' I have terrible news,' my husband declared with a grim face recently. 'I have just found out that my great grandfather died in Callan Park Mental Hospital.'
'Watch out for mental illness in the family, ' warned a cousin some years ago. 'So many of our Weston ancestors died in asylums!
My first experience of mental illness in my family was at the age of 14. Whilst driving me home from a ballet lesson one day, my mother said to me unexpectedly, , ' You know your great uncle Alec is in a mental asylum. Without further ado, Mother added, 'He went mad when his wife and child burned to death in a house fire. He became a lunatic, she added.' And that was that! Uncle Alec was never spoken of again!
Looking back, it now seems difficult to understand why I did not ask my mother to expand on this blunt announcement. She might as well have declared that Uncle Alec became a postman, for all the attention I gave the news. Aged in my early teens, and with other things obviously of much more interest to me than an uncle, who was possibly mad, this seemed explanation enough!
Above Right: Goodna Mental Hospital
Because my mother died before I ventured into the fascinating journey into my ancestral past, I have no one to tell me the details of Uncle Alex's demise or to explain why he was a patient at the Brisbane Mental Hospital at Goodna. ( I am currently pursuing this line of research). What I did discover, to my surprise, was that Alec was not, in fact my great uncle, the youngest brother of my grandfather, Colin Hamilton McDade, as I was brought up to believe. Alexander Gilmour McDade was actually the son of my grandfather's youngest sister, Mary and therefore the nephew of my grandfather, not his brother. And if that is not confusing enough, read on. Mary had become pregnant to her older sister, Maggie's husband at the tender age of 14 whilst the family still resided in Cumbernauld, Scotland. Nine months after the birth of baby Alexander, the family ( minus Maggie and her disgraced husband) left Scotland to make a new life in Australia with young Alexander being brought up to believe that his grandparents, John and Elizabeth McDade were his parents. Mary fled the family on arrival in Australia and sadly, was not heard from again. John and Elizabeth died, leaving grandson, Alexander, orphaned at the age of almost 13. This tangled web of deception about his parentage, I reasoned, coupled with the untimely death of both his wife and son, was more than enough reason for my poor uncle(2nd cousin) to suffer a mental breakdown. That was my profound theory - until I discovered that Alec's wife did not die in a house fire at all!
Reliability is not one of the 'family anecdote's' most trustworthy qualities, as most family historians very quickly discover. I found Alexander's wife, Linda, alive and well, divorced from Alec and remarried. Their son, Trevor Andrew had, however, died in December, 1954. So, the question remained - Did Uncle Alec suffer some sort of mental breakdown after the death of his son? Or was there another reason that he might have been admitted to the Goodna Mental Hospital? I apologise to anyone reading this blog that I cannot answer this question with certainty, just yet. As soon as I know myself, I will let you know. I am making use of this 'yet to be confirmed' example, in my own family history to illustrate the importance of checking the facts before writing your ancestor off as a 'lunatic' or as mentally insane.
Further research into Uncle Alec's background led me to be consider the possibility that he may not have had a breakdown following the tragic death of a young son, but that he may have in fact, inherited some form of mental illness. His biological father, ( who was also his uncle - confusing, I know and almost enough to make me go quite mad myself) was Andrew Smith. Well he was and he wasn't! Andrew's real name was Antonas Ustila. Antonas was a Lithuanian refugee whose family had escaped from Lithuania and was living in Glasgow, Scotland. ( most European refugees living in Scotland were forced to anglicise their surnames, Smith being the most common name used). Whilst researching Andrew's Lithuanian ancestry, I discovered that his father, and Alexander's grandfather, Matthorgus (anglicised to Matthew) had died as a patient in a mental hospital called Hartwood Asylum in Scotland.
Right: Hartwood Mental Asylum where Mathorgus Ustila died.
Now, at this point in time, I could easily have written dear old Uncle/Cousin Alec as having been destined to end up a lunatic, having as it appeared, inherited a mental illness from his grandfather. This seemed a perfectly logical explanation and one I could have been content with, except for one curious thing. It was becoming apparent that I was discovering an alarming number of my ancestors popping up in asylums all over England as well as in Australia, and more significantly, in completely different branches of my family tree.
'Curiouser and curiouser'... I felt that the incident of finding multiple ancestors in an asylums needed further investigation. When my great grandfather, Leonard Cuthbert Reece-Hoyes, reported to have drowned in a river at Ballina, NSW in 1930, miraculously turned up in an Asylum in Sydney some hundreds of kilometres away and some nine years later, I decided that this research was urgent. I was quietly confident that great grandad was not THAT good a swimmer! And if there was an genetic predisposition toward mental illness in a number of family lines, I wanted to know.
It did not take me long to discover that our understanding of mental disorders has undertaken a long journey via trial and error. Societal attitudes towards, and medical understanding of, mental illnesses, have moved thruogh a pcontinual process of change since the the first mental hospital was built in London in 1247 (Bethlehem Royal Hospital). Patients were placed in asylums for a number of different reasons, and though many of these people had genuine medical conditions such as epilepsy or were alcoholics, they were placed in the same hospital, the same clothing and treated the same way (inhumanely in many cases) as patients who suffered from mental conditions. Even women suffering from post natal depression were locked away in prison like conditions and often never released or their state of mind never reviewed. In Catholic countries such as Ireland, a man who wished to remarry and who could not divorce for religious reasons, was sadly, able have a wife placed in a mental institution for the rest of her life. This was viewed as reason for an annulment of the marriage, allowing a man to remarry.
I do not profess to be an expert on Asylums, and I am certain that others might benefit from their own research, however, I have discovered from my own study of this subject, that not all ancestors who were in mental hospitals suffered from mental afflictions. Great grandfather Leonard Cuthbert Reece-Hoyes, for one, (who the family is quite satisfied did not attempt a long swim to Sydney) died in the Liverpool Asylum because he was dying from cancer of the tongue and had no one to care for him. He had deserted his family in Ballina, leaving his poor wife placing advertisements in newspapers desperately seeking information about his unexplained disappearance.
One of my Weston ancestors who died in an asylum in London, did so as a respected member of staff at the hospital. Several other members of a later generation of this same family entered asylums as alcoholics, which was an extremely common reason for ancestors appearing on asylum records.
As for Uncle/Cousin Alexander,I am looking forward to finding out the reason that both he and his grandfather died in mental hospitals, one in Scotland and the other in Australia. So far non of my ancestors who I have discovered in Asylums have actually been lunatics. But you just never know....