Learning that an ancestor spent time in an institution can be troubling and may be a roadblock in your genealogy research. Some records may be viewed, others are private, and many have been destroyed.
There may be a story about a family member who was mentally or physically impaired, imprisoned, or died in a poorhouse. You want to know more about him or her.
Or you might find hints on a special census. For example, the 1880 Special Census of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent collected information using the following categories: Insane Inhabitants, Idiots, Deaf-Mutes, Blind Inhabitants, Homeless Children (in institutions), the Imprisoned, and Paupers and Indigent Inhabitants. There may be in some states an attachment detailing the disabled persons condition.
As communities grew in the 19th century, institutions were established. Until then, families took care of those who needed help.
Begin the search by putting the person’s name into Search on Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org. Also look at census records for the town in which the institution was located. There can be, as with all records, scant or incorrect information.
If you find the person’s name and the location of the institution, read the history of the facility. When was it in operation; how did it operate; how was it funded (state, county, religious, private, etc.) and does it still exist?
If it was state or county funded, records may be at the county auditor’s office or they should have knowledge of where the documents are stored, if they were kept. If the institution still exists but with a different name, the website will give their research policy.
Browsing online, you can find databases and indexes to state archives and historical groups. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) lists collections in repositories. Check the Library of Congress site for manuscript collections.
Each state, county and church has their protocol for privacy for the inmates. Expect to be told that records don’t exist.
Hospital records for the deceased are seldom retained after several years, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Insurance records are commercial businesses, so there is no obligation for them to keep old records. But again, it doesn’t hurt to try.
Prison inmate names were published in Registers for Prisoners Committed and, interestingly, Yuma Territorial Prison is one of the published records.
I typed in a state hospital which still exists and that I am familiar with. On its website, I chose History and found when and why it was established and its changes through the years. Under the Genealogy Resources tab, I learned that a “sample” of patient records are sent to the state archives and the rest are destroyed.
I tell researchers to never be ashamed or embarrassed by the adverse events or “secrets” they find about an ancestor or relative. It may give a better understanding of the person and his or her family and is a view of the social history of the time.