The adventures and misadventures of a family history researcher
Sunday, December 7, 2014
A Dark Page In the Family History
Up until recently, my family
research has been mostly an exciting and enjoyable experience. The
thrill of finding a long-lost relative. (Or, more accurately, a
long-hidden relative—because how could they be lost if I never knew
I had them?) The smug satisfaction of turning up a missing piece of a
puzzle. The fun of finding a colorful family secret that shows us to be not just a family of goody-goodies. Those have been high points in my research.
Oh, certainly there have
been sad events—tragedies in each branch of the family. Such as
the death of Guttorm Guttormson, the brother of my great-grandfather Helge.
I read in a history of Green County, Wisconsin that Guttorm “slid
from the top of a haystack and fell upon the prongs of a fork which
penetrated his vitals, causing death in twenty-two hours.” How sad
for him that his life ended while he was still in his twenties. How sad for his wife to be left alone with their young child. But to my mind, saddest of all is the
thought of Guttorm's mother, Barbro, losing her firstborn child as she was either
carrying, or soon to be pregnant with, her thirteenth and last child.
Yes, the whole sorry event is sad.
But the other evening, I discovered something that goes beyond sad. What I discovered was
disturbing. Disturbing enough that I wasn't sure I would
sleep that night. It was a story I pieced together relating to my
mother's great uncle Pete. He was her father's uncle and although I
have a couple photographs of him, I
really didn't know anything about him. Did he have children? Was he ever
married or was he a bachelor?
It only took checking a couple of
census records to find some answers. The 1880 US census showed that Simon Peter Odenweller had
been married to a young woman with the unusual name of Lether Creel. They had a
one-year-old boy named Roy. In the next census in 1890, both wife
and child were gone. Sad, but still justsad.
The disturbing part was yet to
not show up again until the 1900 census when he was twenty-one years
old. In that census, next to his age in the column designating
status in the household, instead of “head” or “son of
head” he was identified as “patient”. Looking at the lines
above and below his, I saw that almost everyone on that page was
identified as a patient. Some had “physician” or “attendant”
by their names. Maybe he had TB and was in a sanatorium?
I looked at the
previous page—again, all patients, physicians and attendants. I
went all the way back to page one (there were 38 pages in all) and
found the title page of the entire document. This census file was entitled “Central Illinois Hospital for the Insane.”
It was a punch to the gut. How many years had he been imprisoned
there? What kind of treatment did he suffer? Did he ever have visitors? Who would ever know?
In those days, hospitals
for the insane housed not only people with mental problems, but also
people with other infirmities: epilepsy, “post partum syndrome”,
physical disabilities. Some patients were committed by family
members as punishment or as a means of coercion. I did a little
research on the Central Illinois Hospital for the Insane and found that one woman, Elizabeth Packard, had been held
there from 1860 to 1863—committed by her husband because she had challenged his
religious views. After her release, this brave woman worked to
bring about a piece of legislation to protect other women from similar
In a Google
search, I turned up an image of the hospital in the form of a
postcard. From the year 1909, the photograph showed an attractive
spreading building surrounded by lovely grounds. On the postcard was
scrawled the message, “This is where I sing. I guess you are
right they are the only people who will stand for it. Ha ha.” I'm
sure the joke was representative of the attitude at the time—no
offense intended and a good laugh was had by all.
The name of the
institution underwent a change some time after that postcard had been
written and sent. To reflect the changing perceptions of mental
health and approaches to mental health care, it was renamed The
Jacksonville Mental Health and Developmental Center. The building itself was demolished in the 1970's.
As for my relative,
Roy W Odenweller, no more information is available beyond a photo of
a gravestone with his name along with some other Odenweller names. He lived another nine years,
presumably in the same institution, and died at the age of thirty—one
year short of the next US census.