or dangerous public behavior or because of a criminal act, the newspaper would be more likely to have a story about the incident published.

An excellent book, Annie’s Ghosts, written by Steve Luxenberg, is available from the author. He shares his own family story.

There are few online resources, though, for locating individual records. With some deep digging, you might find a collection:

Hospital & Insanity Records, New Orleans – latter half of 19th Century

Records of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, National Archives (NARA) – the records themselves aren’t online, but can be accessed through NARA

State Hospital #1 – Callaway County, Missouri – digital images on FamilySearch

Insane Asylum Records (U.K.) – links on Olive Tree Genealogy

State Hospitals: Historic Patient Records: Rochester – Minnesota

There are a number of websites with information about asylums and their records:

Researching Ancestors Who Were Committed to Asylums, Using Old Newspapers by Gena Philibert-Ortega on GenealogyBank

Asylums, State Hospitals and Private Institutions, also by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Researching Mental Records

Records of State Mental Hospitals at the Illinois State Archives, Part 1 and, six months later, Help in Accessing Closed Records at Illinois State Mental Hospitals

Whether or not you are able to locate and access patient records depends on a lot of luck and, at times, energy, perseverance and money!




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