Researching Mental Records

by Ruby Coleman

Genealogical research often requires different and unique methods of research, one of which can be exploring records of mental cases. No lineage is without some ancestors or relatives with unusual behavior, mild or severe. The first clues to this often come from stories told through generations, usually mentioning mental instability or hospitalization.

More clues can be found in reading census records which apply labels, such as "insane" or "idiot," beside the name of a specific individual. Mortality records for 1850-1880 may contain clues that a person died of insanity. While brief in that they pertain only to deaths that occurred within one census year prior to the date of the actual census, they should always been checked.

The Defective, Dependent and Delinquent Classes (DDD) census was prepared in 1880. It is a separate enumeration and not within the actual 1880 United States census. The enumerator was supposed to list insane inhabitants, idiots, deaf-mutes, blind, paupers and indigent inhabitants, homeless children and inhabitants of prisons on this special enumeration.

If an ancestor or relative died within a mental institution and after death records were being kept in the county or on a state basis, be sure to check for a death certificate. The informant most likely would be someone at the institution. However, these records may contain interesting clues. Some mental institutions had their own cemeteries on nearby property. Always look for cemetery listings in the county to see if there is a cemetery that is identified as belonging to the mental institution or where indigents in the institution were buried. The body may have been claimed by next-of-kin with burial in a family or home town cemetery.

Normally there was some type of court record which names the person considered to be insane, along with an inquest into their condition and disposition papers as t o where they would be sent. These will usually contain names of family members, in particular a spouse or parent, along with the name of an attending physician and details of condition. A guardian may have been appointed for minor children, or to tend to the insane person's affairs.

These records can be found in the probate matters in some courthouse jurisdictions. Check the probate index as well as a special indexing to guardianships. If the person was insane but being cared for by relatives or friends, you may find information on them in court minute books. Perhaps the relative or friend was being paid monthly or quarterly for their upkeep.

If you are certain that the individual was placed in a mental hospital, begin looking for the institution that was in existence in the given area (state) at the correct period of time. Some states had more than one mental hospital. Search engines on Internet can be helpful. Also check the state government web pages or phone books for state mental health departments. If none of these work, contact the state library or archives to learn more about which hospitals were in existence at a specific time.

Mental hospitals which are still in existence may have records archived on site, or they may have been destroyed or removed to another location. Communicate to learn which records are available and their policies for mail requests or onsite research. The older the records, the less chance they may still be in existence. If the mental hospital no longer exists, inquire at the local historical society or state archives/library as to where their records may be located.

Not all mental hospitals will release records to relatives, particularly those removed a few generations. Even if the person of inquiry has been deceased for many years, they often consider the records closed permanently. When contacting these institutions, be sure to make your request specific and clear as to your purpose and state your relationship to the patient.

If you are fortunate to obtain records from a mental hospital, they should contain the patient's name and medical diagnosis, date admitted, place of birth, information on next-of-kin, date of death and cause of death, and place of burial. Many patients stayed in the mental hospitals for many years or until death. Be sure to ask if there is correspondence in their file from relatives.

People were admitted to mental hospitals for illnesses that today would merely require medicine and understanding. Many women were admitted in their menopausal years as their conditions were not understood by spouse and family members. Manic-depression, which is today called biopolar affective disorder, was another cause for admittance. In my own family there was a case of epilepsy which was cause in the early 1900s for admittance to the mental institution. An interesting article on mental illness history can be found on Internet at

While it is time consuming to research these type of records, it is also worthwhile to learn more about the ancestor or re lative and their health problems. Many family connections can also be discovered if you are fortunate to locate mental records.

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