Researching Ancestors Who Were Committed to Asylums, Using Old Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post Gena writes about how difficult it can be finding information about an ancestor who was committed to an asylum (i.e., state  hospital)—and how using old newspapers can help.

When I look at the latter years of one set of my paternal 2nd great-grandparents, I see a similarity. They both had divorced and later remarried, and their latter years were marked by the same outcome: they spent their final years in a state hospital, called an “asylum” in those days.

Asylums served the needs of more than just mentally disabled people: they also served as a place for the elderly who needed care. In an American era before rest homes and specialized elder care, asylums were available to care for elderly persons whose family could not—or would not—care for them. While we often associate the words “insane asylum” with mental illness, historically many different types of people were locked up in asylums who were anything but mentally ill. For example, besides the elderly, women who didn’t conform to society’s ideas of what a woman should be were sometimes locked up at the whim of their husbands or other male family members.

vintage postcard of the Arkansas Insane Asylum

Vintage postcard: Arkansas Insane Asylum. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Researching your ancestor who was committed to an asylum can be difficult due to the lack of sources, as well as privacy law restrictions. This is where social history sources can help your family history research.

In the case of my paternal 2nd great-grandmother, Malinda Randall Montgomery Bean, she spent less than a year in the Oregon State Hospital located in Salem, Oregon, in the 1940s. (To learn more about the Oregon State Hospital, visit their museum online at Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health.)

I knew a little bit about Malinda from interviewing family members but I wanted to know more. I was especially interested in her life between the years after her second husband died in 1935 and her own passing nine years later. I knew from family sources that she suffered dementia in her later years, which helped explain why she lived her last months in the state hospital.

To find out more about Malinda’s life I took a genealogy trip to Oregon, researched at the Oregon State Archives, visited the grounds of the hospital (still in existence), and found her burial place. Because I was limited in what I could learn about my ancestor’s life during her time at the state hospital, I researched old newspapers to understand the life of asylum patients during the early 1900s.

One gets a sense of the normalcy of sending the elderly to live out their final years at a state facility from this 1911 newspaper article, which is about the Oregon State Hospital asking families to not send their elderly to the hospital due to concerns about overcrowding, and instead take care of them at home or have the county care for them.

Asylum to Close to Many Insane, Oregonian  newspaper article 24 March 1911

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 24 March 1911, page 6

Reading a later newspaper article from 1940 lamenting the crowding of the facility gives me a sense of what my great-great-grandmother’s living conditions must have been like at the end of her life. One danger from the overcrowding is mentioned in the news article: fire. The old newspaper article states “The main building, built in 1883, is tinder dry, and its floors are soaked with the oil of many cleanings.” It goes on to say that the elderly are housed on the first floor just in case they need to escape during such a tragedy.

State Hospital Visit Reveals Crowded Conditions, Oregonian newspaper article 14 April 1940

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 14 April 1940, page 85

Besides problems with overcrowding in the asylums, there were other dangers for those living in institutionalized care. For example: right before my ancestor was a resident at the Oregon State Hospital, some cooks from the facility were charged in the deaths of 47 inmates. They served residents roach poison mixed in their food!

Asylum Cooks Provide Bail, Oregonian  newspaper article 25 November 1942

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 25 November 1942, page 27

Malinda “Lennie” Bean died on 19 March 1944 of bronchopneumonia and “senility” at the age of 79 years. Her family paid for her final arrangements and her subsequent burial in a nearby cemetery. According to her death certificate she had lived in the Oregon State Hospital for 9 months and 29 days.

Although doing genealogy research on an ancestor who spent time in an asylum can be difficult, don’t forget the power of incorporating social history—found in historical newspaper articles— to help you better understand their lives and the times in which they lived.

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s degree in Religion. Presenting on various subjects involving genealogy, women’s studies and social history, Gena has spoken to groups throughout the United States and virtually to audiences worldwide.

Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, GenWeekly, FGS Forum, APG Quarterly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. She is the author of the books, Putting the Pieces Together, Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) and From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012).

Gena is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s journal Crossroads. An instructor for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Gena has written courses about social media and Google. She serves as Vice-President for the So. California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, board member of the Utah Genealogical Association and is a Director for the California State Genealogical Alliance.

Her current research interests include social history, community, social history, community cookbooks, signature quilts and researching women’s lives.

Print Friendly

20 thoughts on “Researching Ancestors Who Were Committed to Asylums, Using Old Newspapers

  1. Putting an elderly relative in an asylum was still happening in the mid 1960s, at least in Massachusetts. I was part of a group from area colleges that provided crafts and entertainment once a week. It was a shocking revelation to see elderly women in what appeared to me to be clear minds committed by relatives unable or unwilling to care for them; there were some dangerous women in there with them. The last year I participated marked a turning point, and it’s my understanding that things got better after that, though I was no longer around to see for myself.

    • Pam,

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

      I know I was shocked when I first learned this happened and have since found so many instances of the elderly being institutionalized in the past. In some cases, when they died, they may have been buried in graves on the property that were either unmarked or markers that have been destroyed by the elements.

      –Gena

  2. Gena, this was fascinating! I, too, have an aunt that was labeled an “idiot” in the census records, and lived with siblings following her parents’ deaths. I haven’t been able to find a death certificate for her, and I don’t think she was in an asylum. But, she’s always been in the back of my mind. Plus, her name was America…

    • Peggy,

      Thanks for your kind words. You may be interested in Steve Luxenberg’s book, Annie’s Ghosts about his aunt who was institutionalized. It provides some great ideas for genealogical research.

      I hope that you are able to uncover more of your aunt’s story.

      –Gena

  3. My grandmother and aunt were both in state hospitals (asylums). My grandmother in 1910 and she died in 1911; my aunt from about 1923 to 1970. The Minnesota History Center had records from the state hospitals they were in so I was able to find out admission records for both of them. I didn’t know either of them so while I was sad they were in the hospitals, I was glad for the insight into their lives and why they were put into the hospitals.

    Thank your for your article. It gave me even more clarity about the lives of those admitted to the asylums.

    • Patricia,

      Thank you for your comment. With my 2nd great-grandmother her name was on an admitting record at the Oregon State Archives. It’s good to know that the Minnesota History Center has some records as well. Thanks so much for sharing that.

      –Gena

  4. Thank you for this. We actually have a similar situation in the mid to late 1800′s. The rest of the family listed the date he disappeared into the asylum as his death date. I found through newspapers that he had actually been arrested with another man also listed as insane and the two transported to the local Insane Asylum. I have researched the history of that asylum to get a feel for what may have happened. It is all very interesting.

    • Clorinda-

      That’s a good point that someone could be listed as dead, or considered so by the family, but actually be institutionalized. It’s a good example of how things may not be as they seem. That’s where newspapers can really make a difference in our research.

      Thanks for commenting about your family research.

      –Gena

  5. My grandfather died in the state hospital in the early 1960′s. When I called the hospital about his records they not only found them but mailed them to me immediately! I was astonished at how easy it was! So you never know…..

  6. Gena,

    Thank you so much for this article. I found out that a distant relative was institutionalized in an asylum and ended up living there for a very long time. She was still there when she passed away. Since reading your article, I did some reading in newspapers about this asylum, and found some interesting information.

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/05/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-may-10-2013.html

    Have a great weekend!

    • Hi Jana-

      I’m so glad to hear that you found the information helpful to your own research.

      Thanks for the shout out on your Fab Finds. Your list is always great and I appreciate your mentioning the post.

      Gena

  7. Glad you wrote this article. I have a great-grandmother who spent time in a couple of state hospitals – one in Alabama and one in Arkansas. Family lore indicates she had some mental health problems. Is it possible to find documentation on who had her committed (through a court or whatever)?

    • Carolyn,

      Yes, you may be able to find this information through court records. I would start there and then try contacting the individual hospital and ask about the possibility of obtaining patient records. However, access to patient records may not be allowed except under a few circumstances. Also, look in the card catalog for the state archive and see if any records were archived there.

      Good luck with your search
      –Gena

  8. I really appreciate this discussion as, while doing research on my husband’s great grandmothers, we discovered both died in asylums in New York City circa 1900-1910. John’s maternal grandmother told us her mother died from scalding herself with an overturned pot on the stove where she was cooking. At the time she had three small children, the youngest being 18 months old. Her death certificate said she died of a “epilepsy, insanity and cerebral hemmorage” while a patient at Lebanon Hospital and was buried in an unmarked grave in Flushing Cemetery. We followed the trail to the cemetery and found the spot where she was buried. Her husband, a New York City policeman for 25 years, remarried and was decorated as one of the heros of the “Slocum Disaster.” I have tried to understand this family tragedy and the decision made by John’s grandmother to have his wife committed. Your article made me realize I need to do more research in local papers from 1905. It occurred to me that John’s great grandmother might possibly have had postpartum syndrome, something unheard of then, and the resulting behavior might have not been considered “normal.” I can’t help but feel sad as I’m writing this on Mother’s Day…

    • Patty-

      Unfortunately, it was not unusual for women to be committed for mental health issues that could easily be treated in today’s world. Depression, alcoholism, etc may have been reasons for a husband or father to commit a female family member. Women were even committed if they did not meet the expectations of the way women should behave.

      Try searching court records as well as newspapers to see if they yield the answers you are looking for. There’s no doubt about it, that this case is sad but by remembering her and telling the story of her life you are helping keep her memory alive for future generations.

      Good luck with your search and thanks for sharing your research.

      -Gena

  9. Thank you for writing this. I have a relative, my mother’s cousin, who was also in the Oregon State Mental Hospital. From what I can gather, it must have been for treatment of depression. She was there in 1942 and died in the “rat poison” incident you mentioned.

    • Kim,

      I’m so sorry to hear that. What a terrible tragedy for a health condition that now can be treated. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable are usually the ones who are at the most risk for abuse, even from the people who are supposed to help them.

      You may be interested in the Oregon State Hospital Museum, http://oshmuseum.org/. They also have a Facebook page.

      Thanks for sharing your story.

      Gena

  10. Many thanks for writing this story and keeping alive this very important issue. My g grandmother an Italian immigrant who could barely read or write lived in Marlboro State Mental Hospital in New Jersey for 13 years. A mother of 5 beautiful children and a wife. I really have no answers. This is what started my obsession with genealogy …to find out more about Emila. Door were slammed very quickly by the State of New Jersey and it took me 6 months of battling for just her death certificate because she died there. The hospital is closed and newspaper article told me that records lay in boxes in a basement. Between my mom and I we must have called and emailed the people in charge about 10 times and NO RESPONSE at all. Talked with others and they told me the records were probably destroyed. Some state workers were helpful but most could not even return a phone call or email message. To this day I find it hard to talk about what the state put me thru. Family members know nothing and its talked about in hushed tones that she never got over losing a child at birth. On Dec 26, 1946 she died alone in the hospital. I know family went to see her but still no one will talk about it. I decided I needed to focus on other things in genealogy because of the strain on me personally. The sadness and hurt I felt FOR Emila. When the 1940 census came out it was a wealth of info. It had the hospital and her name with 30 roommates of all color, backgrounds and different languages. It has put me to ease knowing she had others there just like her. It was strangely comforting. Lets keep this subject alive! Many thanks Gena! Maybe we should start our own group? We can all storm the state offices demanding our ancestors papers! We can start with New Jersey!!

  11. Lisa,

    Thanks so much for sharing your story.

    I know how frustrating it can be. My cousin’s grandmother was also an immigrant and the mother of small children when she was admitted to a state hospital. Once there, she never left. My cousin was eventually able to receive a few records detailing her grandmother’s stay there. Those records tell a terrible story of assumptions made about her mental status because she could not speak English and her treatment in that facility. The hospital provided little help in my cousin’s quest to learn more, even refusing to let her know where their own cemetery had been decades earlier. A janitor finally pointed to the patchy dirt lot that was the final resting place for her grandmother.

    I agree with you, these family stories need to be remembered and told.

    Gena

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>