Saturday, 9 October 2010

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know?

This week I’ve been doing some research for a client in the records known as the ‘General Register of Lunatics in Asylum’. These are not records I consult often and I suspect this is because they are not particularly well known. It’s a shame because they are an excellent source for individuals who may appear in relatively few other records and may be especially useful where records of a particular hospital or asylum are deficient. 

It’s probably worth beginning by commenting that these records include individuals suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses which resulted in them being committed to an asylum. In some cases their conditions were probably not well understood at the time and might be interpreted very differently today. 

The General Register of Lunatics in Asylum is held at the National Archives of Scotland (in series MC7) and covers all ‘lunatics’ in Scottish asylums from 1858-1978, although access to records from the last 100 years is restricted. The register includes patients who were already in asylums when the register began and who were actually admitted prior to 1858. In fact (according to Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: The Official Guide) the very first patient listed, Jean Morris, was admitted in 1805, although curiously this volume is not included in the NAS online catalogue

The register includes: admission number, name of patient, whether a private or pauper patient, sex, date of admission, name of asylum, date of discharge or death, whether recovered or relieved etc., and a column for observations or comments. A particularly useful feature is that each patient kept their original admission number, making it possible to trace multiple admissions to one or more asylums, and that later admissions are frequently noted on the same page. 

There are two partial name indexes held in MC7/33 although access to these is also restricted so in practice it is only possible to view the index to surnames beginning O-Z. 

The fact that an ancestor spent time in an asylum may be discovered from a census return, death record or perhaps a poor relief register. If you know the date of admission then you can identify the relevant volume from the NAS catalogue. Failing that, my method is to start from the date you know the individual was in an asylum (such as the date of the census) and work backwards until you find the admission. At worst you may have three or four fairly hefty volumes to search through which can take a couple of hours. 

Once you have found the individual in the General Register of Lunatics and discovered the date of admission you can then find their ‘Notice of Admission’ in series MC2 (a separate volume for each month, arranged in order of admission number). 

These Notices give personal details of each patient including name, sex, marital status, occupation, religion, place of abode, where examined, length of time insane, whether first attack, age at first attack, when and where previously examined and treated, duration of attack, supposed cause, whether the patient was subject to epilepsy, suicidal or dangerous to others, parish to which chargeable, name and abode of nearest relative, whether a member of the family was known to be insane and any special circumstances. Also included is a petition to the sheriff, two medical certificates by two separate doctors giving brief medical details and a copy of the order to be granted by the sheriff. 

Based perhaps more on gothic literature than historical fact, my vision of C19th lunatic asylums was that of grim, forbidding institutions, where individuals were locked up (often without good reason) never to see the outside world again. So what really struck me browsing through the General Register of Lunatics was how little time most individuals spent in a particular institution and how many were released having apparently recovered. 

Taking at random the five individuals who were admitted to various Scottish asylums on 5th July 1876 gives an example of this: 

John F was a private patient admitted to Aberdeen Asylum on 5th July 1876 and who left on 10th October the same year. His condition apparently deteriorated though as he was readmitted just a week later, this time as a pauper, and in January 1878 was removed to the poorhouse. The supposed cause of his illness was “grief from death of his wife and a highly nervous constitution”. 

Ann McK, a domestic servant, was admitted to Inverness Asylum on 5th July where she remained for nearly two years until 21st April 1878. She re-entered the asylum in June 1885. 

Helen McG was admitted to Murthly Asylum on 5th July 1876 and left on 17th August 1876 - described as a ‘permanent escape’. Her notice of admission shows her previous place of abode to have been the County Prison in Perth and few personal details seem to have been known about her. She was apparently “wild and excited, threatening violence to all around her without provocation”. 

Margaret H or J was admitted to Stirling Asylum on 5th July and left recovered just a few weeks later on 29th July 1876. The register does not show any later re-admissions. Margaret had apparently attempted to drown herself on several occasions, which her husband had struggled to prevent. The supposed cause of her illness was “death of children”. 

Dennis B was first admitted to Glasgow Asylum then transferred a day later to Woodilee Asylum. He also left a few weeks later, on 26th July 1876, apparently recovered, although he had been described by one of his doctors as “confused and sees and hears imaginary forms and voices”. 

The fact that time spent in an asylum was often brief (although re-admittance at a later date was not uncommon) means that, unless this happened to coincide with a census, we are probably unaware of just how many of our ancestors were admitted to such an institution. 

In fact, whilst doing this research I serendipitously came across an individual who bears one of the more unusual names on my family tree and, as his family came from the same part of Ireland as my own ancestors, who may well have been a distant relative. 

His case is rather a sad one. He was just 16 when admitted to the asylum and described as “a feeble minded lad - exhibiting weakness of mind in his manner and talk”. He was apparently considered a danger to others, although the evidence presented here suggests that he was more likely a danger to himself. He died in the asylum four months after being admitted and his death record gives his cause of death as “Tumour of the Brain producing Epilepsy”.

1 comment: