Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Day 174/365 Health Care, 1887 Style

When a person finally gets around to researching their family history, it's with the assumption that whatever ancestors they find, they will like. Funny anecdotes and charming stories will abound, and the ancestors will be, for the most part, upstanding citizens and people one would be proud to be descended from.

Logically of course this cannot be true for everyone. What about the family that is more complicated, with accomplishments and lofty endeavors that, for the most part, make their descendants proud - with the exception of one glaring event that seems, well, not admirable, not easily understood, and, at best, not explainable?

The young Civil war soldier above is my great-great grandfather, Robert Crutchfield Green. The day this was taken, April 16, 1861, he was in his hometown of Marion,Virginia. It was four days after Fort Sumter had been fired on, and the day after Virginia voted for secession. This photo was taken by a traveling photographer who saw a profitable window open when he set up his cameras inside the Marion railroad depot. Over a hundred young soldiers departed that day to join the Stonewall Jackson Brigade, the first troops to travel by railroad. The train transported the "Smythe County Blues" to Richmond, and then further on to Bull Run,Virginia, where my grandfather would be injured, recouperating during the winter of 1861, only to return to fight for four years until the surrender of the Confederacy at Appomatox in 1865, one of only nine surviving soldiers of the Stonewall Brigade.

Upon his return, he married my great-great-grandmother, college-educated Adeline Virginia Magruder, granddaughter of Patrick Magruder, the second Librarian of Congress. Robert Green defnitely married up. His marriage to my great-great-grandmother opened doors for him. Even when I was growing up (100 years later), she was still referred to as being from the "Virginia Magruders".

Robert and Addie married, remained in southwestern Virginia and enjoyed being the big fish in the little pond. They eventually had three daughters and one son. The son never amounted to all that much, but the daughters all became school teachers, eventually marrying a doctor, a successful businessman, and the last, Josephine Ellen Green, married a prosperous landholder, becoming my great-grandmother.

But I've jumped ahead in the story. This is Robert in 1886, twenty years after the War, aged considerably by it. He will live until 1916, traveling to veteran reunions, living with his daughters, serving as postmaster, but never speaking of the War, until his deathbed, when he will dictate his experiences in great detail as if they had happened the day before, to be written down by his best friend.
This is my great-grandmother, Robert and Addie's daughter, Josephine Ellen Green. She is approximately 18 years old, and the year is 1887.

Josie has just been sent to her Magruder relatives in Columbus,Mississippi, to attend the Female Academy. In a longstanding tradition of the Magruder family (one that has been passed down through the years), she will become the next in a long line of college educated women. At the age of 18, she has traveled from her home in the Virginia mountains, attended college in Mississippi,and the following summer (1888), she will return home to Virginia by way of the western frontier of Chillicothe, Missouri, where she will visit more Magruder relatives.

Fast forward 74 years.

This is Josie, at age 94, standing next to her mother's (Adeline Virginia Magruder Green) gravestone. That's how long it took her to find it.

For the first twenty-two years of their marriage, Robert and Addie raised children, built houses, and prospered. In 1887, Robert had Addie committed to the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum in Marion, Virginia. It was brand-new, a huge brick Gothic much-touted state of the art facility with "large rooms to contain the insane". Addie was one of the "charter" group of nine patients, those lucky enough to be admitted quickly.

Although I have Robert's letters from this period, and those of his daughter as she attended college and traveled around the county, and those of another daughter, and even one letter from the son to his father - never, never once, do they mention Addie. There is no "I saw your mother today", or "How is mother? When will she be home?" Not once.

The Lunatic Asylum opened during the summer of 1887, with my great-great-grandmother admitted almost immediately. By August 1888, she was dead. Letters we have from this time period do not mention her death. It's as if she never existed. In a family that kept photographs of daughters, husbands, cousins, horses, dogs, and farmland, not one picture was kept of Adeline Virginia Magruder.

Having the advantage of hindsight though, I now know what Robert Green did. In late August 1888, possibly on the 25th or 26th, he traveled alone by train to Marion, Virginia from his home in Bland County. In Marion he procured a team of horses and a wagon. His wife's body was released to him on August 26. He drove the wagon loaded with her body back into Marion, and then approximately 15 miles further on, to a tiny settlement called Chatham Hill. There, he buried his wife. If he had stopped overnight, then traveled another 20 miles, he would have been home, at the family cemetary.

The little wooden church is still standing in Chatham Hill, and there is a tidy cemetary, and my great-great-grandmother's gravestone is standing on the very,very edge of it. As far from the others as possible, and completely without family.

It took 74 years of looking to find her. And even then, my great-grandmother Josie never left the information in writing. It took me several years to locate it once again.

What possessed Robert to pack his wife off to a medical facility where they were proud of attempting medical procedures that would eventually be called lobotomies? Was she suffering from dementia? Was it what we now call Alzheimer's? Was it that difficult to keep her at home, with four almost-adult children and a husband to look out for her? Or was it something else?

Why did the family abandon her there? She was completely cut off. They never visited, never wrote, never mentioned her again, and then buried her in what amounted to an unmarked grave,not in the sense of not having a stone, but by leaving her children to ferret out the burial details over the years.

Sometimes the family history turns on you, and there is simply no way to understand choices and decisions made long ago. I would like to think that the stigma of having a "demented" person in the household wouldn't be enough for them to abandon her, but that may be the simplest explanation.

Simplest perhaps, but not understandable, and certainly not the family's proudest moment.


  1. A sad story, but very well written Carole. Life in general was so very different then than today, but fascinating.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. I happened upon your site, today, and was just entranced by this post. Extremely interesting!

  3. Carole,
    What a heart wrenching story. I know something like this would eat at me, drive me nuts not to know the "why" and I feel for you so dearly because of that.
    You're right, we don't always find the best things when digging into our roots.

  4. I just stumbled upon this post while looking for info on this asylum. I found out today that my grandpa's brother, who lived in Wythe County, spent time in, and eventually died in an "insane asylum." It makes sense that this is the same asylum. Depression and bi-polar disorder affects several people in my family, so as hard as it is to uncover these types of family secrets, it does help explain some things. Thank you for sharing.