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Keys to the Asylum

Everytime we lose a celebrity or famous person to mental illness such as in the recent passing of
comedian and actor Robin Williams, depression and mental illness once again becomes a focus in the media and our lives. No family is immune to mental illness and with careful observation of your ancestor's records it will come as no surprize to find one or two cateorized as such. Today, guest author Ceris Aston from Scottish Indexes joins us and looks at the very difficult subject of mental illness and our ancestors.

Historically, Western society has a complicated relationship with mental illness, or psychopathology. To be considered mad, insane or crazy was too often to have been maligned, mistreated and subjected to social stigma – particularly if the individual was working class. Today in Scotland, only echoes remain of the village fool, the madwoman in the attic, the straightjacketed inmates of lunatic asylums - in literature, film and television, and in our collective consciousness. With the stories which have been woven around such characters, it’s hard to distinguish fact from reality. What, then, if you discover in your family tree a great-great uncle termed ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’, a grandmother’s cousin confined to an institution, pronounced of ‘unsound mind’? The blunt words can come as a shock, arousing pity and, inevitably, curiosity.

But where to find out more? In the past decade, increasing numbers of sources have been indexed by a number of organisations and volunteer networks. Indexes range from censuses through parish records to court, prison and – significantly – mental institution records. At Scottish Indexes, with the help of a team of dedicated volunteers, we are currently indexing the "Notices of Admissions by the Superintendent of Mental Institutions". These forms, which begin on the 1st of January 1858, were created each time someone was admitted to an asylum in Scotland. Thus far we have indexed 1009 such admission forms. The stories that they tell are fascinating – and often tragic.

On the 26th of December, 1861, one Elizabeth Allan or Wood was admitted as a patient to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum for the Insane. Following an examination on the 7th of January, the doctor John Moir LRCS pronounced: ‘with respect to her mental state, that it is unsound, and with respect to her bodily health and condition, that she is weakly.’ Forty-five-year-old Elizabeth was a married housewife, previously a servant, from the parish of Elgin. ‘Duration of existing attack’ is put down as six months – ‘supposed cause’, the death of her daughter. To the question, ‘whether suicidal’, the scrawled response reads ‘has attempted to drown’ – in a later note, we read that her attempts are repeated ones and that she cannot be left alone. The bereaved Elizabeth Allan or Wood is categorised as a ‘Lunatic, and a proper Person to be detained under Care and Treatment.’ Her loss is treated dispassionately, with one report listing as ‘Facts indicating Insanity’ Elizabeth’s feelings ‘that her God has deserted her and that her Soul is lost and her life a burden and can get no peace or rest’.

Elizabeth’s story makes for a heart-rending read – and there are so many more, with ‘supposed causes’ for lunacy including bereavement, financial loss and disappointment in love. Between the 1st of January 1858 and the 31st of December 1860, 3912 individuals were admitted to asylums across Scotland – an average of 1304 per year. Unfortunately, diagnoses and forms of treatment for mental illnesses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were startlingly inadequate. Institutionalisation was common and had become increasingly systematised by the time that Elizabeth was admitted, helped on its way by various acts of parliament.

Today it seems likely that Elizabeth would have been diagnosed with depression. Treatments and social attitudes have moved on a great deal since 1861, though there’s no denying we’ve still some way to go. The stigma of words relating to mental illness can be understood better by examining the social context of their origins and these also allow us to better understand our ancestors. These Mental Institution records offer an unparalleled glimpse into the reality of life as it was for a long-ago family member who suffered from mental illness. While often tragic, they are also intriguing, going far beyond mere names and dates. These records offer a real insight into the struggles that your ancestor faced. If you want to know whether a Scottish family member was admitted to an institution, you can search our indexed records here.

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The Enthusiastic Genealogist said...

I am currently researching my great, great grandmother's family. Her sister was abused by her husband and put in an asylum in Missouri. This happened in the 1890's but it looks like the records are hard to access. I'm glad other places are being more open, especially with records that are quite old.

Jana Last said...


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

Have a wonderful weekend!

Denise Hibsch Richmond said...

My cousin found our great-great-grandmother recorded in a census as an inmate of Athens Asylum in Ohio. I wrote about finding her and court admission records on my blog: I'll continue to search/request records such as facility M.D. admission papers as time goes by hoping that privacy, confidentiality rules subside.

Dana Leeds said...

I wanted to let you know that I nominated you for the "One Lovely Blog" Award! I enjoy your blog!