Institutional stigma

Persistent family genealogists will eventually encounter a relative who died in a state hospital, city shelter, or mental institution. In many instances, that fact may have been hidden, disguised, or made more palatable for public perception. The death of my grandmother’s only brother, John P. Cassidy (1887–1934), presented me with my first “alternative version” of a vital statistic. After Pott’s Disease crippled him and terminated his career as a pharmacist, John spent the last years of his life in the tuberculosis ward of Fall River’s City Hospital. There he dabbled in trick photography and tinkered with his superhetrodyne radio.

His obituary falsely reported that he died at the home of his sister – an idealization, rather than the truth. My grandmother believed respectable people did not allow their family members to die in a public hospital. In the same vein, when she filled out John’s death certificate, she reported he was married when, in fact, he had been divorced for fifteen years.

Obituaries sometime tell us more about who created them than they do about the person whose life is recounted. A distant relative, now deceased, whom I interviewed when he was in his late 80s, told me his long-suffering grandmother, Mary (Hannafin) Mahoney, mother of thirteen children, “threw out” her alcoholic and abusive husband, James Mahoney, when their youngest child was around ten. The 1910 census confirmed that separation, with Mary and her children living in their Newport, Rhode Island home, and James counted as an inmate in the Cambridge, Massachusetts City Home.

Obituaries sometime tell us more about who created them than they do about the person whose life is recounted.

James died there later in 1910. An elaborately crafted obituary, however, claimed he had died en route to Holy Ghost Hospital! That explained why he did not die in Newport, so they thought. Buried in the family plot with his wife and children, James’s neatly-carved name and dates belie the turbulence of his life and the years he spent away from home.

Another instance of a fanciful obituary veiled a harsher truth. My great-grandfather’s brother Timothy Dwyer disappeared from Newport city directories in 1893. What happened to him? There were just too many Irish-born Timothy Dwyers to investigate. The answer finally emerged when a friend provided me with a list of burial dates from the Dwyer family plot in St. Columba’s Cemetery in Middletown, Rhode Island. Though Timothy’s name did not appear above ground, the cemetery plot record stated he was buried in August 1945. Timothy’s brief obituary reported that he died at the home of his brother, Patrick M. Dwyer, at 14 Cranston Avenue in Newport.

Through the World War II years, my father spent every Sunday afternoon in that house – he knew of no great-uncle hidden away. Timothy’s death was not recorded anywhere in Rhode Island. I then tracked down the burial permit, which revealed his body had been transferred from Bridgewater, Massachusetts. There I found Timothy died in the State Hospital for the Insane and that he had been a patient for over thirty years.

Such revelations always lead to more questions, some of which just cannot be answered. My family was not alone in how they chose to put a public face on their institutional shame. These discoveries have broadened my understanding of the paper trail every individual generates, especially those who did not die in the bosom of their family. With every record, we must always consider not only who provided the information but also why they chose to present an alternative version of how someone’s life ended – and what that says about the reporter.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

35 thoughts on “Institutional stigma

  1. The mis-clues that ancestors leave certainly are challenging. Reading between the lines is an important part of genealogical research.

  2. Hello Michael,

    Your experiences resonate so strongly with my own that I think all family researchers should make note.

    My mother shared with me as an adult that her paternal grandparents (Natives of County Clare) had been separated, I would assume that alcohol may have been the issue. When he died in Kings County Hospital, his death notice appeared stating that he had died at his residence, no. 7 4th Place in Brooklyn. Among old Irish Brooklyn residents, the oft quoted maxim was that in the event of a medical emergency, “Don’t take me to the County”. I suspect it had less to do with concerns about the quality of the care and more to do with the sense of it somehow being a Charity Institution like the workhouse.

    On my father’s side, his paternal grandmother was born in NYC during the Civil War of Famine emigrants from County Leitrim. Her mother replied in the 1900 Census that she had given birth to 12 children of whom 5 were living. The oldest son (one of the 5) disappeared from census records beginning with the 2nd enumeration of 1870. I had a 1914 death record from a city hospital, found him on an interment list in his parents’ grave in Calvary Cemetery though the only one not listed on the stone, found two marriage records and the births and deaths of at least two children, but did not find him in the 1880 or 1900 or 1910 Census. However, when Ancestry released prison admission records I did find at least 4 admissions to Sing Sing and other NY prisons. He was never mentioned in the family and none of my father’s generation ever remembered hearing about him.

    1. Hello Edward,
      I can appreciate all those details. There are several relatives who vanished. I am still searching.

  3. I have a great-great-grandmother who “disappeared” in Wisconsin. She was married and had two children after the 1880 census, and by the 1895 local census, my great-great-grandfather had remarried (1892) and had children with his new wife in addition to the two from the first wife. I have searched for her after the birth of her second son in 1885 with little luck so far. I imagine that there is a hospitalization somewhere, and she has been my most recent obsession.

  4. When I was working at a Public Library History room I found various items in the early 1900s & late 1800s newspapers that a Doctor had arranged for a person to be admitted to a County Poor House or some sort of Institution for Alcoholics. One has to remember there were no other options sometimes, Nursing Homes did not exist in those days, the person needed care that’s where they were sent.

  5. I haven’t encountered any obituaries that falsely report place of death to cover up institutionalisation — in my experience, it’s divorces or previous spouses or children that are deliberately left out of obituaries.

    We do have a case in our family of someone being institutionalised — Bessie W. Clarkson (Riggs) (Ragan) Watkins, the first wife of my wife’s maternal grandfather. We’ve not yet found an obituary for her, but if there is one I doubt it would mention her 1930 stay in the asylum in Jacksonville, Ill. However, I did find Bessie double-entered in the 1930 census, one showing her at home with her husband and three children, the other simultaneously as an inmate in the asylum. The family stories I’ve heard from various people about these circumstances indicate that Bessie wasn’t mentally ill — rather, it appears she was committed involuntarily after her husband came to believe (probably falsely) that she’d been unfaithful. He then divorced her and denied paternity of his daughter born at the time (yet this daughter, whom I’ve met, bears a very strong resemblance to him). Bessie was later released, but after that Bessie’s children lost track of her, coming to believe she’d died. A family member has told me that Bessie’s son was surprised to later find she had been living in Missouri, drove out to see her, but found that she had recently died. That would have been about 1973. Be that as it may, Bessie is buried near Springfield, Illinois (not Missouri) and her gravestone says she died in 1973 — and I’ve also found that she remarried at least two more times before she died. Unfortunately all the family members who would be able to shed some light on the circumstances of Bessie’s commitment and divorce in 1930 died many decades ago. (We’ve got an old videotape of my wife’s grandfather in which he talks about his life, but his version of events is . . . not the most helpful or complete — and he passes over the second of his three marriages as if it never happened.)

      1. Just updating my previous comment: I’m now pretty sure Bessie didn’t die in Missouri as the family member had said. The November 1972 obituary of Bessie’s brother Juddie calls her “Mrs. William Watkins of Springfield.” That was just a couple months before she died — since she was buried at Springfield, she would have been living there at her death too (still need to find her obit or death record, though, as well as William’s obit). As for the story about Missouri, perhaps the family member had been thinking of an earlier period of Bessie’s life, but she was an Illinois resident in the last year of her life.

  6. And, you think obits are not elaborately crafted today? LOL

    I personally knew a woman whose obit said she predeceased her first husband who was the father of her children. Well, the real truth was he did die, but only AFTER she divorced him to marry another man. She was trying to avoid the stain of that pesky word “divorce”.

    1. See if any newspapers exist in the area, or are online or indexed. That is what I was doing when working for as many as I could get done. Now those newspapers are pretty much online for Central NY and other places in the State. I think other Libraries are trying to do the same as fast as the can, it takes time:) I worked at the indices along with other duties for 21 years.

      1. One thing that’s helped me tremendously in online newspapers is finding the person’s street address in directories, then searching it in the paper. Text recognition is sometimes iffy and that gives an extra chance of finding info. Address searching is especially helpful for people with common names. I recently found a lot of info for a friend on her Miller ancestors in New York this way.

        1. Often Directories are very helpful too, there are sometimes even Rural Directories as well as City. Old Phone books are useful too, now that so many use cell phones not as much perhaps but the old ones are in Public Libraries or Historical Libraries.

  7. Interesting. I have found multiple census records of people entering their marital status as “widowed” or even “single” when they were actually divorced. They often moved far away from their hometowns, possibly to make a fresh start and conceal their marital history.

  8. Your article reminds me of two things. 1) Spoon River Anthology and 2) an article about death certificates that appeared in the New Yorker magazine, “Final Forms.” The article can still be found on-line and here’s a poem from Spoon River for Deacon Taylor:
    “I belonged to the church,
    And to the party of prohibition;
    And the villagers thought I died of eating watermelon,
    In truth I had cirrhosis of the liver,
    For every noon for thirty years
    I slipped behind the prescription particion
    In Trainor’s drug store
    And poured a generous drink
    From the bottle marked
    ‘Spiritus frumenti.'”

    1. Thank you. I will see out “Final Forms.” How I love “Spoon River.” For many years, I always read “George Gray” to my high school seniors to remind them that this is the year to unfurl their sails and catch the winds of destiny.

  9. Relatives who died in asylums or poor houses can be very difficult to research. A friend suggested recently that I write my own obituary now. Of course, it could be edited by the well meaning, but at least someone in the family would have my version of how things happened.

    1. I think that writing one’s own obituary is a great idea. My own children have made comments about our life incidents that are confused or even not true. Also, in time of grief even a spouse can make errors.
      Last summer, my husband and I went to the memorial service of his cousin, whose daughter read an autobiographical article the cousin had written a couple of years before, just after his wife had died. Not only did we learn about aspects of his life that were important to him, we enjoyed some of his witticisms.

  10. False information on a death certificate is confounding when doing research. You don’t realize it is false until something turns up to the contrary… I found a note on a great grandfather’s death certificate stating he was a ‘foundling’, this threw me for a loop at the time. But, now with DNA testing I have matches with common ancestors further up that particular branch, both paternal and maternal. So why did the informant for the death certificate provide that information? I will never know, but the lesson is not to take anything for granted.

  11. It is very sad that they were “ashamed” of these family members. Unfortunately, things aren’t much better today. We need to remember, we are ALL human and fall prey to these dread diseases. Remember them kindly.

  12. An Irish relative died in Phila in the 1920’s. His family, who were in Delaware, posted a death notice in their local paper stating that he’d died of heart failure.Well, I found his death
    certificate & he’d actually died of a fractured skull which the coroner attributed to ‘probable homicide’!

  13. I discovered a brother of my great grandmother died at a mental hospital near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the 1920s. If I am correct the mental condition was caused by a sexually transmitted disease according to the death certificate.

    1. I found disease also for my great-great-grandmother’s youngest sister Emma who died in the 1880’s. She was educated and from a family who were well known at the time. Given the family history of her mother and grandmother who at various times were labeled “insane,” it is an open challenge to separate her episode of paresis from possible heritable neurological conditions, or even to determine if the diagnosis was correct given that I only found one mention.

      Emma never married and moved frequently. I found Emma in at least two different institutions, in Massachusetts and Maine. At one point she was a mill worker in Maine and her mother lived with her. At another time her residence was with another sister.

      It is even harder to trace her mother, who may or may not have been institutionalized. Her mother was declared insane upon the death of her husband in the 1850’s, and five years later the court’s declaration was rescinded (her “health recovered”). So far I’ve found no evidence that she was institutionalized, and I found her living with different adult children later in life.

      Use of the FAN network (Friends, Associates and Neighbors) has been helpful, but institutionalization is a major challenge.

      1. We know how many states have closed records, but in cases of my own family members, I want to know a more accurate diagnosis, to the extent that they could make them. Quite a few 19th century death certificates I have seen attribute the cause of death to “softening of the brain.”

        1. I was surprised to find on the death certificate of my 2x great-grandfather that he had died at Mendocino State Hospital, which was an insane asylum. After some time I was able to find an obituary from the Ukiah (California) Republican Press for 17 Dec 1909 that explained this:


          Headline: Pioneer resident passes away

          Seth Dunham, an old resident of Cummings, died at the county hospital Tuesday morning. The deceased had been in poor health for some time and was brought to this city to be examined for his sanity. The doctors concluded the old gentleman was ill instead of insane and so he was sent to the hospital. His son, who is here awaiting trial, was taken to his bedside when it was found his condition was serious, but arrived to late to see his father alive. The deceased is survived by a widow and several children.


          There was no other hospital in the rural area, so he was taken to the state hospital. Still no news on why my great-grandfather Sumner was awaiting trial, though!

          1. Now you have your own set of matryoshka dolls to open as one discovery leads to another. I am sure that if you keep looking you’ll find the answer as to why Sumner was on trial.

  14. The lack of an obituary and death record led me to my unknown relatives in Australia. A genealogist there was searching for a death record for his great, great grandfather. He had his birth record, but no death record. He seemed to just disappear. The genealogist noticed a photo I had pictured on “Find a Grave” and wrote me asking what I knew about the stone. The stone was that of my great, great grandfather and I told him as much. After much back and forth and double checking, we found that his great, great grandfather and mine were the same person. “Our George” as we now call him, left Australia sometime in the 1830’s, arrived, we think on a whaler, in New Bedford, MA and remained there the rest of his life. In Australia he had a family which he abandoned for whatever reason and had another wife and children in New Bedford. As a result, I now know family in Australia who visited here last fall and will be returning in September. All for the fact of posting a photo.

    1. A tale as remarkable as this one deserves a wider audience. I encourage you to put this together as a genealogical article. It would tick many boxes of readers’ interests.

  15. Here in St. Louis, Missouri, we had a state run facility on Arsenal Street. Back in the day, senility was seen as a mental illness. My great grandmother was a resident there in her old age and Alzheimer’s still runs in the family. She also had two sons who were residents there. The were both “backwards”. I met one of the sons in his old age in the 70’s and wondered if he was on the Autism Spectrum now that I understand that disorder better. They were not a danger, but before Social Security, their parents just couldn’t afford to care for them and they became wards of the state back in the early 1930’s.

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