Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane of Petersburg, VA Records to be Digitized

Central State Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane

April 8, 2015 – AUSTIN, Texas — Three faculty members at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Information have received a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to develop and field test a digital infrastructure for preserving and managing the historical public records from the Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane in Petersburg, Virginia.

King Davis, Patricia Galloway and Unmil Karadkar will use the $763,000 to develop methods and tools for critical policy analysis, digital technology and archival preservation methods to increase access to historical mental health records and documents while still protecting privacy.

The project is expected to begin this month and end in 2018.

“Families and scholars have requested access to these records for many years to enable them to conduct genealogical and academic research. However, most states limit access to such records based in part on historical precedents and concerns about stigma and privacy,” said Davis, a former commissioner of mental health for the Commonwealth of Virginia and current professor of research in the School of Information and professor emeritus in African and African Diaspora Studies.

The asylum was established in 1868 and was the first of its kind in the United States. It has maintained over 800,000 public records that detail the origins of the hospital and the racially segregated services provided for almost 100 years.

Galloway will work with postdoctoral students and families of the institution’s patients to ensure that the new digital library is easy to access.

“Providing possible solutions to both mental health providers and archival custodians of these records can both help guarantee their preservation and enable their lawful release for research by scholars and families,” Galloway said. “However, opening access to families and scholars must still abide by the prevailing state and federal laws on privacy.”

Read the full press release.

Secrets of London’s Infamous “Bedlam” Mental Hospital Revealed at Findmypast

The following news release is from findmypast.com:

· Findmypast is working with Bethlem Museum of the Mind at Bethlem Royal Hospital, in London, UK, popularly known as Bedlam, to make its extensive patient records from 1683 – 1932 available online for the very first time

· Over 248,000 records, many including photos, reveal the lives and stories of its inmates

· Highlights of the detailed records show why people were committed included stabbing people with cutlery, insatiable appetite for pleasure, condemnation of sinful behaviour from public officials, objecting to a forced marriage, religious fervour, paralysis, women dressing as men and more

London, UK, 19 March 2015 – Leading family history website, Findmypast, today announced an exciting partnership with Bethlem Museum of the Mind to release Bethlem Royal Hospital’s extensive patient records online for the very first time. The records are being released today to mark the official reopening of the museum in Beckenham, with Findmypast making scans of the original patient case notes and staff registers available online for browsing and searching by everyone.

As one of the world’s oldest hospitals for the treatment of mental illness, Bethlem Royal Hospital has a chequered past in how it determined not only who was insane, but also in its treatment of patients. The records released today go into detail about each patient, in many cases documenting their mental state and including photographs of the inmates once photography became available.

The records also detail the reasons why they had been deemed insane, with first-hand accounts of the behaviour of the inmates and their families. Some of the more unusual reasons for incarceration given in the records include:


· Attempted royal assassination with a dessert knife: Margaret Nicolson was sent to Bethlem Royal Hospital in August 1787 for attempting to stab King George III with a pearl-handled dessert knife. Her records from Bethlem Royal Hospital show that she was sent to Bethlem Royal Hospital “by the Order of the Committee” i.e. by parliament vote, as opposed to by an individual or family, and a trial followed in September 1787. Nicholson spent the rest of her life in Bethlem Royal Hospital, dying there in May 1828


· An insatiable appetite for pleasure, including lounging in the fashionable shopping streets of London: Ingrid Schwitzguebel was admitted in July 1909 by her husband. His reasons for committing her was that she was “living almost exclusively for pleasure, in fact her desire for theatres, musicals, lounging in the London fashionable streets, looking at shops etc, is insatiable.” However, other motives may have been at play as the records go on to show that she suspected her husband of an “immoral life of going with other women”, and had “threatened to attack him with a hat pin”


· Objecting to a forced marriage with a cousin: Kate Jeffery was sent to Bethlem Royal Hospital for Melancholia in October 1910, with her blaming her relatives for attempting to force her into a marriage with a cousin whom she thought immoral. An original letter from Jeffery herself is included in the records in which she rails against imprisonment, saying that “my uncle and brother must have thought themselves very fortunate to meet with Dr Gooding and the Aldridges. People will know where to send their unwanted relatives”


General paralysis: Richard Cook Thompson was admitted to Bethlem Royal Hospital in February 1901 with general paralysis as the official diagnosis. That said, the records show more clearly why he was sent to a mental institution and not a regular hospital, with the notes recording that “he is one of the Apostles, he has a message from Almighty God to go to Windsor Castle, these things are not true”. Thompson was not the only one to believe he was a messenger of God, with James Duggan also incarcerated in October 1906 for saying “he is the pope of Rome”


· Overtaxed brain due to writing a dictionary: At 66 years old, Alexander Tolhausen, was one of the older inmates at Bethlem Royal Hospital when he was committed in July 1886 for an overtaxed brain. Tolhausen’s illness was attributed to working on a technological dictionary in French, English and German with symptoms including “gets up and dresses and undresses himself sometimes six times a day”, “threw his breakfast at his wife” and “that his house was unhealthy”


· Belief in themselves as a persecuted God: Ethel Julia Ouselay Collins was committed for “mixing of her ideas with religious matters,” including believing that she had “not been born yet” and was “a God chained on a pedestal.” It was also documented that she had “delusions of suspicion and persecution.”

“These records provide an extraordinary level of detail about the patients of the Bethlem Royal Hospital as far back as the 17th century,” said Debra Chatfield, family historian at Findmypast. “Containing letters written in their own words and handwriting, photographs at different stages of their illness, and reports on their day to day behaviour by close family members and the medical staff at the hospital, these records provide, for the very first time online, real insight into life in this infamous institution. It’s hard not to empathise with the inmates as you learn about their often harrowing and tragic stories. Publishing these records online allows those stories to be told for the first time to a wider audience, and you might discover that you had an ancestor who was sent to Bedlam.”

To discover more about the inmates at Bethlem Royal Hospital and see the full images and transcripts of the records, please visit www.findmypast.com/bethlem

Old British Psychiatric Hospital Records to be Digitized

The following teaser is from the October 23, 2014 edition of whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com:

The Wellcome Library has teamed up with a number of archives across the UK to digitise records of psychiatric hospitals dating back to the 18th century.

The history of mental health care in Britain is to be revealed online following a major digitisation project.

The Wellcome Library has announced that it is funding the scanning of over 800,000 pages of material relating to psychiatric hospitals across the UK, including the York Retreat, Crichton Royal Hospital and the Camberwell House Asylum.

Starting in Autumn 2014, the project is expected to take two years to complete. In the meantime, family historians can access London’s Pulse – a free website created by the Wellcome Library….

Read the full article.

Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum Cemetery Found – and it’s In The Way

The following teaser is from the March 8, 2014 edition of local10.com:

CNN – Amid a grove of trees, buried beneath the grass and dirt, Mississippi’s past is colliding with its future.

Surveyors last month discovered dozens of neat, tight rows of coffins just feet below the ground at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

Sure, there were stories that there was a cemetery somewhere on the grounds of the medical center that today sits where the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum once stood.

But the location of the cemetery was lost to history. That’s until an estimated 2,000 unmarked graves were discovered during a survey for a planned campus expansion.

The find has forced the medical center to halt its expansion and begin the daunting task of figuring out what to do about the 2,000 bodies lying in the path of their next big thing.

Read the full article.

100 Years of Virginia’s Central State Hospital Records to be Posted Online

The following excerpt is from University of Texas at Austin:
Central-State-Hospital-Female-Patients-Courtesy of the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis

Newswise — AUSTIN, Texas – A century’s worth of historical records from Central State Hospital in Virginia – the world’s first black mental hospital – will soon be available online in a digital archive created by King Davis, director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis, and an interdisciplinary team of researchers from The University of Texas at Austin.

Established in 1868, Central State Hospital, formerly Central State Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane, was created in response to the newly freed slaves after the Civil War. The mounds of forgotten materials offer a rare glimpse into what life was like for African Americans following the Civil War to the post-civil rights era. Without Davis’ intervention, the documents would have been shredded due to confusion over Virginia’s records retention laws.

Read the full article.

Thanks to ResearchBuzz for the heads-up.

Vermont State Archives Opens State Hospital Records

Vermont State Hospital
More than 40 cubic feet of records from the Vermont State Hospital, formerly located at Waterbury, have been opened for public research. According to the Secretary of State, Jim Condos, these records run from 1891 through 2005.

The State Hospital was closed in 2011 after suffering damage in Tropical Storm Irene.

for more information, see the short AP article in the July 3, 2013 edition of the Brattleboro Reformer.

Permenent Memorial Wanted for the Augusta (Maine) Mental Health Institute Deceased

The following excerpt is from an extensive article in the May 30, 2012 edition of the Morning Sentinel:

AUGUSTA [Maine] — A disturbing memory has haunted Karen Evans since she was a patient at the Augusta Mental Health Institute in the early 1960s.

Evans was 17 when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized for about a year. During her stay, a girl she knew only as Margaret confided that she was contemplating suicide.

Evans warned the hospital staff. The next day, she discovered Margaret in her room, her head forced between the bars on the window. The window was shattered. Blood was everywhere.

“They took her away and I never found out what happened to her,” said Evans, now 65. “It happened more than once while I was there, but she affected me the most. It felt to me that people disappeared overnight. That life could be dismissed so easily.”

Nearly 50 years later, the tragic memory of Margaret fuels Evans’ desire to establish a permanent memorial to the 11,647 people who died at AMHI during its 165-year history. The hospital, which closed in 2004, kept no apparent records of where deceased patients were buried, other than a hand-scrawled map of a few graves in a nearby cemetery.

Read the full article.

Willard Cemetery Memorial Project Faces Daunting Challenges Due to Privacy Laws

I understand the need for privacy – especially as deals with medical information. But it seems to me that some common sense should have been written into our privacy laws in this country. But I suppose that’s asking too much…

And I still can’t understand why dead folks should have a right to privacy. We survived for hundreds of years in this country with case law pretty well establishing that they had none. And then – in my lifetime, that all changed. We can’t even find out who’s buried in the Willard Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery – and there’s 5700 human beings buried there!

The following excerpt is from an article posted July 3, 2011 at syracuse.com.

On Oct. 13, 1869, Willard Asylum’s first patient arrived at the state mental health facility in Seneca County [New York]. A steamboat dropped off Mary Rote, who had been confined in the Columbia County poorhouse for 10 years, much of the time nude and chained. Three men also arrived that day. All were in irons.

Thousands of patients eventually followed, many of whom spent the rest of their lives at the facility that became known in 1974 as Willard Psychiatric Center. One account reports that eight years after opening, 1,550 people were housed at Willard. Most of them “arrived by boat and left by hearse.”

About 58,000 people were treated at Willard before the state closed it in 1995. More than 5,700 patients were buried there. Some patients had no relatives to claim them; others were too ashamed to do so. The vast majority of the dead patients have only a number marking their final resting place. Many of the markers have been pulled out or are covered with grass.

A group called the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project hopes to clean up the cemetery and put up markers listing the patients buried there.
“Nobody should be in an unmarked grave,” said Colleen Kelly Spellacy, of Waterloo, who is leading the project.

A burial record resides in New York State Archives in Albany. The group sought it under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. Its request was denied. State officials say they can’t release it because federal and state law require health care providers to ensure the privacy of patient records and health information. That confidentiality, they say, extends even after patients die.

The Willard group is appealing the FOIL decision. It could pursue a court order or legislation to force release of the names. Members have an uphill battle in persuading a judge or the Legislature that their desire for a memorial outweighs the state’s understanding of the obligation to protect patients’ confidentiality.

Read the full article.

Other Important Links Dealing with the Willard Psychiatric Center:

The Willard Cemetery Memorial Project website.

Preliminary Guide to Mental Health Documentary Sources in New York State – An inventory of the holding of the New York State Archives dealing with New York mental health facilities. Willard is included in the inventory.

Photographs of the old abandoned Willard State Hospital buildings.

Various Articles about Willard Psychiatric Center – From the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, and the AP.

The Willard Suitcase Exhibit

Photos from Joe Crispin’s Notebook.

Echos of Willard

The Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online – an article at the psychcentral website that includes some interesting comments at the end

A 1999 comment at Rootsweb about Willard Records and death certificates of patients.

Since the discovery of 400 long-abandoned suitcases at a former asylum, researchers have been piecing together the owners’ stories – an AP article by Michael Hill date 2001, and initially printed at the Newsday site – now found at Rootweb.

The Lives They Left Behind – a 2007 story published in the Southeast Missourian.

Willard Asylum Cemetery, Military Section, Seneca Co., NY – Pictures of Headstones.

Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane – This is currently a short piece on the hospital found at Wikipedia.

Nevada Insane Asylum Cemetery to Once Again Become a Cemetery

The following excerpt is from an article by Ed Pearce in the October 28, 2009 edition of kolotv.com.

Hidden away in a remote section of southwest Sparks Nevada Insane Asylumthere’s a small park. Generations of have used this surprising green space without realizing what lay beneath. I

n fact the park and a weed-filled, trash scattered lot next door is the last resting place for at least 600 souls, former patients of the state hospital, formerly the Nevada Insane Asylum, next door.

Bodies were interred here from 1882 to 1947, usually with no ceremony and little concern. What markers were left disappeared over the years and no one it seems bothered to even keep a map of who was buried and where.

The only surviving record of those lives is a leather bound ledger in the State Archives. A single line for each patient,name, age, birthplace, cause of death, the only proof of their sad existence.

Today there are new signs marking the cemetery, but until very recently the only the only hint of what is here is the uneven surface in the vacant lot. Next door in the park there wasn’t even that.

“These people deserve some respect,” says Carolyn Mirich, who counts a relative among those in an anonymous grave.

Mirich came to Nevada looking for a cousin’s grave and discovered a history of neglect. Rallying others to her cause, they formed an organization and pressed for a solution.

That solution was Senate Bill 256, passed by the 2009 legislature giving the cemetery protected historic status.

Read the full article.

Website Devoted to the Cresson TB Sanitarium, its History & its People

It was called “the san” and it’s part of a haunting and nearly forgotten chapter in Pennsylvania history.

Cresson Sanitarium The Cresson Sanitorium for tuberculosis patients was located 140 miles from Harrisburg, between Johnstown and Altoona. Thousands of people were sent there between 1913 and 1964. Some stayed for years. Some died there. In a reflection of the fear and stigma that surrounded tuberculosis, some who died were never even claimed by their families. They remain buried on a nearby hillside.

Charles Felton, who lived there for 18 months in the mid-1950s, has breathed new life into the facility by creating a Web site devoted to it. Felton, a 71-year-old retired aerospace engineer who lives in Texas, began the site for personal reasons. In his later years, he had been nagged by questions about the facility, where he was forced to live while his classmates graduated from high school.

Read the full article by David Wenner in the October 24, 2009 edition of PennLive.com.

Dignity Being Restored to the Graves at the Toledo State Hospital Cemetery

An excellent article about the cemetery located at the former Toledo State Hospital is found in the April 19, 2009 edition of the Toledo Blade. Following is a teaser:

This land, owned by the University of Toledo and site of its Medical Center (the former Medical College of Ohio), was once home to grave markerthousands who lived at the Toledo State Hospital. It was the Toledo Asylum for the Insane when it opened in 1888. Between then and 1973, nearly 2,000 people, unclaimed by families or friends, were laid to rest in two locations, one adjacent to a pig barn.

Their anonymity in death reflects their status in life on society’s bottom rung. Interments did not warrant polished granite slabs heralding their dates and earthly contributions (“Beloved Mother, Wife, Daughter, Teacher”). Rather, in institutional style, each grave was assigned a numbered concrete stone pushed in the ground. After all, who would come to meditate? Grave blankets in winter? Memorial Day bouquets? Unlikely.

Indeed, recent efforts to find these index-card-sized concrete nubbins by probing the ground with metal rods have been thwarted because most have sunk below the surface or are altogether gone.

Restoring dignity
The time is nigh, say a determined group of people, to acknowledge the humanity of these 1,994 women, children, and men.

Read the full article by Tahree Lane in the April 19, 2009 edition of the Toledo Blade.

Finding Your Relatives Who Were in Mental Institutions

Sharon Tate Moody writes a great column this week on how to find information on our relatives that ended up in mental institutions. This type of research is often a challenge, for the state hospitals will seldom divulge patient information, no matter that they may have been dead for a century or more. Privacy laws, and the ways they are interpreted by the courts are such that we look elsewhere for information on these folks who were not a lucky as we are. Following is just a short teaser of a fairly extensive article.

Society generally has not been kind to those with mental illnesses or quirky personalities. Embarrassed by such relatives, their families of decades past often sent them to institutions and never talked about them again.

So how do genealogists find these individuals and restore them to their rightful place in the family history?

One approach is to search the files of the local probate court, which traditionally handles guardianships. This usually is the first stop for a family seeking to put someone in an institution.

Read the full article in the January 25, 2009 edition of Tampa Bay Online.

HIPPA Laws Frustrate Cemetery Research

There’s been a battle going on for some time now over making the names of those buried in the Hastings Regional Center Cemetery (Adams County, Nebraska) available to the public. Nine hundred fifty-seven people are buried in the hospital cemetery. These burials occurred between 1888 to 1959, but records date only to 1909. Graves are marked, but the small gravestones only have patient numbers on them.


It seems that the Federal 1996 HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) law trumps everything on this one. Although I’m sure these dead folks won’t be purchasing or transferring their insurance anytime soon, their medical record privacy is insured. In this case, we don’t even know who the folks are. Now that’s private.

The Adams County Historical Society filed a lawsuit in the Summer of 2007 attempting to get the records made public. The Historical Society lost. District Judge Terri Harder cited HIPAA almost exclusively in her ruling. She said the law establishes a minimum level of protection for “individually identifiable health information” based on past, present or future physical or mental health condition. (I’d say that their physical condition at the moment is poor, at the very least.)

The historical society appealed the ruling, and now the decision lies with the Nebraska Supreme Court. Several media organizations have recently filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting The Adams County Historical Society lawsuit.

The society rightfully argues that the patients should not be forgotten and there is no evidence that they wanted their bodies buried in unmarked graves. I’m in full agreement.

For more information, see: “HIPAA bars release of hospital burial records, Neb. judge rules,” in the Feb. 18, 2008 post at firstamendmentcenter.org.


“Media groups want Neb. cemetery records released”, an AP article in the January 8, 2009 Charleston Gazette.

Mayview State Hospital in Allegheny County, PA, to Close

Why am I blogging the close of a state hospital in a genealogy-related blog? Because thousands of our relatives were born, lived and died at this facility. The Mayview State Hospital started in the 1893, known as Marshalsea, aptly named for for the famous London debtors prison. The 80 buildings on 335 acres in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania was preceded by Pittsburgh’s almshouse, on the same property. The poor, the orphaned, the unwed & pregnant, the tubercular, the insane, mentally retarded and others lived here on the banks of the Monongahela.

They kept records at Mayville that recorded the life events of patients who lived and died there. Where will the records go? Hopefully to the State Archives in Harrisburg.

Joe Fahy wrote a fascinating article for the December 28, 2008 Pittsburgh Gazette about the history and the closing of the facility. You might want to check it out.