52 Ancestors Week #29 – Update of “The Insane”

No Story Too Small has issued a New Year’s Challenge: “Have one blog post each week devoted to a specific ancestor. It could be a story, a biography, a photograph, an outline of a research problem — anything that focuses on one ancestor.”


In week # 24, I wrote of Jane Catherine (Roberts) Lansil, my g-g-grandmother of Lanfairfechan, Wales: Week #24


The previous week #23, I had written of her husband, my g-g-grandfather Edwin Lansil: Week #23

b78d6966-0ac5-4c1b-b14a-fe25bce6d589 (1)

Both spent time and died in the Boston Insane Hospital. I was interested to know more. Asylum records are closed in Massachusetts forever. Yes, forever!  The state will release medical records if you (essentially) sue them or if you are named as the deceased’s estate administrator in probate court (assuming the deceased did not already have an estate that was settled through probate, which they did not). From William Bailey, Director of Privacy & Compliance, Department of Mental Health, 25 Staniford Street, Boston , MA 02114. (617) 626-8163 :

“Unfortunately, due to privacy law constraints imposed upon DMH by federal and state laws and regulations, including but not limited to so-called HIPAA laws, DMH can only release Protected Health Information [PHI] regarding its clients under very limited circumstances. DMH cannot even confirm whether an individual ever received DMH services unless those circumstances are satisfied.

For a deceased client or patient, DMH may only release records pursuant to a valid Court Order or upon written authorization from the client’s Executor or Administrator of the client’s estate. This is true even for very old records. Also, even if there was a Court Order or Probate Court authorization available, it is possible that any records from 1991 and prior (if they even existed in the first place) may have been lawfully destroyed. State regulations permit the destruction of impatient records older than twenty (20) years old.

Accordingly, we are unable to provide the information you requested. Although you may seek court authority, by Court Order or Probate appointment, to request those records, it is possible that such records did not exist or were lawfully destroyed. DMH is not permitted to advise you in advance of a Court Order or Probate appointment whether any records can be located”

The lawyer with whom I consulted, quoted $1,600 ($800 of which is the fee to file in probate court – $400 for each filing). Unless I go through the costly process to be named the estate administrator, it is illegal for the hospital who holds the records to look in their file cabinet (or boxes in the basement) to tell me if records exist!  Thus, a large expense that may reveal nothing.

I was hoping to gain further information through the Freedom of Information Act and had written several (to date, unanswered) letters to my State Representative, Dan Ryan. Bill Bailey did respond:

I respect the concern and frustration that you have articulated in your letter.  However, rest assured that the only legal way that DMH may release these records to you is upon receipt of a valid Court Order, or upon the authorization of a person duly appointed by a Probate Court as Administrator or Administrator.

Massachusetts state law specifically prohibits release of DMH medical records states (except in specific circumstances not present here), “notwithstanding any other provision of law.”   See Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 123, Section 36. 

Under the Freedom of Information Act and the state Public Records Law, DMH records are not “public records” and accordingly these laws do not serve as a basis for release. do not apply to “non-public records” in any event, and cannot be invoked to obtain otherwise protected private records.  Chapter 123, Section 36 specifically notes that DMH inpatient records “are private and not open to public inspection….”

In addition, the statute that you invoke, asking that the hospital treat you as Executor/Administrator, does not actually grant that authority.  Rather, on a very limited basis, it allows the hospital to liquidate estate assets as if the hospital were the Executor/Administrator (without ever becoming appointed by the Probate Court).  DMH does not have any authority to release records under this law, and most certainly does not have the ability to transfer its limited authority under this statute to third parties.  The ability to authorize release of records as the personal representative of a deceased client is limited to an appointment by the Probate Court.

DMH is bound by the current law; it cannot release records by any other means.  This may seem unfair or burdensome, especially for older records.  But the needs of our particular client population to always consult freely and openly with their mental health care providers — without fear that the sensitive nature of their histories and diagnoses might one day be revealed without their permission — has very practical relevance.

I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful in responding to your request.

I did find the Hospital’s asylum intake records on microfilm at the Family History Library (for $7.50, I ordered the films and had them delivered to NEHGS in Boston for viewing).

FHL insane

intake records

Edwin was admitted 20 Nov 1903 and remained there until his death 11 July 1904 of “Exhaustion of Senile Insanity”.

Jane Catherine was first admitted 26 July 1897 and discharged 22 February 1898.

She was again admitted 23 March 1907, no death is noted, as the record book only dates to 1907; her death certificate indicates that she died there, 25 years later on 30 May 1932.

The admittances were through “Prob” (probate).

This confused me.  I had previously searched through the Suffolk County probate indexes and found nothing. I consulted with Rhonda McClure, at NEHGS, who suggested that they may be recorded in a different probate book vs. those referenced in the probate court indices and suggested I contact Elizabeth Bouvier, Head of Archives, MA Supreme Judicial Court, elizabeth.bouvier@sjc.state.ma.us.

Elizabeth’s initial response (within an hour of my inquiry), 3 July 2014 : “There are Suffolk County Probate Commitment records ; however, the index to the records was not located  as of 1986 when the records were moved from the Court to an offsite storage center.  The records are organized by case number and year. It may be awhile before you hear back from my office as to whether we can locate any records for your relatives”.

Two weeks later, 17 July 2014, Elizabeth emailed again: “For copies of the two records send $5.00 cash or check (payable: Commonwealth of MA) and a SASEnvelope sufficient to hold ten pieces of paper To: ARCHIVES, 3 Pemberton Sq., 16th Fl.  Boston, MA 02108-1701”

On Friday, 25 July 2014, the documents arrived! Shout out to Elizabeth and her team!  They are amazing!  This is the third time in the past several years that I asked for assistance and the third time that I have gotten almost instantaneous results!

Application for the Commitment for the Insane:
20 November 1903

White male, age 65, born Bangor, ME, occupation: surveyor, married.

He had no previous attacks; the present attack started one year ago, the attack was gradual and he has not previously been in an asylum.  His bodily condition is poor, likely due to an injury related to a fall in 1901.  The patient is “cleanly in dress and personal habits”.  

He is demented, restless, incoherent and destructive.  He had an insane father [wow! so Asa Paine Lansil was also insane at some point!].  His liquor, tobacco and opium habits are “good”.

Nearest relative: Wife, Jane C., 101 Maxwell St., Dorchester

Medical Certificate of Insanity: 
20 November 1903

He said: I began as long ago as got into. He talked very incoherently.

he said

The patient: Ate flour with a knife – kept walking about handling things. He was not properly dressed.

 His appearance and manner was: demented, incoherent, destructive.

Other facts: He has been failing mentally for some time. He is very restless, confused and at times violent and destructive [did he hurt his wife and/or children?].

Jane Catherine
Application for the Commitment for the Insane:
23 March 1907

White female, age 44, born Wales, occupation: housework

She had one previous attack, the present attack began 2 weeks ago.

She was at the Boston Ins. Hospital July 26, 1897 [does not specify if this is an admittance or discharge date].

The present attack was gradual; her bodily condition is fair. It is unknown if she has had previous physical injuries. The patient is “cleanly in dress and personal habits”.  She is depressed, deluded, possibly suicidal. There is no prior known family history of insanity.  Her liquor, tobacco and opium habits are “good”.

Nearest relative: Daughter, Mrs. Edward J. Thompson, Hiawatha Road, Mattapan

Medical Certificate of Insanity: 
23 March 1907
The patient said: “I feel alright. I feel as well as I ever did. I thought people had been stealing from me. To-day is Wednesday.  I don’t play cards – no need of it. I don’t want you to feel my pulse! I ____ there is no need of ____” [couldn’t read a few words].

The patient: Sat in chair; resisted being examined, hesitated in answering questions, and some questions would not answer at all. 

Her appearance and manner was: dull and confused. Untidy in appearance. Appears just as she did when insane before. 

Other facts: She was insane and a patient at Boston Insane Hospital in 1897. Since last August she has imagined people stealing from her. She was depressed and irritable. Has become worse the past few days. Is dull, confused, talks out of the window to people on the street. Sings at times and expresses various incoherent delusions. Obstinate and hard to manage.

So sad for their children.  Fanny was ten and Edith (my g-grandmother) only nine, the first time their mother entered the asylum in 1897.

Their father’s only sister was deceased; the girls resided with their father’s three bachelor brothers – Walter, Wilbur and Asa B.  Two of whom were traveling artists and another who was an alcoholic.  Their mother sisters were in Wales and Chicago. One grandmother was in Wales, the other deceased.

Florence May Bragg (b. 1868), their cousin who was taken in by the Lansil bachelor’s when their sister Francis Ellen “Fanny” (1841-1886) and her husband Carleton Sylvanus Bragg (1838-1880) died, seemingly the only woman in their lives, likely helped raise Fanny and Edith.


Jane Catherine lost two children, 9 month old Florence Paine in 1891 and Edwin Roberts at just 9 days old in 1894. Did it cause her depression/insanity?  Jane and Edwin’s youngest daughter Doris was born in 1899, two years after Jane’s was initially declared insane. Edwin died in 1903 when she was just four; Doris then lost her mother to “insanity” at age eight and was raised by her twenty year old sister Fanny.

Edmund may have had dementia and Jane Catherine schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or another type of mood disorder like clinical depression which today could be controlled by medication, offering her a normal life.

Photocopies of the documents:

2014-07-28 15.13.40 2014-07-28 15.14.10 2014-07-28 15.14.26 2014-07-28 15.14.34 2014-07-28 15.14.45 2014-07-28 15.14.52 2014-07-28 15.15.12 2014-07-28 15.15.25 2014-07-28 15.15.38 2014-07-28 15.15.45 2014-07-28 15.15.55 2014-07-28 15.16.01

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Margaret Fortier on August 3, 2014 at 11:28 AM

    Thank you for this very informative post. I am looking for records for Worcester State Asylum and I will be off to the MA State Archives this week to investigate. And you are right, Elizabeth Bouvier at the Archives is the best, so helpful!



  2. Posted by Rena on August 3, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    This ways so thoughtfully researched. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing.



  3. […] the State Archives or the Department of Mental Health. Linda Hall-Little’s blog post “52 Ancestors Weeks #29 – Update of the ‘Insane’” explains her own experience using Massachusetts mental health records for genealogical […]



  4. Hi, any knowledge on how to get records from later years…1930’s-1960’s?



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