Researching Ancestors in Asylums

Researching an ancestor who was in an asylum or state hospital is challenging, frustrating, and (often) emotional work. Success in finding the records comes from  persistence and creativity. Here are some records and strategies to use when researching an ancestor in such an institution.

The Emotional Aspect of Researching Institutionalized Ancestors

Before we get into finding the records, I want to point out some of the “other” challenges in this type of research. It can be heartbreaking to see your ancestor described as “a lunatic” or to read the conditions that they endured in an asylum.

Some might say, “But, Amy, those were the terms they used back then. They didn’t mean anything by them.” I beg to differ. In many cases, these terms were meant to label someone as “lesser than.”

Why Were They Sent to an Asylum?

Barring finding a doctor’s testimony, a case file, or a detailed petition to the court, you might not be able to determine the real cause of the ancestor’s hospitalization. First, there is the issue of vague language. Was the “insanity” actually depression? Was it epilepsy or other seizure-inducing conditions? Was it PTSD?

You also have to consider the non-medical reasons that a person could be committed. Under the guise of “insanity,” husbands could have their wives committed (involuntarily) for disagreeing with them. One such case was Elizabeth Packard, whose husband had her committed because she disagreed with his religious teachings, which was rather embarrassing for him, as he was a minister. (You can read more about causes of women committed to asylum’s in “Lunacy in the 19th Century: Women’s Admissions to Asylums in United States of America,” a paper by Katherine Pouba and Ashley Tianen of the University of Wisconsin.)

The Challenge of Finding Asylum Records

The immediate question that comes to mind when discovering that an ancestor was in an asylum or state hospital is often, “Why was he (or she) there?” Unfortunately, state law or policy often restricts the records that would give the most direct answer — an admissions application or the patient’s file.

Kankakee State Hospital, 1893
Kankakee State Hospital, 1893

In Illinois, for example, patient records are closed by law. Immediate family members of a deceased patient can make a request directly to the state archives, the state hospital, or the Illinois Department of Human Services. (An immediate family member, in this case, is the patient’s spouse, children, siblings, and parents.) But what if you’re not an immediate family member? You get to try to obtain a court order from an Illinois circuit court.

My ancestor died in 1899 in what was then called the Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane (later called Kankakee State Hospital). Even though she has been dead for 122 years, I have to convince a judge to issue a court order so I can see her records.

Some states are slightly more open. Ohio, for example, use to require researchers to sign a paper that they were the “closest relative” to the patient. Now that’s only required if the patient’s death occurred within the past 50 years. However, the books are still closed from public review; researchers still have to fill out forms for specific records.

Steve Luxenberg’s book Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret is a must-read for anyone pursuing this process, especially if the patient died in the last 50 years.

[Note: the link to his book is an Amazon affiliate link, meaning that I might be paid a small commission if you purchase through that link.]

Other Records to Seek for a Hospitalized Ancestor

Although patient admission papers and case files are often restricted, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other records that are available to us. We need to shift our focus from records created by the state to records that were created locally.

That is what I did when researching Grace Braddock, who was listed in the 1880 census as an inmate at the Athens Insane Asylum in Athens, Ohio. She was 59 years old, widowed, a native of Ireland, and listed as “insane.”

Although by law I can request Grace’s records from the Ohio History Connection, COVID restrictions have prevented research at the archives. So let’s see what else I can find about Grace and her commitment to the Athens asylum. The 1870 census places her in Perry County, with head of household Michael (age 48, presumably her husband), and Catherine (age 20), Michael (age 18), and Mary (age 13).

Local Court Records Dealing With Insanity

Typically, commitment to an asylum or state hospital initiated in a local court (often the county probate court). You stand a much better chance of accessing these records than you do getting the hospital records. There are various types of probate records, so be sure to look for all of them.

Guardianships are often involved in commitments. Though we typically think of guardianships as being something for minors, they could also be used if an adult was deemed unable to act in his or her own legal interests.

A docket essentially acts like a table of contents of the proceedings of a case, listing the type of proceeding and where it is recorded. While a docket doesn’t tell you a whole lot per se, it points you to more records and it gives you at least a timeline of the court actions.

There can be different dockets, broken down by the function of the proceedings. In Perry County, Ohio, for example, there is a separate docket to record the proceedings of guardianships. Here is the docket for Grace Braddock and her two guardianship cases.

Grace Braddock entries, Guardian Docket, p. 265, Perry County, Ohio Probate Court. Image courtesy FamilySearch. (Click to enlarge; will open in a new tab.)

We can see from the docket that Grace’s case numbers were 5102 and 5103. The first proceeding was the guardian’s 1st account on 31 December 1878. The last proceeding of the second case was the ward’s final account on 2 May 1893.

This docket gives us not only journals to look up, but also specific case numbers. Case packets or loose papers contain things like inventories, receipts, depositions, etc. They can be invaluable. In this filing, Edward Mackin (Grace’s first guardian) reported that he received $71.50 in the sale of Grace’s personal property.

Edward Mackin account, case 5102, Perry County, Ohio Probate Court. Image courtesy FamilySearch. (Click to enlarge; will open in a new tab.)

The court journal summarizes what happened at the various proceedings in court. In this probate court journal from Buchanan County, Missouri, William Cavanas was “adjudged insane & a fit subject for the Lunatic Asylum.” It also lists a $1.00 expense for “Executing warrant by delivering Insane at Asylum.”

Probate journal, Buchanan County, Missouri showing William Cavanas judged insane and a subject for the lunatic asylum
William Cavanas case, 8 November 1875, Probate Journal J, Buchanan County, Missouri. Image courtesy FamilySearch. (Click to enlarge; will open in a new tab.)

You sometimes come across court records that were redacted in the microfilming or digitizing process. Here’s an example from the collection of Washington probate records on Ancestry:

redacted probate court docket
Whitman County, Washington, Probate Minute Book H, p. 102. (Note: although it is called a probate minute book, it is functioning like a docket.) Image courtesy Ancestry.

The person doing the microfilming placed blank cards over the entries that had to deal with insanity cases. Ancestry digitized from the microfilm, not the original records.

When this happens, look for other court records. Just because the docket is redacted doesn’t mean that the court journal is. Most court journals are arranged chronologically and have a basic index at the front.

Also, just because a docket or other record was redacted in microfilming doesn’t necessarily mean that it is redacted in person.

Newspapers

Local newspapers, especially in smaller towns, often ran notices of court proceedings. (Thank you, Jill Morelli, for this tip!) You might also uncover articles about an ancestor’s illness or an event that triggered the court action.

Death Records

If your ancestor died in the asylum/hospital, look at death records in that county. Institutions didn’t always record patient deaths with the local health department, but it is worth a look. In fact, the Kankakee County, Illinois death records are what lead to my discovery that my ancestor was at the Illinois Eastern Hospital. The Athens County, Ohio death records include the death of Grace Braddock in the “Athens Asylum” on 11 June 1892; her cause of death was an aneurysm.

The 1880 “Defective” Schedule

A special schedule of the 1880 census was the schedule of “Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent” classes, which gives information on the patient’s mental status and the treatments used on those who were institutionalized. You can read more about this schedule on my post, “Do You have a Defective Ancestor?”

Annual Reports and Other Sources for Context

State hospitals, being state institutions, filed annual reports. You rarely find information about specific patients, but you will find contextual information, such as the buildings’ layout, meals, and treatment philosophy. Google Books and Internet Archive are good places to look for these reports, as are state libraries and archives.

County histories are also good sources for context. Look in the histories of the county where the hospital is (was) located.

Other Resources for Asylum / Hospital Information

The Asylum Projects wiki has information about institutions across the US and around the world.

There is a growing number of projects to recognize patients from these facilities, especially those who are buried in hospital cemeteries (usually in unmarked graves). One such project is the Central State Hospital Cemetery Project, led by the Indiana Medical History Museum. Use your favorite search engine and look for the name(s) of the asylum. You never know what information you will turn up.

Posted: June 27, 2021.

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  • I thoroughly enjoyed reading and absorbing this article since my situation is quite similar and you might just wish to tackle it also. My name is Carl H. Bloss/ Archivist Emeritus at 87, for Bethany Orphans’ Home in Womelsdorf, Pa. http://www.bethanyhome.org I set out 12 years ago to attempt to bring our historical records to the public and to the many children wishing to know their birth parent. In my genealogy classes I have brought together about 5 orphans who were adopted. I gained a little fame while gathering the Mocavo Community Grant back in 2013 to digitized and index our Book of Children – a chronological listing of children from 1863 to about 1970 . Still working on it. Thank you for your podcasts and assistance. CHBloss

  • I believe my great grandfather was at Traverse City, Michigan asylm. A John Cabasco Grubb. Wow ,so ironic for your post to come up at this time when my sister and I are planning a visit in October. Thank you for your interesting article.

  • Thank you for sharing this valuable information! I’m currently looking for answers regarding my great great grandmother in Indiana….won’t give up! Again, thank you!

  • THis has been a very interesting post for me, though perhaps not directly applicable as the person I am researching was in a psychiatric hospital in England.. She was my great aunt, and I was always told by my grandmother, her sister, that she had died in her early 20s/ late teens (ie in about 1920). However, after a great deal of hunting, I found her death record. She died in 1975 in a psychiatric hospital in Essex. She was there from at least 1939 (recorded in the 1939 Register), and I imagine since the early 1920s.
    The hospital closed in the 1990s. The health board tell me that no records would have been kept, and the Essex Record Office say they cannot help. Having read your post, i am wondering if there would be any court records I might be able to trace. Thank you Amy for suggesting another approach!

  • Thank you for this information on researching those in asylums. My great grandfather was an inmate at the St. Louis County Lunatic Asylum. I was stunned when I discovered this information in the 1920 census. He was still there in 1940. He passed away in 1943. I have read a bit about this institution, and the conditions there were horrible and overcrowded. I have no idea why he was placed there. I also found out that my great grandmother remarried while he was there, but I can find no record of a divorce. There is lots to research. This facility is referred to as a sanitorium in the 1940 census. I am wondering if he had TB or some other illness other than mental health issues. Whatever caused him to be there is something I would like to know. I will try doing some additional research into other records like you describe in this article.

    • I have a similar situation with my great grandmother. She was in the State Hospital #2 in Missouri. My great grandfather moved to another state and remarried, but I have not ever been able to locate a divorce record.

  • Women were institutionalized without their consent even in the 1960s. I witnessed my neighbor commit his wife to a state mental institution several times simply because she disagreed with him. I was in their home frequently and never saw her in any situation that indicated mental illness or depression. Her children were deathly afraid of him and knew they would suffer while she was “put away,” which was how he threatened her. She endured those stays for months, until someone decided she was calm enough to go home. I think of her often and hope she is at peace. It will be interesting to see where I find her in the 1950 census records; I will look at the state institution first!

  • This is an incredibly useful post about a frustrating topic. I have at least 3 ancestors who were probated to state hospitals in Ohio, so your ideas and links are particularly encouraging to me. Thank you so much!

  • This was such an interesting article! Thank you so much! My great grandmother spent most of her adult life institutionalized in State Hospital #2 in St. Joseph MIssouri. She is first listed in the 1910 census (1920, 1930, and 1940 as well). She passed away at the institution in1946. However, her death certificate states that she had been there 7 years. I have never been able to find more information on her.

  • My great grandmother Ida Corrinne Casey Johnson was committed to the Asylum for the Insane in Little Rock Arkansas. She was committed by an Insane Order signed by her husband John Gideon Johnson in 1897. They had been married in 1887, and had 3 children: born in 1896, 1889 and 1894. She died in 1898 at age 28. I wrote to request her records from the asylum, but they refused to tell me anything. I don’t know if she died in the asylum; maybe she committed suicide. I cannot find any death certificates for that time period. Even her father mentioned her in his will, stating that she was insane. I don’t know where else to look. But I continue to look. Thanks for your article which gives me incentive to keep at it.

  • Wondering about family that has TB and send to hospital and maybe died there in AL or TN????

    • I’d still take a look at the death records in those states. If it was a private sanitarium/hospital, you probably won’t have things like the annual reports that I mentioned above and there might not have been a guardianship or other court action involved. Take a look at newspapers where your ancestor was living; they might mention that he or she was sent to the hospital or notices of family going to visit.

  • My 2x great-grandfather, Charles Wilder, was committed to the Queens Street Lunatic Asylum in 1860 in Toronto, Canada for “chronic mania” and being suicidal and dangerous to others. The cause was listed as religion (Baptist). He was released after 7 months 10 days with just the note “cured”.

    The hospital still exists as the Queens Street Mental Health Centre. A distant cousin was able to go there and copy his admission record. While I am very grateful for this information, I have so many unanswered questions. Checking court records is a great idea

  • In Australia an inquest was required for anybody who died in an asylum. These are very useful documents which will often tell you about the condition the person was admitted for and sometimes even if the family visited.