Book Review -Tracing your Ancestors in Lunatic Asylums A Guide for Family Historians by Michelle Higgs

10 Jan, 2020

Book Review -Tracing your Ancestors in Lunatic Asylums A Guide for Family Historians by Michelle Higgs

By Linda Hammond

This is not a topic I’ve ever researched before so I was looking forward to finding out more.  I wasn’t disappointed!

The first chapter explains why family members might find themselves committed to such an institution and, surprisingly, you didn’t have to be mad!  Terms we would now consider derogatory, such as idiot, lunatic and imbecile, were freely applied to all manner of mental health problems.  Even people suffering from epilepsy were classed as insane!

Michelle then looks at the care for the mentally ill before 1800 including the infamous Bedlam hospital where people could pay to view the lunatics in their care.  One can only imagine the horrific lives some of these people suffered and the treatments they underwent for mental illnesses that might now be total treatable.  Many were admitted by their families, as no medical certificate needed to be obtained, and as such “inconvenient” relatives could easily be hidden away.

Michelle does say this book assumes no prior knowledge on the subject.  I certainly knew nothing about the different types of institutions and found it amazing that until the late 18th century some violent lunatics were even incarcerated in prisons.

The period covered most extensively is the Victorian era, due to it being the most document rich period.  This chapter looks at the rise in the number of institutions and the different types of establishments throughout the United Kingdom including private mad houses.

Michelle goes on to look at the mental illnesses which afflicted our ancestors and what their life inside an asylum would have been like.  It is this attention to the social history which makes this book a fascinating read.  Alongside photos of the patients and the asylums themselves Michelle uses true-life case studies allowing us an insight into the patients’ lives and reveals their often heart-breaking stories.

Further chapters look at the mentally ill patients who lived in the workhouse and different types of asylums.  The chapter dealing with members of the armed forces was particularly moving.  These were soldiers who during the First World War were often misdiagnosed with hysteria and labelled as deserters or cowards, and court-martialled and shot.  Of the 306 soldiers who suffered this fate, many were surely shell shock sufferers. Indeed these men were all pardoned in 2006.

Michelle concludes with a look at the sources available to us research our ancestors in lunatic asylums.  She looks at not only the institutions’ records themselves but also general records, such as the census, newspapers, wills and death certificates, to show us how we can find out more.  This chapter is particularly rich in examples of original records showing exactly the type of information we can locate.

Michelle has written a book which, although it is on a difficult subject, is easy to read and acts as an informative, practical guide to lunatic asylums and their patients’ lives.  If you already know that you have an ancestor who was classed as insane then this book will allow you to find out so much more about their lives.  However, even if you haven’t found a family member who was confined to an asylum, you will also find this a fascinating read.

Clare O'Grady