One of the most difficult searches for genealogists is tracking a family member who is said to have been institutionalized for reasons other than criminal.
Each state or county or institution has their own rules for disclosing names or circumstances for inmates/patients/clients. Some records may have been previously public but have since been destroyed.
Maybe you see in a census that the wife is missing — husband and children are listed but the wife is not. You check for a death record or a grave. Nothing. The are several scenarios: they could have divorced and she remarried and is no longer researchable under her former name; she could have moved out; she may not have been in the household at the time the census taker visited (maybe staying with a relative). Or could she have been institutionalized? Tragically, some institutions buried deceased residents in mass graves, without markers and no record of their death.
Who is institutionalized? My membership to the Indiana Genealogical Society has state and county databases. I chose my county, Wayne, and the Index to Defective, Dependent & Delinquent Census for Wayne County, Indiana (1880), which is a special schedule of the 1880 U.S. Census. It includes first and last name, township, age, institution, and category — deaf mute, indigent, homeless, blind, idiot, and insane. It is for only the one year, but it gives an idea of what people could be institutionalized for.
According to Family Search (www. HYPERLINK “http://familysearch.org”familysearch.org) census population schedules for jails, hospitals, poor houses or farms, and insane asylums were often placed near the end of the rest of the regular population schedules for a county. The same for records of American Indians, forts, and military bases.
If you’re researching a female ancestor, the reasons for her institutionalization may have been more underhanded, however legal at the time. Between 1850 and 1900, a husband could have his wife committed if she disagreed with him, practiced a religion not to his liking, suffered from postpartum depression, inherited “insanity,” had epileptic seizures, suffered a stroke, or if she acted out in ways oppositional to him. Another symptom for admittance was suppressed menstruation, or anything dealing with female organs.
In most cases commitment to an institution or state hospital begins at the county or probate court, where it may be easier to access records than from the asylum or hospital. Check for guardianships and look at the probate court docket — it is a table of contents of case proceedings and lists the type of case and where it is recorded. Sometimes a newspaper publishes the court proceedings.
An interesting online article is “Lunacy in the 19th Century: Women’s Admission to Asylums in United States of America,” Katherine Pouba and Ashley Tianen, co-authors. Dr. Susan McFadden, Psychology, faculty adviser.
“Genealogy doesn’t stop when you type The End. There is always more to the story.”
Becky McCreary is a member of Southern Arizona Genealogy Society and teaches “Storytellers: Writing family stories.” Genealogy Today articles are archived at HYPERLINK “http://www.azsags.org”www.azsags.org. Articles may not be reprinted without the written permission of the author, firstname.lastname@example.org