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Genealogy of Communities: Asylums, Hospitals, and Sanitariums

In her continuing series "The Genealogy of Communities," Judy Rosella Edwards takes us inside residential hospitals, asylums, and sanitariums. These institutions were considered the full-time residence of the patients – and many of the staff. It was a different era and you'll find an astonishing amount of detailed genealogical data on the residents.


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An asylum is a place where very few go by choice, whether it is an insane asylum, an asylum for the poor, or an orphanage. Again, there is a community within an asylum. Along with asylums are hospitals and infirmaries.

Insane Asylums

When most of us hear the word "asylum" we think of the insane. Next, we are apt to assume that those records are confidential. Not so.

Asylum residents were enumerated and the asylum considered their home. The records are freely available.

Residents in asylums are "inmates," or "patients." A simple search for "mental" and "hospital" in Illinois, will unearth a list of ten residents, on page 35, of Parkway Sanitarium residents. This would be a fascinating, but challenging, group to research. Most of the residents report their place of birth as "unknown" locations in the United States. It is possible they were not in a mental state that made it possible for them to report accurately. Others were from England and Russia. All reported first and last names.

Most of this group can be researched. Four of the mental patients were married, including the widow Mary Hendricks. In all of these cases, there are marriage certificates someplace and a spouse.

The patients from England and Russia should have citizenship application papers, as they reported that their parents were also from the mother country. Their names should appear on a ship's manifest when they arrived in the United States. Since it is difficult to sail from Europe to Chicago, they probably crossed from one of the coasts to the Windy City on land. Therefore, they probably had been in this country for some time prior to arriving in Chicago and becoming inpatients. There should be a paper trail.

But page 35 is a partial list, consisting of patients only. The fifteen staff are enumerated on another sheet. As with most mental hospitals, or "asylums," there are nurses, a cook, and a janitor who all live at the asylum. We know that because the census only identifies individuals by their primary place of residence. At least some asylum staff were residents.

As with the patients, some of the staff also report being married but their spouses are not listed at their primary place of residence. Further research should reveal whether they were erroneously counted twice, or whether these married staff really were living in separate residences.

Bartonville Insane Asylum

We can also go directly to a hospital, such as the former Bartonville Insane Asylum in Peoria County, Illinois. You may also find it referred to as the Peoria State Hospital.

Here we find a long and meticulous list of mental patients in alphabetical order. Today such private information would not be made public. But in 1930, the wife of Dr. George Zeller, the founder of the institution, did the census herself. Birdie Zeller made public the personal information about dozens of patients. The entire census for the hospital was a 62-page census enumeration. The hospital was a separate enumeration district.

It feels intrusive reading this very personal data about patients experiencing mental illness. It doesn't take long for any genealogist to begin asking how these individuals found their way to Dr. Zeller's complex. We might not think to look for someone from Switzerland, Germany, or Russia in a mental hospital in rural Peoria County, Illinois.

A former musician who finds herself in an insane asylum at the age of twenty-two years surely left clues to her identity along the way. Such would be the case of a young married woman named Hazel (I will omit her married name here, even though it appears in the census.)

The institution became famous, as well as infamous. Families admitted relatives because of the good reputation of Dr. Zeller as an innovator of his time, as well as a simple solution for relocating a relative who was a behavioral problem for the family or caused them embarrassment.

The good doctor was meticulous about lists. Many of the residents remained inpatients for the duration of their lives. Much has been written about the doctor reporting deaths. Inpatients were buried on the hospital grounds rather than remains being returned to the family for burial alongside relatives. It is heartbreakingly tempting to assume the family chose to forget their institutionalized relative. It is also possible, in at least some cases, that by the end of the patient's life there was no family left to make the funeral arrangements. In the case of immigrants, there may not have been any next of kin in this country.

The stones in the cemetery are not impeccable, and it has been speculated that graves were reused. Zeller did keep lists of the deceased on paper, so the data remains intact.

The Bartonville hospital has been written about frequently and referred to by more than one name. For a plethora of information about the staff as well as the inmates, read "Bittersweet Memories: A History of the Peoria State Hospital."

Michigan Asylum for the Insane

Kalamazoo was home to a few hundred mental patients in 1910. A number of physicians and nurses lived at the asylum, along with patients from around the globe. Again, a sufficient amount of genealogical data exists in the census returns to research their families.

German Hospital, San Francisco

A simple search for "staff" and "physician" will gain entrance to records of the German Hospital in San Francisco. In 1880, the census of the hospital residents included patients with their ailments listed, ranging from a Prussian with paralysis to a Bavarian with syphilis. These were not short-term patients. The hospital was their only residence.


The term sanitarium has been used in a variety of ways. Tuberculosis sanitariums cropped up in an attempt to cure patients. In 1900 Oklahoma, we find inmates living in the Norman Oklahoma Sanitarium. It was home to the insane, like Mary S. Jesseph from Ohio; idiots like Marvilla Gettys from Iowa; and imbeciles like Irving Allen from Kentucky. One can't help but wonder how Maximilian Walters from Germany came to be an patient, suffering from insanity and living at the Norman Oklahoma Sanitarium by age 33.

The Search for Asylums

Search the residential area of any asylum and you'll find residents' names listed in the census. The diagnoses are general and sometimes offensive to our generation. Thank goodness psychology has come a long way.

The data is invasive. Treated with respect, studying asylums, hospitals, and sanitariums can be an intriguing field. It can also be a way to restore an inpatient to their place in the family. They can be the forgotten child who was never identified by name and for whom there appears to be no death certificate.

Other Articles In This Series:

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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