Monday, March 4, 2013

Tips on Researching Institutionalized Ancestors

Where are Asylum Records?
As you've probably already figured out, when it comes to researching institutionalized ancestor's it’s not locating them that is the issue; the problem is how to access the records. Is it even possible? In the post Mental Health Facilities and State Hospital Records, 4 Jan 2010, the case of 3rd Great-Uncle Willis Cox and his daughter Freddie Reba (Cox) Looney from Coffeyville, Kansas and Washington County, Oklahoma, respectively, was shared. As I mentioned there, “not everyone can boast that at any given time one, or more, ancestor was being treated in a State Hospital, but I usually exclaim that my family actually had a wing at the Kansas - Osawatomie State Hospital, also known as the State Insane Asylum." But locating other ancestors scattered across the USA, have been a bit more challenging. (Read Stalking Irish Madness and Me, 11 Jan 2010). 

Where to Start
The first step is to confirm your ancestor’s whereabouts. Using the following records/documents will assist you in determining where your ancestor may have been institutionalized: 
  • census records
  • cemetery records/tombstones
  • death certificates
  • probate records
  • court records
  • obituaries 
Finding Records
Every state has has in place statues specifying the distribution, and release of records of the mentally ill.  Many of the earlier records were discarded, leaving perhaps just an index to past patients holding minimum information. The Kansas Statute 65-5603, specifies the information that can be released for family history research.  "Examples include: dates of birth and death, dates of stay, names and addresses of family members.  Medical information, including the DIAGNOSIS, is not open." To obtain copies from these records, researchers must  submit a request form with payment.

This is the case for the Topeka Kansas State Hospital Records. Although microfilmed records are held at the Kansas Historical Society for patient case files from 1872 until the 1960 "only familial relations of deceased patients and living former patients can request information from these records." 

Other states, like Minnesota have year restrictions for retrieving hospital records. In Minnesota there is a 50 year hold on all records from the date of admittance. Accessing these restricted records from the Minnesota Historical Society requires a signed "Application and Use Agreement." For more information  on privacy and genealogy research read:  Privacy Restrictions Keeping You From Research?

Why So Challenging?
Prior to State Statutes, often state hospitals like Osawatomie, Kansas discarded the patients’ original files. However, often indices of past patients are still on record. But to successfully obtain a copy of the medical file, the researcher must broaden the search.

For many states, like Illinois, state mental hospital records are "closed". Researchers will have to piece information using death certificates, military pension records (sometimes widow pension requests), probate records (sometimes closed if assigned to custodian), cemetery records, and local newspapers to obtain sufficient information. We have also seen copy of medical records submitted and filed with court cases. 

A complete 100+ page medical record of Willis Cox’s including his examination records, and doctor's observations at the State Hospital were held with his Civil War Pension records. In the "Survey for family medical history" a bit of information from the attending physicians also mentioned his daughter, Freddie Reba’s convalescent time at the State Hospital.

In addition to the sources mentioned above, and exhausting your State Archives and Historical repositories be sure to do a keyword search at the website.  Here you will find a variety of state hospital records. For example, the Family Search microfilmed New Orleans (Louisiana). Insane Asylum, Records of the Insane Asylum, 1858-1884 contains records on entries and releases of patients. 
Kathleen Brandt
Accurate, accessible answers


  1. Kathleen, THANK YOU so much for posting this very informative and timely information. I obtained a copy of one of my brick wall ancestor's death certificates and discovered that he died as a patient at the Austin State Hospital in January 1952. The cause of death on his death certificate is very interesting. And with that info along with what some family members have shared, I would really like to learn more about his stay at this facility if possible. You article gives me some places to definitely start and explore more. Again, thank you!

  2. Kathleen - I can't find any collections for the U.S. on that contain the words insane or asylum. I also looked at the list of Louisiana records there and don't see "New Orleans (Louisiana). Insane Asylum, Records of the Insane Asylum, 1858-1884". Do you think they removed this collection?

  3. Barbara,
    Here is the link I used:

    To get this result, I put asylum in the Catalog keyword search. If you go half way down the page, you will see Records of the insane asylum, 1858-1884, New Orelans, LA.

  4. Kathleen, I didn't even know any of these records were available. I had a maiden aunt who was institutionalized, very sad, and her sister, another maiden aunt, kept all the papers, so I just saved some of them, figuring there would be no "records," ever. The doctors apparently were not able to allay her anxiety and distress. This was back in the mid-20th century. It's good to know that some records exist -- thanks.

  5. Thank you for this wonderful post.

    I want to let you know that this blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  6. Very interesting and informative blog and about the doctor’s medical cause of death certificate. I must appreciate your work well done keep it up.

    doctor’s medical cause of death certificate