The Scary Side of Your Family Tree

For those of you that don’t quite share my addiction to family research, let me assure you that the emotional roller coaster ride I have been on in my quest to figure out where I came from has been amazing.  Yes, finding out my ancestors came over on the Mayflower is remarkable.  Or how about the fact that my ggg Grandfather was a Doctor that served in the Civil War.  I barely paid attention in history class and now I find myself to have an interest in Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  My dad would be so proud.

And if I go really far back in the family tree, I am actually related to Adam and Eve.  Yep, it’s true.
However, I say roller coaster because not every story is the happy awe-inspiring fairytale that you expect to get along the way.  Behind my fascination with genealogy are life-realities that can be a little frightening to face, much less talk about.  And I guarantee there is a story in your tree as well.

Imagine my fear when a cousin pointed out to me that in the 1880 census, my gg Irish Grandmother Ellen was listed as living at an Insane Retreat.  I think I stared at that one for several days, not fully understanding the word retreat.  Sounded like she was spending a day at the spa, but I’m pretty sure the word insane wasn’t going to lead to anything good.

My heart bleeds for her as I write this because nothing I uncovered was good news.  Of course, my obsession made me keep searching until I unearthed the full story.  That’s the least I could do for her. Give her life some dignity, and give me an understanding for what she endured. 

Is it fair to say that having 12 children could make you crazy?  I would say a big fat yes, considering I never attempted to have even 1.  Well, Ellen was a typical Irish Wife living with a typical Irish Husband following the traditions of the Catholic Church in Connecticut in the mid 1800’s.  Women must be subservient to their husbands, have sex for procreation only, and endure the racial stigma of being Irish in the US during that time.  Ellen was also very fertile, and had at least 12 children in a span of 20 years (from 1853 – 1873).  I believe there was also a 13th child born in the 1850’s that died without a trace.  In fact, her first 3 children (probably 4) died within 5 years of each other, and before the 1860 census was even taken.  By 1871, she had lost another daughter, and was pregnant again in 1873 at the age of approximately 44.  I’m exhausted for her.

I never did find Ellen again in any census record after 1880, yet she lived until 1916.  Oh god, where was she for 30+ years?  With the help of a knowledgeable genealogist from Connecticut, I found her 1880 record at the Connecticut Valley Hospital.  It didn’t tell me much other than confirming which hospital she went to.

Being pulled by the serious weight of curiosity for her life, I made a trip to the area in my search to find Ellen’s parents and siblings.  Instead, what I found were her probate records ordering her into the hospital in 1873 (the year of her last child’s birth).  That’s not what I came to find out, but it was the direction I was meant to go.  So I got in my car and drove down to the hospital, which still exists today. 

To say this hospital is a creepy place is being nice.  It sits atop a bluff, overlooking a river, with beautiful views.  There are a series of red brick buildings that clearly were built over 130 years ago.  And because of some upcoming renovations, many of the older buildings sit empty, abandoned and decrepit, broken windows and all.  

As creepy looking from the outside as this hospital was, the current administration was kind enough to humor me and dig into the archives for any records of Ellen’s visit in 1880.  I can honestly tell you that of all the “aha” moments I’ve had in my family research, I would have been fine without this one coming true.  

The medical records that showed up in my mailbox consisted of 13 years of doctor’s notes.  Amazing when you consider this was from 1873 thru 1886.  The records show that Ellen suffered from melancholy with a diagnosis that it was from having too many children.  I often wonder if maybe she didn’t want to have sex any more for fear of getting pregnant with #14.  So she used this as an excuse to get away?  That’s a dumb thought, but it would be very creative of her if true.

So what do I do now with this new-found information?  I use it to keep the fire under my feet to further my research into her lineage.  I still need to find her parents.  They are missing and buried in CT somewhere. I also need to find out where exactly in Ireland she was born.  Hopefully one day I can unlock her past.   

In conclusion, I am a passionate believer that Everyone needs to understand their roots so they can pass this knowledge onto their living descendants, warts and all.  We all have ancestors in our tree with a scary story that may include criminal behavior, divorce, abandonment, mental health issues, or worse.   But don’t turn your back on their lives, understand them and celebrate the fact that they gave you life.  We need to enjoy the fascination of discovering where we came from.  Bumpy ride and all.