Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega 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. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
59 thoughts on “Researching Ancestors Who Were Committed to Asylums, Using Old Newspapers”
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.
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.
I wonder about the Fernald School and a patient named Sandra______ Bouchard who was at the school in the 60s and 70s. Ever hear of her or the institution? Please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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…
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.
Yes, it is so sad that it seems no one wants to care for the elderly. I have a question for you or anyone else who could give me an answer on patients being brought to a mental institution. I had a sister, who was age 32, who asked to be brought to a mental institution and signed herself in, due to major depression and giving up on life. She was there for only one day, as her parents came to retrieve her the next day. I was wondering if you know, or anyone else knows, if electroshock treatment was being given in these institutions in either 1966 or 1967, if a patient had only been there for one day. My sister was there for only one day, and I would not think they would have resorted to electroshock treatment in that short time frame. My sister only told me that they performed treatment for depression which was wrapping her in a wet towel and then having her sit in a bathtub of ice, which is supposed to “shock” you out of your depression. This mental institution closed in 1972, I believe, so I could not obtain any records. Any help given to me would be appreciated. Thank you.
Paula, electroshock treatment would have been available in that time frame. As to whether it was used in that facility at that time you’d have to either ask someone who worked there or read a history. If your sister was there for only one day, I wouldn’t think she would have had much treatment. She would have had to go through an intake including a history before any treatment would have been given.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…..
Thanks for sharing your experience. You are definitely right, it’s always worth trying to see if you can get the records. You never know until you try!
Thanks for commenting.
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!
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.
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)?
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
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!!
I had an uncle who also lived at Marlboro state hospital in NJ. I’ve done a lot of research and was able to find out that he died there in 1941. There is a small cemetery on-site and I was able to visit his grave. My family never spoke of him and now they’re all dead so there isn’t even anyone to ask. From my understanding, those buried there were not claimed by their families. So sad. I believe I am the only person who has ever visited his final resting place.
I have reached out to the state and was told that they only keep records for ten years and that they may have something called a “card code x” which is simply an index card with the date of arrival/departure and possibly a diagnosis. I’m going to complete the paperwork and hope they’re able to send me the information and that it will provide more details.
I wish New Jersey would post all of their public records on line.
I’m in!my great grandmother also died there and family was given til the end of day to pick her up or she’d be cremated and buried across the street. A few phone calls and you was able to get her admission date but nothing for her cause of death. I’d love to know more…deplorable horrific conditions and treatment. The patients deserve a properly maintained resting place.
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.
This is a great article and provides some insight as to where certain people can find their information.
I found a census record of a great grandmother who was barely even spoken about who was a “patient” at the Worcester Insane Asylum in Massachusetts in 1920. She was about 54 but she had gotten out and ended up getting hit by a driver and passed away. No one knows much about her, and I would love to find out more about her- she had my great grandfather out of wedlock who is also bi-racial. I think this is so interesting!
Thanks for sharing the story of your great-grandmother.
Make sure to utilize newspapers for additional clues. You may want to search for histories and archival collections for the asylum. Also look to see if there are others who are researching that asylum, they may be a good resource for you.
Thanks for this artice! I have five women in my ancestry who were patients at state hospitals. Fortunately for me, four of them (including my grandmother) were at Norwich State Hospital in Connecticut. The State Archives have some of the patient records, and because I was able to prove I was a direct descendent, they gave me copies of all four patient records. What a wealth of information, which solved several family mysteries and revealed shocking secrets. I’ve written a book (looking for a publisher) that shares what I learned about what happened to all of them, and how it has affected the present generation of our family. This is the first in a series of posts about my family’s connection to Norwich State Hospital: https://juliannemangin.com/2017/11/08/norwich-state-hospital/
Thank you for sharing your blog. Your ancestor’s stories are fascinating and offer an important look at female patients in state hospitals in the early 1900s. Perhaps you should self-publish your book?
I am looking for a great uncle. I would like to know why he was committed to Camarillo State Hospital. I was about 5 or 6 years old and I remember going there on weekends to visit him. His mother, my great grandmother, said his name was either Forentino or Florencio Asencio. I would like to know why my grandmother put him in there, and what happened to him. I am now 70 years old.
The Camarillo State Hospital closed in 1997. It is now CSU Channel Islands. I took classes there and I used to live in Camarillo, CA.
I hope you find the information you are looking for!
Camarillo State Hospital records are at the Archives Office in the library of CSU Channel Islands campus.
Unfortunately, most likely that information would not be available to you because of privacy laws.
Have you tried to order his death certificate? Did he die at Camarillo? His death certificate might provide a clue to his diagnosis. I’m assuming you mean Camarillo State Hospital in California. If that is where he died, Camarillo is in Ventura County and you could order his death certificate from the county. –Gena
Where can you find death certificates on the patients of Marlboro State Hospital? And where did all the patients go at the time of closing?
Lee, Here’s a link to New Jersey and information about ordering vital records copies, https://www.state.nj.us/health/vital/order-vital/genealogical-records/ .
The patients were most likely transferred to another facility. There appears to be quite a bit about the hospital online. Searching online for histories or in the newspaper for the time around the closing might reveal which facility or facilities they were transferred to.
Good luck with your research–Gena
I have visited the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia, where my great grandmother died. In doing the tour, my sisters and I realized that the simplest thing could have you committed back in the day. Reading a novel, depression, allergies, etc. There is a poster there decribing stupid things. My great grandmother died in 1900 and the facility has gotten rid of their records, I’d like to know when she was committed, when she died, and how she died. She was 35 years old at the time. My sister and I are making another trip there in May, to clean her grave (in a private cemetery) and do more research. Where can I go to get this information?
Nina, have you contacted local archives to see what records they may have? It’s possible they have records from the asylum. Have you gone to the county to get a copy of her death certificate? The death certificate would answer when and what she died from. Don’t forget to look for articles in the newspaper about the asylum as well as a possible obituary. Good luck with your research!
I had a great grandmother who was judged insane in Kansas in 1893. Is there any way to get records from any of the institutions serving around Marysville, Kansas, at that time? I would suspect she might have been in the area of Topeka, but am not sure.
Her name was Mary Jane (Hart) Hale, widow of Hoyt G. Hale, who died Dec. 19, 1894, and is buried in Marysville, Kansas.
We are seeking to find records of Mary Jane and would appreciate any help we can get.
Betty, you may want to try the local courthouse. My friend had an ancestor committed in Kansas and he found some records for her commitment at the local county courthouse, in their archives. You may also want to contact the Kansas State Historical Society (https://www.kshs.org/) and ask if they have any records. Good luck!
My great grandmother was in the Little Rock state hospital and died there around 1935. Her name was Mary Jane (Harrell) Koontz. Is there any way to find records back that far? I’m not even sure where she is buried. Any info would be appreciated.
FamilySearch has some death indexes for Arkansas that might be of help. See the Arkansas Genealogy page on the FamilySearch Research Wiki and then click on the Vital Records link under Records Types for more information.
You’ll want to find her death certificate so you can learn her death date and where she was buried. If she died in the state hospital it’s possible that she was buried there (especially if there were no family to claim her body). Arkansas State Archives might have some records. Also, http://michaelminn.com/privett/arkansas_state_hospital/ has some information about the hospital’s cemetery.
My great great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Nailor) McDaniel (1862-1913) supposedly had a breakdown after losing several babies. Her husband dumped her in an asylum and moved from Missouri to Oregon with the children, leaving her to die on her own. We think it was the Nevada Asylum in Missouri, but it was closed in 1991, then demolished in 1999, and records are missing so she’s a dead end which is frustrating. Her daughter, my great grandmother, never forgave her father.
Jenny, have you tried to search for a death certificate in Missouri? There are a few online indexes that might be of help. See the list at the FamilySearch Research Wiki, https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Missouri_Vital_Records. –Gena
I am researching an inmate in what is now St. Elizabeth in D.C. How could I find or could I find the commitment records and a death record? I’m hoping I can find next of kin and a cause of death. I contacted St. Elizabeth but I never got an answer. I have the date of commitment, patient number and a date of death and that’s it. The inmate died in 1861.
Peter, normally I would recommend checking local archives. Because most likely if those records exist they are a court record or were donated to an archive. Even a court record, due to that age, may be in an archive. However, if this is the facility I think it was, it was a federal facility. Federal records are with the National Archives. I did a search on the National Archives Catalog and did find some records. However, you need to contact an archvist or a researcher to learn more about these records and what they contain. Take a look at https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/418.html and https://catalog.archives.gov/search?q=St.%20Elizabeth&rows=20.
Also, see what histories have been written about St. Elizabeth and/or people who were institutionalized there. That might provide footnotes with potential sources. Good luck! Gena
Interested in learning more. My grandfather was in Big Spring State Hospital in Texas and died there. Not sure of the year but do know my father said he was 15 years old and he is 84 now (1951)? My younger brother was admitted recently for 3 months in “psych ward” but I do not know his diagnosis. I would love to know my grandfather’s history for hereditary purposes. I remember asking my grandmother and she just said “he went crazy and died”; she never elaborated. Anything I can do to find out? Thanks.
Because your grandfather would have been institutionalized fairly recently (1950s), chances are you may not be able to find much without going through the courts. However, you mentioned that your grandmother stated “he went crazy and died.” Do you have his death certificate? Does that provide clues? What about a funeral home record?
I am interested in learning about what happened to my mother’s brother, Bertram Harold Markle. He was institutionalized after his mother’s death in 1943. Maybe in Nebraska — not really sure where. He would often say that the staff would make him go get the patients because they were somewhat scared of them. They institutionalized him because he was born with Parkinson’s and at the time had no knowledge as to what it was. He was born in 1936 or 1938 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
His father took the family to Nebraska to be near his ageing mother. His father was Eugene Harold Markle, his mother was Sylvia Hoffman, his sister was Maxine Hoffman Markle. My uncle Bertram Harold Markle left the asylum or institution when he became age eighteen or twenty-one.
I would just like to know what happened to him and what institution he was taken to.
Candice, Have you tried looking in the 1940 census to start with? Do you have the name of the cities the family lived in so you can see what records exist? Do you have his death certificate?
I’ve been reading through a lot of these stories, and I saw you recommended “Annie’s Ghosts.” Funny, I’ve just started reading it! It was a gift from my sister years ago, and since I was looking to read something, I took it from my bookshelf (only on page 37!). It made me go back to my previous extensive research on a great aunt that was institutionalized at Metropolitan Hospital in Waltham, Mass. I’ve been doing a ton of “looking” online and cannot find any death record or a record of any sort. Any suggestions on where I can find an obit or anything else? I did try the vital records, but perhaps I wasn’t utilizing it correctly.
I want so much to find out about Francis and to honor her life, as she, too, was not spoken of. Thank you so much.
Gina, what a great article. I have 4 people from various branches that were all sent to asylums. My husband’s aunt and his great aunt were both in Norman Oklahoma’s State Mental Hospital. (They were aunt and niece, not mother and daughter.)
I found his aunt buried on the grounds of the hospital, but no trace of the great aunt. No family left to tell their stories, so I have no idea why they were there. So sad!
My husband’s great aunt on his dad’s side was diagnosed with “Female Hysteria” at age 16. I found Female Hysteria was a common diagnosis. Apparently back then women received “bad humors” from their uteruses (they traveled around the abdominal cavity you know) which caused ill humors if they were too high.
My father was married to a woman who I understand was committed to an asylum a couple times during their marriage. This was his first wife. I believe she may have had electric shock therapy. And it may have been after the birth of one or both of my two half-sisters — born in Jan. of 1925 and Jan. 1926. They lived in Cambria/Marshfield, Wisconsin. They also lived in South Milwaukee. Is there any way to find out about this hospitalization?
Barbara, the short answer is probably not because of confidentiality laws. However, you could check out the Wisconsin State Archives and search their catalog for possible records (maybe even an admitting log). Also, court records might be available in the county that your father and his wife lived in. Good luck with your research–Gena
I am seeking information about my Grandfather, John H. Lingerman, who was admitted to Allentown State Hospital for Tuberculosis and died June 2, 1913. I have the death certificate but that is all. Any information would be helpful. Thanks.
Jay, it appears that some records might be at the Pennsylvania State Archives. Check out the information on this web page and then scroll down for the link: https://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php/Allentown_State_Hospital . Good luck–Gena
My grandmother was an epileptic. I found her on the NY census as an inmate at Central Islip State Hospital, Long Island, NY, in 1920. She was divorced from my grandfather prior to her admittance. She died at the facility in April 1921. I was able to obtain the cause of death and to whom she was released. Died of epilepsy. She was only 38 years old. It was an RN who sent me the death card. I believe I wrote to Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island where the records were transferred. Neither hospital is there any longer. For years I’ve tried to obtain records pertaining to her stay, but to no avail. As you’ve said, protected information. Would you have any idea of how records could be obtained? It is so frustrating! Thank you!
Jane, have you looked at court records? That might be the answer for you. Also, check with the state library or archive.
I have been looking for my Aunt Claireese Price Gayfield. I learned from my cousin that she was schizophrenic. Therefore, I’m thinking she may have been committed to the Arkansas State Hospital as she lived in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. There is very little history on her. Is there any way I can ask for her records? (I know the HIPPA laws are in place to probably deny these documents.) I believe she was born in 1909 and died in 1920. Any help or suggestions are greatly appreciated. Thanks, Donnie R. Gayfield
Donnie, you may want to see if a local archive or the state archive has anything. You could also take a look at old court records that might include the records for when she was committed. Medical records are most likely not available but court records might hold important clues. Good luck!