Sunday, May 29, 2016

Mental Illness in the Census

Laying around in the air conditioning on this hot and sticky Memorial Day weekend, I began to participate in my favorite sport; channel surfing. I landed on a show called Ghost Asylum. It is one of the many television reality shows in which teams of people investigate paranormal activity. I don't know if I believe flashing lights and beeping tones on electromagnetic meters mean there really is a presence of a human spirit, genealogy research stirs up the dead in a different way then ghost hunting does, but what drew me to the show was their investigation of the Peoria State Hospital. 

It took me a minute to remember where I had come across this hospital in my research. Yes, I came across this particular hospital while conducting some genealogy research during this past year of my graduate studies. My capstone project was on a scrapbook created by a man named Claude Villette Boller. In my effort to determine how my library might have acquired his scrapbook I created a family tree on for Mr. Boller. I hoped it would help me to connect with some descendant of Mr. Boller or descendants of his siblings who might be able to provide some provenance for the scrapbook. Provenance is a fancy academic term for the origin or earliest known history of ownership on an object. 

Most family history researchers are interested in extending their own trees back as far as they can but when you are chasing family lore you really should spread out and trace more than just your direct line. You should trace the lines of siblings. Think about it. If you have siblings you know some of them may be interested in family history and heirlooms but some of them aren't. When family stories are passed down, some siblings retain them better than others. Right? 

So I went looking for records about Mr. Boller's siblings. He was the youngest of 10. Some of his siblings died young but most of them lived out their lives in locations far from their hometown of Lexington, IL. Mr. Boller wound up in Freeport, Long Island, NY. His brother Jacob lived in California. There was even a niece who died in El Salvador. There was one sister though who showed up in the 1910 U.S. Census listed as a patient at Peoria State Hospital. 

I didn't think much of it really but in a recent reference interview with a client at my part-time gig as a genealogy librarian, the patron mentioned that she had a great aunt who lived in a "mental hospital." The patron then said, "so there won't be any record of her in the census." "Oh no," I said, "Everyone is recorded in the census." 

Well, in theory, EVERYONE, is recorded in the census. I have some ancestors I can't find in census records. I'm sure there are people who were on vacation when the census taker came. There were others who probably just didn't answer the door but if they were a patient in a hospital, an orphan in a state home, or prisoner in the clink you can be sure they were recorded in the census. 

So there she was Elizabeth Boller, age 61, living in the Peoria State Hospital in 1910. Moving back in time, in 1900 she was living in The Illinois Central Hospital for the "blank." Blank? Yes. The name of the hospital is cut off. If you do not scroll to the next page of the record you wouldn't know the full name of the location is The Illinois Central Hospital for the Insane. In the 1880 census, at the age of 30, Elizabeth was living with her parents in Lexington, IL. If one reads that very faded census record carefully, though, in a far left columns there is a mark in Elizabeth's row; an aggressively stroked "1" under the heading "insane." 

Life inside Peoria State Hospital did not seem pretty according to this television show and despite the lovely architecture and gatherings of employees I can find in photos online. It opened in 1902 it closed in 1973. I don't know when Elizabeth Boller arrived there or if she lived out the remainder of days in that particular institution; medical records are often restricted and off-limits to genealogists. What I do know, though, is that thousands of patients went in and out of their doors and more than a few died there. In 1903 a patient was beaten to death by two attendants. Those two employees were charged with murder but never tried. 

Nowadays we fight to remove the stigma of mental illness but back then many of the mentally ill were locked away, abused, neglected, and forgotten. Elizabeth, though, is not buried in the infamous Peoria State Hospital cemetery known for its full-bodied apparitions. When Elizabeth died in 1919, she was brought home and buried in the Boller family grave. Now really, I don't know what her life was like, but I pray that her burial location is an indication that she was close to her family and that they cared for her as best they could.

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