Monday, May 18, 2009

Madness Monday: A Letter from the Insane Asylum

In my article on my great-granduncle William Henry Lewis: A Little Man Who Stood Tall, I mentioned that Mr. Hornady, the son of one of the children Henry and his wife Julia Mister Lewis helped to raise, had very generously given me many letters and pictures that had belonged to the Lewises and were inherited by Mr. Hornady’s mother. These arrived in several mailings, which were always an occasion for anticipation and excitement. One of the mailings contained a letter written on paper with the following letterhead: North Texas Hospital for the Insane. I glanced at the greeting and signature and was shocked to see that it was a letter from Julia to Henry. Did this mean that she spent some time at the asylum at some point? Did she have emotional problems or was this a temporary stay to deal with some sort of exhaustion or depression?

As I read through the letter, Julia certainly seemed cheerful and coherent, and the second paragraph revealed that she had visited the asylum, not stayed there. The inscription under the emblem in the upper right-hand corner contained a name that revealed the connection to the asylum:

“The State of Texas
Enclose Stamp – and Address Communications Regarding Patients to
Dr. C. M. Rosser

The connection was to the Rossers, the in-laws of Julia’s best friend Bettie Curtice Rosser. At this time I was also starting to piece together what I could find out about the Rosser family (Bettie, her husband Virgil O. Rosser, and their four children, the ones Henry and Julia helped to raise when Bettie died) to make sure that I could sort out and identify some of the senders and recipients of the letters in the collection, some of whom were related to Henry or Julia and some of whom were Rossers. To do this I used the information Mr. Hornady provided on his Rosser relations together with Google and some genealogy forums. These searches revealed some interesting connections: V. O. Rosser’s brother was Dr. Charles McDaniel Rosser, one of the founders of Baylor College of Medicine. Prior to his association with that institution C. M. Rosser was the superintendent of the North Texas Hospital for the Insane at Terrell, Texas (later renamed Terrell State Hospital) from February 1895 to February 1897. One of my fellow Genea-bloggers, Judith Richards Shubert at Genealogy Traces, has written about this institution in her article Terrell State Hospital – North Texas Hospital for the Insane). You can also read an article about Dr. Rosser’s retirement from that post on Jim Wheat’s Dallas County Texas Archives.

Julia must have been doing some visiting with her friend Bettie and used the stationary during the visit. A simple explanation, but of course my original instinct had been to jump to the most dramatic conclusion. Below are the letter and the transcription of it:

[From Transcription of Materials of the William Henry and Julia Mister Lewis Collection
of John R. Hornady, III, passed to and privately held by Greta Koehl.

16. Handwritten letter from Julia Mister Lewis [“Little Woman”] to William Henry Lewis, dated Aug 1896, on Stationary of North Texas Hospital for the Insane [run by Dr. C. M. Rosser, brother-in-law of Julia’s close friend Betty Curtice Rosser]. One page, double-sided.]

“The State of Texas
Enclose Stamp – and Address Communications
Regarding Patients to
Dr. C. M. Rosser

North Texas Hospital for the Insane
Erected 1894. Capacity 800. – Visiting Days, Monday, Tuesday,
Wednesday and Thursday, from 1 to 5 P.M.

Terrell, Texas, Aug 1896

My Darling Henry, -

This is Thursday morning – bright & fair. Rain blew away yesterday afternoon. I am having a pleasant time – as much as could without my hub. We go to church every night & hear the Rev. Mulkey preach. He says some rich things – will tell you when see you. Mrs. Rosser is still up & feeling well, but declaires every day that she knows she will be in bed by the night.

We went all over the asylum yesterday even into the state kitchen where it takes eight bushels of potatoes & three barrels of flour per day to satisfy the appetites of the inmates.

How is my Henry getting along? Lonesome? Miss his little Woman? I thought sure I’d have a letter this A.M. & am disappointed. Perhaps it will come later.

How is Judge & Midnight - & the chicks – and kitty? Did you break up the “pet” from [illegible – may be setting]? I went to church with Dr. in his little buggy last night & he showed me the three minute horse that he has a [illegible] to “down” with Midnight. I told him I thought M. could do it. How I love my hub – sweetest man. Do you keep well. Do write me often. I am so unhappy & uneasy if I don’t hear – Best love & kisses from your own Little Woman –“

Part of my subsequent research on Henry Lewis has included downloading newspaper articles on him from the Dallas Morning News Archives. It turns out that when Henry was sheriff he made efforts to ensure humane treatment of the mentally ill who were kept at the jail when the asylum was unable to take them in due to overcrowding. The following is an excerpt from a transcription at Jim Wheat’s Dallas County Texas Archives of an article originally published in the Dallas Daily Times Herald on 24 July 1888, p. 1, column 4:



Some Pitiful Objects For Which the
State Has Failed to Provide.

There are seven crazy persons in the county jail, and some of them have been there quite awhile. The jail is so much crowded that two of the unfortunate creatures have to occupy one small cell, and some of them are kept in with other prisoners. One young woman, who has been kept here several weeks because room could not be found for her at the asylum, was only slightly demented at first, but has grown worse and has probably lost all chance of restoration. A prominent physician says she could have been cured with proper care and treatment at the right time. These could be had only at the asylum. Certainly, a jail filled with criminals is not the place for the insane. The place is rendered much more objectionable when crowded as our jail is at present. The authorities of the asylum, and especially the commissioners who have in hand the enlargement of that institution, are censured by some of our citizens who know all the facts and conditions. Sheriff Lewis and his assistants have done all in their power to provide for these crazy prisoners and to secure a better place for them where they belong. Other citizens have been to the asylum or written the authorities in their behalf; but all to no purpose. The jails of the state have contained demented persons for twenty years past, and no adequate provision made for this unfortunate class. It is true the asylum at Terrell has been built and is to be enlarged, for which an appropriation has been made; also, that some improvement has been made on the Austin institution. But, far too little has been done. The jails of the state are still crowded with lunatics. It is a disgraceful condition of affairs, not at all creditable to the officials who have had authority to improve it.”

[This is followed by a list and description of the seven inmates.]

“Sheriff Lewis, Judge Bower and others have done everything possible for these unfortunates. The jail is full of criminals, and is certainly not a proper place for lunatics. Here is a bit of work for the humane society.”


  1. Greta, you've done a great job with the research and writing of this post. You remember, I wrote that I felt my grandparents may have worked in the housekeeping or food service department of the hospital when they met. I found the connection a little unnerving when reading the letter that Julia mentioned going through the kitchen of the hospital and her description of it. You were right, seems your ancestors and mine have possible coincidences, if not ties! I'm so glad you've shared this letter with us. Thanks for giving my post a plug! Happy Tuesday.

  2. Greta, Maybe she had post partum depression. If a woman was feeling "blue" after childbirth they threw them in the mental hospital. You had mention that she asked about "little Henry." That could likely be the case. They also had people with TB in the mental hospital too.

    Good post.

  3. Thank you for sharing this information. I have been researching my great grandmother, who was put into a hospital for the insane following the death of her baby girl at 2 months of age. I have the census records from the hospital for 1920 and 1930, and there was a large number of married women there. It is interesting to read theories, too, because my great grandfather took her to the hospital just a month after their baby died. Perhaps men didn't understand post partum depression back then.

  4. Greta, some research for a friend has brought me back to your post and mine about Terrell Hospital. I was looking for her great-grandfather's death certificate on FamilySearch and the image appeared with the informant listed as "Records, Terrell State Hospital, Terrell, Texas".

    It was a jolt. The first one I had seen. My friend had no knowledge of his being institutionalized, but had heard stories that he had tried to strangle his wife in her sleep. He died in the Terrell Hospital in 1957.

  5. I always had a feeling my relatives were on the nutty side . . .