A Case of History Locked Away in the Archives

On a crisp November morning in 1890 Ellen Hammond (1830-1900) sat down in her room at the New York State Lunatic Asylum and composed a letter to her husband Edgar:

Utica, Nov. 14, 1890

Dear Husband I take this opportunity of writing a few lines to let you know that I am well and hope this will find you the same. I felt very much disappointed that you did not come last Saturday as you promised but I shall expect you this week without fail. I got a letter from our folks and they said that you talked about bringing Matie along with you when came but I think you had better not as the weather may be too cold.

Doctor Fray has promised that I shall go home this month and I should like to be home in time for Thanksgiving Day, I think I have nothing more to add. I remain your affectionate wife,

Ellen Hammond

Ellen Hammond. Author’s collection.

Ellen is my great-great-great-grandmother, and this letter is the only surviving record our family has from her. As I read the letter recently, it made me wonder about her life and experiences at the asylum. Did her husband or Matie visit her the following week? Did she get to go home before Thanksgiving? Why was she at the New York State Lunatic Asylum in the first place and was she happy there?

Known today as the Utica Psychiatric Center, this asylum was established in 1842. It was the first state-run mental institution in New York and is one of the oldest in the United States as well. According to the asylum’s 1889 annual report Ellen was one of about 600 patients, half men and half women living there at the time. Each year around 12,500 visitors arrived to see family and friends living there. Hopefully Edgar and other members of the Hammond family were part of that number.

But despite Utica’s historical significance and the importance of the stories Ellen’s, New York state medical privacy laws restrict access to historical patient records. When I contacted the New York State Archives for access to these files, they couldn’t even confirm that Ellen was at the institution, let alone grant access to any of her records. The only way to gain access to these records is if I were the executor of her estate or if I had a court order/doctor’s note.

Needless to say, this is frustrating! Having the information in Ellen Hammond’s patient files would help me get to know an ancestor better that I know previous little about. Aside from specific medical information, the files that asylums like Utica created on their patients often have a wealth of genealogical and biographical information that can’t be found anywhere else. Since I don’t have any other records that document Ellen’s life, I’d really like to see her Utica files to get a better glimpse into her life both at the asylum and before/after.

Edgar Hammond. Author’s collection.

Access to historical medical records, especially those related to mental health and disability, is a fraught and complicated process in the United States. A web of state and federal laws designed to protect the confidentiality and privacy of living people retroactively apply to older institutional records. Each state is different- New York completely restricts public access to historical records that contain mental health information, while Pennsylvania (where I work in the archives) restricts records that are less than 75 years old. North Carolina restricts records less than 100 years old, while Virginia only opens records after they hit the 125 year mark.

Individual facilities and archives often add additional restrictions to the legal minimums in order to reduce their liabilities and the chance that a record that should be restricted mistakenly gets released. The Pennsylvania Hospital, a historical mental institution in Philadelphia, completely restricts access to all their patient records (mental health and non-mental health records), with no exceptions.

And on top of that there’s an ethical element to this as well- is it a good idea to release the information of institutionalized people (even if they’ve been deceased for decades) when we can’t get their consent? What would Ellen think of she knew that I wanted to read her files and learn the intimate details of her life at that time? Would she have given me permission to read her records? I honestly don’t know. Just because legally records can be accessed doesn’t necessarily mean they should be read or shared even if it would provide answers I’m looking for.

When we research the records of people who were institutionalized in the past many researchers argue we have “not just a legal but also an ethical duty to maintain the confidentiality of those mentioned in historical health record.” Yet other disability advocates and historians disagree, contending that institutions already marginalized and tried to erase the stories of people with disabilities. By telling the stories of people who lived in institutions, their history and personhood can be reclaimed.

Historians David Wright and Renee Saucier wrote a great article “Madness in the Archives: Anonymity, Ethics, and Mental Health History Research” that lays out the ethical arguments surrounding research in asylum records, definitely worth a read.

But the fact remains- people who were institutionalized in the past like Ellen are difficult to research and leave few records behind that illuminate their lives and experiences. Even more so for people who weren’t white or middle/upper class. The records that were generated during their time in an institution is oftentimes the fullest account of their lives that we still have. The same is often true for people who were incarcerated or were involved in a court case. Governments have historically created many records for practical reasons, but they live on and have new value for us today. So what should archives do with these records?

Though I have very little information about Ellen’s experiences at the New York State Lunatic Asylum, there are quite a few memoirs and personal accounts of institutional life written by women in the 19th century. And thankfully, Kent State University has collected many of them and put them online for easy reading! From these we can get a general idea of what life was like for women like Ellen living in asylums back then. And the asylum’s annual reports and other unrestricted administrative records can give us more detail as well (even though they’re written from the asylum staff’s perspective and can leave out or gloss over important things).

In closing, I suppose this blog post is less a telling of Ellen Hammond’s story and experiences at the New York State Lunatic Asylum, and more me stating that I know there is a story but I don’t know any of it. And why I likely never will. Our family only has this one letter from Ellen, which seems to have raised more questions than it answers. There is little else in the historical record I can find about her to piece the other parts of her life together.

If you have ancestors who lived at an asylum or other mental institution, have you been able to access their records? How much of their story do you know? I’d love to hear how your research has gone!

Ellen’s 1890 letter to Edgar, written from the NY State Lunatic Asylum. Author’s collection.

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