Monday, May 1, 2017

One Place You Don't Want To Find A Relative

Newark, NY State School
     I recently received a message via inquiring about a distant family branch from Newark, New York.  My paternal great-grandfather's family, or families, have not been thoroughly researched I should add; I've mostly concerned myself with his first marriage, the one which produced my grandfather.  Grandpa's father had bad luck with wives, he buried two before the third one outlived him.   My grandfather never spoke about his half siblings, and I never met any of them so they were a bit of a mystery to me.

     I had done enough research on the various families of Great-grandfather to know that when Newark was mentioned it was probably in relation to a daughter of his second marriage who I will call Rita. Though she's been gone thirty years now, I know she has descendants who are involved in genealogical research, so I hesitate to use her real name and cause anyone embarrassment.

     After reading the message, I looked at my family tree software to see what I had found on Rita -- outside of her marriage and place of death it wasn't much.  I ran a few searches and was shocked to find that in 1940,  24 year old Rita was a patient at the Newark State School For Mental Defectives.  According to that census she was a resident there in 1935 as well.  I then did some searches looking for the identity of the person who had sent me the message and I discovered the most likely candidate was a son of Rita's born in 1938.  That made no sense!  His mother would have been a patient at that time if the census was correct.  But wait, his last name and his mother's maiden name were the same, was he born out of wedlock?  I went back to the 1940 census and sure enough, he too resided at the State School, enumerated as a boarder.  Rita must have become pregnant while she was a patient and her child remained institutionalized with her after his birth.

     Now I looked for information about New York State Schools in the mid 1930's.  Many of the patients in that era were what was then termed, "high functioning", and teachable.  Some even lived and worked in the communities surrounding their institution, though they remained on the books as patients.  Another search turned up a PDF of the 1935 town board minutes from the place where Rita had lived prior.  In the brief excerpt under the title was this, "Trip to Newark State School -- Examination: Mental Defective, Rita..."  No last name in the description, could it be her? 

      I clicked on the title to open the PDF and there among the quarantines and inspections in the report of Health Officer Reeves, I found Rita, "mental defective".  To today's sensibilities that label sounds so harsh, so dismissive and lacking in compassion.  And to have a toddler in that place!  It disturbed me to think none of Rita's family took the child in.  Her father, my great-grandfather, had remarried by that time and had more children with his third wife, and Rita had three older sisters, one of whom was married with a young son of her own and still living in the same town.

     At some point, Rita left the State School, married, and had several more children.  Which made me curious about her husband.  You won't believe where I found him in 1940... an insane asylum in the Panama Canal Zone!  He had joined the US Army and was stationed there.  More emails from the author of the original query confirmed he was indeed the son who was born in the State School and was seeking his father's name.  He told me he was born at the school to a mother with a low IQ and was taken from her at an early age, and placed in foster care.  They did reconnect at some point later on, and he knew his half-siblings.

     I've never heard a word about this sad, disturbing chapter in my family's past, mental disabilities just weren't talked about in the 1930's and even today it's hushed up.  I hope in the end Rita found some happiness, but I'm not banking on it.  In the early 1980's her youngest son hung himself with a bed sheet in the local calaboose...



  1. What a sad story... But not an uncommon one. I hope that your cousin is able to determine who his Father is

  2. I do too, but I don't think it very likely after all this time. He said his mother would never talk about it...

  3. I agree Ellie, it’s always sad to find a relative in a mental asylum. Often, they were locked away for life and ‘forgotten’ by their families. Sometimes there was little or nothing wrong with them. I wonder was Rita abused in the school? I do hope she had a happy life in the end.

  4. I'm thinking she most likely was abused, I knew a person who worked at the place in the late 1960's and it was going on even then...