Tennessee Genealogical Society
Women and the Insane Asylum
When researching our women ancestors, one place is often overlooked: the
insane asylum. Some of the reasons our grandmothers were institutionalized
are quite unbelievable. In the early 1800's wives and daughters were often
committed for not being obedient enough to their husbands or fathers. Women
were expected to be homemakers and not much was given to their education. If
a woman spoke out and went against the "norm" she could be committed. When
children were committed, oftentimes the families would tell others they had
This is confusing, because they may even have published an obituary, yet
they were much alive at the asylum. If they were released and moved on, the
researcher would find them alive years later, even though their death had
been pronounced years earlier! Some children were committed for unwanted
pregnancies, disobedience or illness such as Down's Syndrome or Autism.
I first became aware of this a couple of years ago. I was visiting a court
house and noticed the term "lunacy" on a lot of the women's forms. I asked
the court aide about this. She showed me where a woman could be quite often
divorced for reasons of lunacy. Her husband would put her in the insane
asylum and then file for divorce. A few months later, his marriage records
to a younger bride usually showed up. This was very sad for this woman
committed, who did nothing but grow older. All the years of being a wife and
mother were not appreciated. She was just sent to the insane asylum. I found
several cases where this appeared to have happened. I was told this was very
common in the early 1800's.
Other reasons to be "put away", were depression, alcoholism, just being a
little different from the norm, and even going through menopause! Doctors
just did not know how to deal with mental issues and the result was to put
their patients in the asylum. I am sure the women who were sane had a hard
time. They were put in the midst of the ill and treated as if they were
there for the same problems. These women were locked up and forgotten by
their loved ones. The fathers/husbands often forbid the family members to
visit. It was as if they had died. Most of them did stay at the insane
asylums until their death.
Some of these asylums were built next to, or a part of, the prison system.
This was to help cut back costs of care, food and facilities. Some of the
well patients were at times able to work the local farms for a very low
wage. Patient labor laws soon stopped this practice. The asylums usually
provided only the basic necessities of life. Food was poor, cleanliness was
not stressed and the rooms were often very cold. Diseases were quick to
spread among the asylums.
Where can we go to try to locate our ancestors who may have been committed?
Some states have posted their patient listings for the mentally ill on the
genealogy county sites. The US census has a place on some of their census,
example 1850, that has a place to mark if deaf, dumb or insane. The probate
section may carry Lunacy Record Books at the county courthouses. Some wills
will declare if someone is insane or having lunacy; thus the person's Will
declared to care for the person committed or does not include them in their
While sane or insane, using the records of lunacy may help us locate our
women ancestors. Ask questions at your particular courthouse where these
records may be kept. If someone just seems to have disappeared, they may
have just been "sent away"!
TN Genealogy Society Member