Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Where to stow your Ancestor's Baggage....

What to do with your Ancestors' 'Baggage'
When she passed away, a maternal great aunt, born in 1910, left me three old suitcases as well as a large, beautifully carved wooden trunk. Inside, each, was an Aladdin's cave of wonderful trinkets, clothes, vintage hats, hand embroidered table cloths and table napkins. 

My great Aunt wearing her Wedding Dress.

As I removed each beautifully handcrafted item, I discovered my aunt's wedding dress. From photographs, I knew, this was the wedding dress she had sewn and worn for her second wedding, to Major Alexander Wallace Johnston. The gown is made of gold lace and silk and I simply couldn't resist trying the fabulous dress on ( and it fitted perfectly). My daughters joined me in a colourful journey into the past as we discovered hats, ball gowns, long embroidered gloves, fob watches and costume jewelery. I am certain that each individual item from the trunk and the two suitcases, has a story of its own, however, I can only imagine the tales many of these items could tell if they could talk.

As for the gold wedding dress, I happen to know that it speaks of not only love, but also of betrayal and heartbreak. My great aunt's first husband and the great love of her life, left her for a younger woman with whom he already had two children( the result of an affair). Although her second marriage was a happy one, my aunt, as she lay dying at the age of 91, revealed to me that she had never stopped loving her first husband. She felt the need to confess something to me,that she felt guilty about, before she died. So, my great aunt, nearing the end of her life, told me the following story.

When her husband left her, William Holme Cameron was a man of considerable means. As it turned out, to my great aunt's joy, her spouse had trustingly placed all of his assets in his wife's name( no doubt to avoid taxes). After his act of betrayal and his subsequent desertion, 'Jock' as William was known, returned home to my great aunt to discuss the transfer of his great wealth back to his self, with a generous offer to make some provision for her. My great aunt, both heartbroken and angry, at the time, had closed the door on her ex husband refusing to discuss anything with him. She was unforgiving and kept her husband's wealth for herself, all except for one thing. A cake shop! (Jock, had owned amongst much property, a chain of cake shops). And one cake shop was his reward for cheating on his wife.

My great aunt looked at me sadly,and said with obviously sincere regret, 'I have never told this to anyone but I should have given poor Jock more. I gave him nothing. I feel terrible about that and I have carried this guilt around with me for more than forty years.' Relieved, my great aunt, leaned back against her pillows, silent for a moment. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, she sat up and exclaimed vehemently, 'No! I'm glad he got nothing. That rotten man didn't deserve a thing!' Well at least that was off her chest! And with that, I had inherited a confession. My great aunts contrition, be it ever so fleeting was entrusted to me. This dying elderly lady, the sister of my grandmother, had handed me with her 40 year old secret. I am therefore, the keeper of my aunt's story, and as such, I have the responsibility of deciding what to do with it.

As the keeper of this secret told to me on a relative's deathbed, I have decided to reveal my great aunt's confession. After all, it makes a good story and I have weighed up the consequences. There is no one alive that this tale will offend and deathbed confessions, I have discovered, can be and often are, very interesting. Regret, guilt, even crime as well as a gamut of other acts and emotions, are the ingredients of confessions from the deathbed. Delving into the lives of ancestors is a journey filled with surprises, but, not all surprises will be pleasant. Family baggage, I call it. Most of our ancestors had some. These are the deeds and stories which our forebears, in all probability, did not want known. They contain secrets that we, as family historians, become the keepers of. Keepers of secrets or tellers. That is our dilemma as family historians. What do we do with the 'family baggage'?
There is some quite fascinating ancestral baggage on the branches of my family tree. In my sometimes murky family background, dwells a wealth of family secrets, lies, confessions and wrongdoings, which, with all good intention, as the family sleuth, I investigate and unravel, until I discover the truth. With each discovery I must decide whether my 'find' is for publishing or not.

There are occasions when I have to wrestle with my conscience, because no matter how interesting the truth is, I need to be aware of any pain it might cause other family members. A recently new found cousin revealed to me that my great grandfather was not, as I had been told, killed by a falling tree branch, whilst walking home from work. According to my cousin's alternate tale of his untimely death, he was involved in a punch up with two drunken sons, one of whom was my grandfather. In the heat of the fight, my great grandfather was knocked to the ground and the story about the branch was told at the hospital to avoid trouble with the law. If this story is the truth, and the branch never fell on my great grandfather's head, then my grandfather and great uncle could have been charged with manslaughter. In all truth I must admit that I preferred 'death by falling branch' as a fitting end to my great grandfather's life, however, I am a fact seeker and so, must deal with the unpleasantness that often partners it. And now, at least I can overcome my fear of standing beneath trees!

As a family historian, I am always searching for the truth, however, sometimes, what is true is not something we wish to hear. When I discover something of a disturbing nature, which might offend or hurt someone living, the choice is simple. The truth sometimes needs to be left hidden. Occasionally, the family historian is required to keep the family secrets. Sometimes we must stow the ancestral baggage where it will be safely secreted away.

I am a story teller but I must choose wisely which family stories to tell. So,I can quite happily reveal that my husband's step great great grandmother Bessie Marchbank White, apologised upon her deathbed (true) for heartlessly placing her husband's two young children by his first wife into foster care. Her contrition came far to late, however, the story still circulates amongst family members, as though it helps mend her actions. I am able to reveal that my great uncle Rex was suspected of being a spy during World War 2 in England. He had no offspring to offend with this story and his only living brother, aged in his nineties is able to laugh at the tale.

Walking into the lives of our ancestors is much like walking into an old dusty attic that hasn't been disturbed for many years. You will find old familiar things you have seen or have heard about. You might possibly be in for some surprises. You might unearth old secrets which have been kept locked away for hundreds of years so before you open the rusty old door to the family attic, be prepared to have to make some tough decisions. Not everything you discover will be pleasant and not everyone in your family is going to want the baggage that you might find in the attic placed on display.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ancestors in Asylums- Were they Lunatics?

Ancestors in Asylums - Were They Lunatics?

' 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!

Whilst it is true that my husband's great grandfather did spend time in Callan Park, and certainly at least six members of my Weston branch of the family tree, did indeed die in mental hospitals, my research into the reasons for which they were placed in these institutions has produced some interesting results. I have found during the course of many years of research that there are a surprisingly diverse number of reasons for which our ancestors were placed in asylums (besides the obvious; being mentally unstable). When you find an ancestor in an asylum, do not immediately assume that they were insane or as the mentally ill were once known -lunatics. Keep in mind, of course, that as a family historian, one does need to be prepared to find some skeletons in the family closet! It is important, however, to have the facts correct before you 'out' your family skeletons to the rest of the family. In other words, it is perhaps wiser to check for more information before you declare great great grandpa 'a lunatic' to your relatives. He just might not have been.

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.  Nine months after the birth of baby Alexander, the family 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 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) had a father who had died as a patient in a mental hospital called Hartwood Asylum in Scotland. 

Right: Hartwood Mental Asylum where Alec's grandfather 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....