Lost to history

Willard Asylum

I recently read a book by Ellen Marie Wiseman entitled What She Left Behind. Among other themes in the book, it depicted the treatment of a woman who was committed to an asylum in early 1920 by her father. The main character was committed because she reacted strongly to a marriage arranged by her parents; she displayed outbursts of emotion. The author of What She Left Behind describes the conditions in an asylum based on the Willard Asylum in Ovid, New York, during the early twentieth century. Often, when I’m reading fiction, I think about my family tree and those living during the years in which the novel takes place. Were there individuals in my own family tree who “went mad” or were sent to live in an asylum? Were these episodes recognized as depression or mental illness; or was a person abandoned, without family to care for them and, thus, committed?

While speaking with my mother about this novel, she reminded me of Mary Todd Lincoln, who was committed in 1875. Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s eldest son, arranged a case against his mother after he noticed her troubled behavior. (This was ten years after Abraham Lincoln was killed and four years after their son, Tad, died in Chicago.) At 31 years of age, Robert was Mary and Abraham Lincoln’s only surviving child. During the trial, Robert testified, “I have no doubt my mother is insane. She has long been a source of great anxiety to me.”[1] On 1 June 1875, Mary wrote a letter to a friend, explaining the jury’s decision: “Six physicians in council informed me that by longer delay I was making myself morally responsible for some very probable tragedy, which might occur at any moment.”[2] Mary Todd Lincoln spent four months at Bellevue Place until her sister assumed her care in Springfield, Illinois; she died in 1882.

“I have no doubt my mother is insane. She has long been a source of great anxiety to me.”

We recently completed a research project for a client of NEHGS, and our researcher found out that one of his ancestors was committed by her husband after she gave birth to twins. The story of Bernard and Mary begins at the end of the Civil War, when Bernard became ill with chronic diarrhea, rheumatism, and kidney disease. His declining health must have been an extreme strain on the family, but in 1869 Bernard appeared before the County Court to declare that his wife, Mary, was insane. Her insanity was stated to be “hereditary”; further, she had been “excited by confinement with the twins.” Court records also explain that Mary was “feverish” and would often “neglect her husband.” Could this be today’s diagnosis of post-partum depression, or perhaps – the simpler explanation – she was just an overwhelmed mother and wife?

Dexter Asylum

After reading What She Left Behind and understanding the stories of both Mary Todd Lincoln and Bernard’s Mary, who were both found to be insane by a jury and spent time institutionalized, I wanted to learn more about asylums in and around the towns my family lived. Asylums are portrayed in films as buildings in an abandoned part of town; typically, they have an ominous fence around the property. But many were not like that at all. In Rhode Island, where most of my own family settled, there was the State Workhouse and House of Corrections, the State Hospital for the Insane, the State Almshouse (renamed the State Infirmary in 1917), the State Prison and Providence County Jail, the State Reform Schools, and Dexter Asylum.[3]

Dexter Asylum was an institution for the care of the poor and mentally ill in Providence from 1828 until 1957.[4] The large estate was donated to the town by Ebenezer Dexter and was recorded in his 1824 will. Mr. Dexter was a member of the town council and wanted his estate to be used “to care for the poor.” It was situated in the heart of Providence’s east side (at the corner of Hope Street and Lloyd Avenue). The 36-acre property housed about 200 individuals by the mid-nineteenth century, which is when the Mayor of Providence directed that another building be opened for the mentally ill: Butler Hospital.[5]

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, one in five Americans – or roughly 43.8 million Americans – experience mental illness in a given year. Unfortunately, we didn’t have these studies in 1753, when the first hospital opened in Philadelphia. According to Benjamin Rush, a physician who has been referred to as “the father of modern psychiatry,” in the 1820s an average of 57 patients were admitted to each asylum yearly. And in the 1870s, that number increased to an average of 473 individuals.[6]

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, one in five Americans – or roughly 43.8 million Americans – experience mental illness in a given year.

So, what’s my point and why did I get sucked down this rabbit hole of asylum research? I have been in search of one specific woman in the part of my family which has been a topic of my blog posts in the past; her name is Zoe Caron (Coron/Coran). Could Zoe have disappeared into an asylum or group home after having had nine children between 1841 and 1854, and losing both her husbands? Zoe’s first husband, François, passed away while she was pregnant with their seventh child, and she remarried shortly after the birth. Her second husband, Antoine, died within five years of their marriage, after Zoe had had two additional children.

In 1870 and 1880, Zoe appears in Connecticut living with her children. Then she disappears from the written record! She is not listed on census records, town/city directories, land records, marriage certificates, death certificates, or in any newspaper articles or obituaries. Could Zoe have been one of the unfortunate souls committed to an asylum for help?

I want to believe that Zoe’s nine children would have taken care of her in her “old age” (in 1880, she was 56 years old); but in that period, it was common for poor, widowed women to be placed in a home for the poor. I won’t be able to say for sure unless I find the paper trail of her life. Thankfully, the Rhode Island State Library in Providence has two manuscript collections that refer to the records of these institutions in Rhode Island from 1871 to 1972.

Their library catalog states, “As these records contain sensitive information regarding persons who may still be living, they are closed for a period of 72 years after their creation.”[7] I plan on visiting RIHS to look at their manuscript collections. Manuscripts can often help reveal information that was written down and may not be recorded for town, city, or state purposes. I’m hoping little by little I can continue the search for Zoe, so I can find out what happened to her after 1880. Who knows, maybe next week I’ll be down a police records rabbit hole looking for her!


[1] Abraham Lincoln Online: Mary Lincoln at Bellevue Place, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/sites/bellevue.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rhode Island State Institution Records; manuscript collection (Mss 231), http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss231sg1.htm.

[4] Dexter Asylum Records; Rhode Island Historical Society; manuscript collection (Mss 67), http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/MSS067.htm.

[5] Butler Hospital, http://www.butler.org/.

[6] Margarita Tartakovsky, The Birth of the Mental Asylum, Pysch Central, https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-birth-of-the-mental-asylum/.

[7] Rhode Island Historical Society, http://www.rihs.org/.

About Sarah Dery

Sarah Dery, who lives in Concord, is the Research and Library Manager at American Ancestors/NEHGS; she has been with the Society since 2017. She supports the researchers and genealogists on the Research and Library teams, managing correspondence with constituents, organizing research information, and applying her genealogical knowledge in assisting our clients – both in-person and digitally. Sarah is a graduate of Rhode Island College in Providence and has a B.A. in anthropology and English Literature. Her interest in anthropology stems from her participation in a week-long archaeology dig at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia. Her family ancestry and expertise include Rhode Island, Connecticut, and French-Canada.

21 thoughts on “Lost to history

  1. Hi Sarah: Your post struck a chord. I finally discovered a death date last week – in a prison cemetery. These graves are not often marked so it is incumbent on us to try and locate these institutional records. I am presuming the cemeteries of insane asylums/workhouses may be equally challenging.

    Good luck.

  2. The wife of my great grandfather’s brother, Mary Hulsen b. Germany ca 1845, was also institutionalized. She “…became violently insane yesterday and was taken to the county jail last night for safe-keeping….She will be examined today by medical experts to determine her mental condition and if the case warrants she will be committed to the county insane asylum.” –May 7, 1888 Milwaukee Sentinel, p.3, col 3. In 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 census she is in Milwaukee Asylum and is buried in the Union Cem. family plot in 1933. I have always wondered whether she was just fed up with an abusive husband, tired of being pregnant, or really insane. I’m not sure what the conditions there were at the time, but considering how long she (and another sister in law) lived there, perhaps it was more restful that home. Her husband died 5 years after her arrest, leaving at least 3 minor children who have not been traced until adults.

    1. my grand-mother was there in danvers state hospital when she died…..always wanted to learn more about the hospital. mom told me she was hospitalized in beverly and sent to danvers as she said awful things to the staff and talking out of her mind.Alice B Rogers died july 1963

  3. I have found similar gaps in records for patients in tuberculosis institutions in the 20th Century.

  4. My second great grandfather, Jeremiah Congdon, was a veteran of the Civil War and lost his leg at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He returned home, married Martha Dockry and had two sons. On October 3, 1877, Jeremiah was driving his milk wagon when his horse was frightened and Jeremiah was thrown off the wagon, breaking his remaining leg. He died the following week. His wife, Martha, was so deeply affected by her loss to become violently insane. Her brother, Dr. H. Dockry went to Jefferson, Ohio, on Saturday night to get an order to remove her to Newburgh, where she was taken that week. This hospital was originally known as the Northern Ohio Lunatic Asylum and later on became the Newburgh State Hospital. At some point Martha recovered and by the time Jeremiah’s Letters of Administration was filed in Nov of 1878, Martha had been released and married to a Mr. Hilliker.

  5. One of my great grandaunts and her husband supervised the Warwick Rhode Island town farm at Buttonwoods for a period of time between 1880 and 1915. I’ve often wondered how they treated the people who had to live there.

  6. I have a relative who died in the Taunton State Hospital .I would like to get a copy of her records . Do you know where I could find them ?

  7. It is more likely that a female subject “disappeared” under a poorly transcribed or new surname. There should be a death record, whether or not the person was institutionalized. Too bad the 1890 census cannot be of much help. I assume you have thoroughly checked the 1900 census for her last known name and also checked that same census in households of her offspring for a female with the appropriate first name and of the correct age. I once got lucky with a similar research challenge, by running a search of death records in the last known county of residence, for a female with known first name, unknown (wildcard %) surname, known birth year and known birth location. The resulting short list of 200 death records had to be examined, one by one, until I located the subject of my search, who had married again and was “hidden” under a new surname, which was recorded along with her maiden name, on the death record. Perhaps you will get lucky too.

  8. A relative, James A. Claxton, turned up at the Government Hospital for the insane (now St. Elizabeth’s) in the 1900 DC census. Fortunately St. Elizabeth’s records are in the National Archives in Washington, DC, and my husband and I were able to get details on James, who died there in 1902. Equity Case 12109 in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia (records in the National Archives) dealt with the alleged lunacy of James A. Claxton. An Affidavit of Lunacy was prepared for James on October 29, 1889, declaring that he was ‘…a person of unsound mind, incapable of managing his own affairs and a fit subject for treatment at the Government Hospital for the Insane….’ On November 2, 1889 the court found that that James was indeed a lunatic.

  9. Jack, write to Taunton State Hospital- Record Dept., P.O. Box 4007 Taunton MA 02780-0997. They will ask for documentation of your relationship to the patient. Goog luck.

  10. It is difficult to know which is worse, being kept at home or institutionalized. My great-grandmother’s sister, in old age, “lost her mind”. She habitually left her daughter’s home to wander down the street attempting to sell family possessions such as jewelry, etc. Finally she was kept locked in an upstairs bedroom. When a tornado came through in 1933, she was unable to be rescued and one of her granddaughters, attempting to save her, was the last person to see her “with her hair all in flames”. She had been one of five beautiful sisters with a loving family who thought they were doing best by her.

    Before retiring, I worked for state government researching state owned properties to determine if any burials were there before the properties were developed, sold, or otherwise altered. This included highway roadsides, mental institutions, prisons, schools for the blind and other new as well as historic lands. The mental institution of the typical gothic style had its own cemetery as offen families, because of shame, did not claim inmates upon their deaths. A listing of interments exists and is correlated to numerical markers. Unfortunately, in the early to mid 20th century, the cemetery was used as a vegetable garden and the markers were removed. A gruesome thing but it happened. No one cared. In recent years efforts were underway by a volunteer group that included some descendants, to clean up debris and enclose the area with a wall and memorial. They were outbid for use by local residents who wanted a soccer field. And so it goes.

  11. Wonderful articles! I too have an ancestor that was supposed to have been committed to a mental asylum. My 3rd great grandmother was raped and eventually impregnated by her own father!
    A distant cousin interviewed a grandson of my 3rd AND 4th great grandfather. ..who verified not only that Mary Eliza had a child…but another daughter also had a child by her father.

    This distant cousin said that the grandson told him in the interview, that Mary Eliza had a mental breakdown…and was put into a mental institution…never leaving it.

    My gg grandfather Amos Marshall was born in Chardon, Geauga, Ohio…on 14 Feb 1827…..and I know that his father William O Marshall tried to hide Mary Eliza Marshall in MALDEN…now part of Boston???
    Those are the only clues that I have. ..I haven’t been able to make any headway in my search for Mary Eliza Marshall…my 3rd great grandmother and grand aunt!

    The court records state that the 2 oldest brothers testified….and were placed in others homes….but there is no mention of what happened to either girl.

    I have found that the other daughter married a man who was living in Chardon. ..going to Macomb county, Michigan to get married. They are found in Chardon again between 1834 and 1852 in land and tax records.

    So I am pretty sure that Mary Eliza is my ancestress…also verified by the dates given in the court records for the incest prosecution.

    I have a feeling that Malden imight be the place to look…but I haven’t found anything. ..yet.

    Any suggestions greatly appreciated!

  12. After considerable research, I found that my great grandmother died at 72 in an upstate New York mental hospital in 1929. I wrote to them asking for genealogical information and was surprised to receive several pages of medical records that detailed how she had slowly declined mentally over about a decade, evidently from some form of dementia. My grandfather had been having people care for her for most of that time, but several months before she died it had become so difficult to care for her that he took her to the state hospital. There weren’t nursing homes as we now know them in those days. It was a very sad story and gave my sister and me new sympathy for my grandfather.

  13. I have a great-grandfather from Salem, Mass., who was said to suffer from manic depression, what we now call bi-polar disease. At age 50 in 1899, he became very depressed and was committed to an asylum in Boston’s Jamaica Plain. I do not know if he committed himself or was committed by his family. While there he managed to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head according to his death record. I keep wondering how and where did he get hold of a gun while in the asylum? I could find no newspaper article about this incident, probably too embarrassing and painful for the family.

  14. Very interesting article! I had a great grandfather who died at Tewksbury State Hospital. I as well would love to get copies of his records.

  15. My fourth great-uncle died in 1910 at the State Almshouse in Cranston, RI. After months of trying to locate the cemetery map, I did, only to find that his grave was not located there (which is under a road). Upon further inquiry, I learned that no one knows where the cemetery is that he is buried in. How sad.

  16. Sarah,
    my great great grandfather was an attendant at Butler in the 1850’s then a providence Police Seargent until 1866 when a injury forced him to quit. He became the assistant head of the RI state asylum in Cranston. His daily diaries circa 180os offer a fascinating insight in the difficult life of the people. Please contact me so we can discuss further if you wish

  17. We had a family member whose wife Susannah was placed in Eastern States Hospital in Williamsburg, VA in about 1866 right after the husband died. Before husband’s death there were many letters sent (for several years) to another family member in TN, some of those letters discussing Susannah’s strange behavior. Husband never discussed her in his letters to the TN families. I contacted the ES Hospital several years ago asking if she had died there, and yes she had, after being in the hospital for 30 years. She died of “exhaustion”. I wanted to obtain her records but got no response on that request.

  18. After considerable research and following an interesting set of clues, I discovered that my great-grandmother, a German immigrant born in 1856 who came to America in 1880, died in 1920 in the Connecticut Asylum for the Insane in in Middletown, Connecticut. She had given birth to six children during a ten-year period, one of whom died in infancy, and also to an illegitimate child while still in Germany. There were three commitments during her child-bearing years, the last one in 1899 when she was committed permanently and the younger children were placed in institutional or foster homes. After reading through the hospital records, which I was able to obtain from the Connecticut State Archives/Library in Hartford, I believe that she likely suffered post-partum depression and exhaustion, exacerbated by poverty and a severely-troubled spouse. He also was committed to the Asylum, in 1907, and died there in 1914: “indecent assault …. chronic alcoholism ….. violent tendencies” are documented in his hospital records. My great-grandmother may have decided, in all this, that the asylum was a peaceful place of refuge! She was buried in a numbered grave behind the hospital. He fared a little better, in a city cemetery, though no stone or other marker remains. The hopeful end in this sad story is that clergy in the city of Middletown, beginning in 1999, began a ceremony of naming and blessing the 1652 souls buried in the numbered graves, 100 per year. The identity of these people was made known in a document discovered by a student at Wesleyan University, Their names and dates of death have been recorded on a large but simple monument at the entrance to the cemetery.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.