10 March 2015
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As is often the case, a newspaper article has prompted this post. This time, it was when I read Vanished mental-health archives stymie genealogists --Restrictions on accessing old mental-health records frustrate families trying to establish facts about ancestors (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
Not only have many mental-health facilities (also went by sanitariums, insane asylums, and numerous other names) closed making it challenging to determine where the records of these shutters institutions ended up, even if you can find where the records are archived, due to privacy laws, you may not be able to access the records.
If you have an ancestor who suddenly disappears and whom you cannot find a death for, or know is not incarcerated in a jail or prison, it might be time to consider that they were institutionalized. If institutionalized you may need to check for a local, regional or state operated facilities.
Additionally, depending on the time period and local laws, there might be a court proceeding in order to “admit” the individual as a patient or a suit by the patient to be “freed” from where they were institutionalized. For example, in North Carolina, such records up until the 1960s might be found in Judgment Dockets (for civil cases), Special Proceedings Records or in so-called Lunacy Records, to name just a few relevant collections. I tracked one person who ended up mentioned in all three of these record groups across over 15 years of records and across two counties with reference to a state-run facility,
John Umstead Hospital (now called ). Central Regional Hospital
Here are some resources that might give you ideas or information about learning more about your institutionalized ancestors ....
+ Types of Family History Resources – Health and Welfare Records (
Historical Society) Minnesota
+ Searching for Hospital Records (Juliana Szucs, Ancestry.com)
+ Seeking Asylum Patient? Head to Court (Sharon Tate Moody, The
+ Researching Ancestors Who Were Committed to Asylums, Using Old Newspapers (Gena Philibert-Ortega, GenealogyBank)
As always, if you know of additional resources, please post a comment!
Was your ancestor institutionalized? Please share your experience in learning more about this ancestor.
Editor’s Note: Related Upfront with NGS posts ...
+ Hart Island – NYC’s Public Burial Ground – Over 1 Million Burials – Trying to Reveal Their Stories
+ You Can Help! Institutional Cemeteries Website Seeking Assistance -- Let's Do What We Can to Remember These Often Forgotten Individuals
+ The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things -- Abandoned Suitcases of Insane Asylum Patients & other oddities
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