May 17, 2023
Have you been told you have an ancestor who was in an asylum? Or have you found information that indicated an ancestor suffered from some sort of mental illness? I have. Several years ago, I saw a message board post about my third great-grandmother living in the early 1800s. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to find information about her situation. Was she ill? Was she living at home? Was she in an asylum?
Early on, asylum conditions were lonely and unsanitary. The mid to late 1800s brought about some reform due to individuals like Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, who advocated for better patient care. When you think of old asylums or state hospitals, do you think of large, old Victorian buildings with lots of windows and gables? If you do, you are familiar with the Kirkbride building plan! These estate-like properties were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but by the mid-1950s, effective medications and a shift to regional care became more common. Mental health care came to resemble what we see today.
How do we research asylum records or mental health records in general? One of the first things we need to consider is privacy laws. Federal law (HIPPA) allows medical records to be released for individuals who have been deceased for 50 years, but it does not guarantee the records will be easily available. State or hospital regulations may require a court order to obtain records. For asylums, the facilities themselves are typically not the best place to look unless they are still currently operating in some capacity and have their own archive. It is better to explore other options at state and local levels, such as historical societies, genealogical societies, or libraries. Some additional sources to find mental health information include death records, court and probate records, and the federal census.
Various asylum records are on websites such as Ancestry Library Edition (in-library use only), Cyndi’s List, Black Sheep Ancestors, Genealogy Trails, and Digital Public Library of America. One additional website that provides comprehensive information about asylums and hospitals is Asylum Projects. Federal census forms before 1900 included mental health questions. The 1880 federal census included a “Defective, Dependent, Delinquent” (DDD) schedule that contains mental health information for individuals and is especially helpful for finding information for those not living in asylums.
Ancestry Library Edition includes these schedules for 21 states. MGC has several “DDD” schedules on microfilm, books such as Evolution of a Missouri Asylum by Richard L. Lael, and audio recordings like Medical Records in the National Archives by Craig Roberts Scott to help with asylum research.
I checked all these resources and more in the search for information on my third great-grandmother. Eventually, I found a county probate record that indicated she was “insane and wholly incapable of taking care of herself.” The county court then appointed three men to be her guardians. While probate records did not seem like a “go to” source for this information, a little digging into alternative, yet familiar, records yielded great results!
Midwest Genealogy Center