02 June 2010

Topics in Research-Was Iva May Insane? Part One.

What assumptions can we or do we make when we find research subjects enumerated in any of the euphemistically-named insane asylums of their day? Are such facilities and the privacy issues surrounding the records they generated guaranteed dead-ends? Or can we piece together details of their lives through careful and thorough research? In this post I lay out a current research dilemma--and brainstorm on the strategy most likely to yield answers to questions about this individual and her life.

The Problem
Iva May, daughter of Erie Alanson May and Martha C. Jones was born in California about 1885. At the time of the 1900 census1, fifteen-year-old Iva resided at home with her parents. Her father, an active and involved member of his farming community, had two biographies written up in mugbooks in 1892 and 19052, both of which mention Iva as being "at home" with no further illumination.

By 1910, however, Iva is found in the Sonoma State Home (pictured above), where she is still residing in 19203. Assuming the biography published in 1905 was honest and correct in stating Iva still lived with her parents, we can posit that Iva entered the facility in Sonoma sometime between 1905 and 1910, or between the ages of 20 and 25. Which leaves us wondering... what were the circumstances of her admission, and what was the nature of the illness or condition that necessitated her incarceration there in the first place?

Searching for an Illness
The California Home for the Care and Training of the Feeble Minded (as the facility was called until a name-change in 1909 to "Sonoma State Home") opened its doors in Sonoma County in November of 1891, with a mission to serve the needs of the developmentally disabled4.  The name can be misleading to modern researchers, however, as "mental illness" as a term has changed drastically since the opening of the facility to our present day. By the early 20th Century, the Sonoma State Home was caring for epileptics, autistics, and those with palsies. Anecdotally, the facility was also serving individuals diagnosed with social "behavioral issues" such as women deemed "oversexed", homosexuals, and juvenile delinquents5

In the 1892 mugbook biography of her father, Iva is mentioned as "at home and in pursuit of [her] education", raising interesting questions as to the state of her mental capacities. Was Iva born with any sort of developmental disability? If so, was sort of school was she attending? Was the assertion of her school attendance a glazing over of the truth of her condition? Or did her condition advance organically or come on with some sort of accident or trauma?

Census information is conflicting on this point. In 1900--when still in residence with her parents in Tulare County--in answer to the questions of whether she could read, write and speak English, the words "No" were originally written, then crossed out and the word "Yes" inserted above--in what seems to be a different hand. In 1910, her census entry notes "no speech" in regard to the ability to speak English. Her 1920 census information says she can neither read nor write.

As her father was an educated man--he worked in government in the Dakota Territory and published a newspaper in Tulare County, California--it can be assumed that his children would be educated to the best of their ability, suggesting that Iva's lack of literacy was not the result of family culture but of her own limitations. If Iva could, indeed, read and write in 1900, but by 1910 was seemingly mute, then trauma or a sudden onset of illness could be presumed. If not, the 1892 biography is now suspect, and we can suppose that Iva was born with developmental difficulties and was moved to a facility perhaps as her age (and the age of her parents) increased.

As to the fate of Iva after 1920, not much is currently known. Iva has not yet been located under her maiden name in the 1930 census. No other information found on her father, Erie May, mentions Iva (including his 1942 obituary6, which only mentions his son and second wife as survivors); an obituary for her mother who passed away about 1926 has not yet been found. A 1973 death notice for her brother Erie Howard May makes no mention of his sister.

Strategizing the Research

All of this leaves us with a number of questions: From what illness-or what kind of trauma-did Iva May suffer?
At what age did Iva May enter the Sonoma State Home? Did Iva ever leave the home? Or did she die there? If the latter, when did she die, and is she buried on the grounds? Most importantly, what records can be consulted to answer these questions?

Hospital Records
Records for patients (inmates) of the Sonoma State Hospital survive in the inventory of the Department of Mental Hygiene, and reside in the California State Archives, Inventory F36077, but are restricted. As per an e-mail exchange with an archivist, "Records held at the California State Archives that are exempt from the disclosure under any California Law are completely open 75 years after the last date on the record.  Patient information falls under this 75 year rule." Under this rule, most of the applicable records of inmates discharged or deceased (which run through 1949) will not be available until somewhere around 2025. Some admission record books and application lists should now be available for research, and will have to be consulted on a trip to the Archives in Sacramento. 

Superior Court Records
According to a 1914 publication8, California law stipulated that parents or guardians interested in admitting a charge into a facility for the feeble-minded had to petition the Superior Court in their county of residence. If approved, the Judge would refer the charge for admission. Tulare County Superior Court will have to be contacted in regard to availability (if any) of applicable records.

Newspapers in the time period may have addressed Iva's move to the Sonoma State facility. This would particularly be true if her incarceration was the result of an accident or sudden onset of a malady. A review of local papers in the estimate time period of 1905-1910 (ideally the Daily Tulare Register8) should be undertaken.

In Part Two of this post, I hope to shed some light on the mystery of Iva May, and share with you the results of the research strategy outlined above. It is possible that until the full release of inmate records from the State Home this matter cannot be fully resolved, but alternative sources must be consulted in the meantime!


1. See 1900 US Federal Census, ED 63, Sheet 2A, Poplar, Tulare, California, Dwelling no. 24, Family No. 26, Household of Erie A. May (lines 5-8). According to this census, Iva was born April 1885.

2. See Guinn, JM, Historical and Biographical Record... of the San Joaquin Valley, California, 1905, page 1218. See also, Lewis Publishing Company, A Memorial and Biographical History of the Counties of Fresno, Tulare, and Kern, California, 1892, page 522.

3. See 1910 United States Federal Census, ED 168, Glen Ellen, Sonoma, California, Sheet 12B, Sonoma State Home, line 60. See also 1920 United States Federal Census, ED 135, Sheet 7A, Sonoma State Home, line 49.

4. History of Sonoma Developmental Center. As accessed 21 May 2010.

5. See Black, Edwin; Eugenics and the Nazis -- the California connection, from The San Francisco Chronicle, 09 Nov 2003. Black's article delves into the darkest aspects of the California Mental Hygiene Department's history, particularly that of enforced sterilization projects and the specter of eugenics. The Sonoma State Home (and its director, Fred O. Butler) were notorious (if legal) offenders. For a great post on this issue and the Sonoma State Home, see Comstock House History's post here.

6. See The Oakland Tribune, "G. A. R. Post Becomes History as Last Member Passes Away", 08 September 1942, Page C17.

7. See Online Archive of California.

7. NY State Report on Provision for the Mentally Deficient, available at Google Books here.

8. Applicable holdings at the Tulare Public Library, Tulare, CA


Greta Koehl said...

Very intriguing - I look forward to reading Part Two.

Charlene said...

I read a book earlier this year that you might find very interesting. It is called "Annie's Ghosts" by Steve Luxenberg. The book is about this guys search for an aunt he never knew existed until his mother died. This aunt was put into a mental hospital and the family was forbidden to ever mention her again. I found the story heartbreaking but very telling. I also am looking forward to part two of your post.
Blessings of Peace

Claudia's thoughts said...

There are many things that she could have had. Cerebral palsy from birth, perhaps a hypoxic event (lack of oxygen) at birth, or Downs Syndrome. Most of these are present at birth.

Late teen age and early adulthood, the Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenic are usually manifested. These develop a bit later.

Also at that time people were admitted to the state hospital for Tuberculosis.

Hope you figure it out.

Martin said...

Good luck with your hunt. Here's the result of my similar hunt: http://mhollick.typepad.com/slovakyankee/2009/03/madness-monday-george-hale-pinkham-18431888.html

Delia Furrer said...

My story is very similar to yours! My great aunt was born in late 1884and shows up fine in censuses, etc. According to newspapers, she married in early 1903, had a baby daughter in late 1903 and a son follows in 1905. All this in on the Southern Oregon Coast. When my mother interviewed my grandmother as to when this aunt died, she was told 1905. Nothing more was thought about it until I did some digging and discovered by accident that this aunt was an inmate at the Napa State Hospital starting the 1910 census and even up to the 1930. She died there in 1942. I need to order the death certificate. My mystery is what happened to the husband and children? I do not know the children's names but only their birthdates. I became discouraged when it came to my attention that those records seem to forever be sealed. My grandmother was the youngest of 14 so the age gap was 17 years and she was only a young girl when her sister was committed. I need to make a field trip sometime and check court records to see if a legal commitment order was issued. I cannot wait to follow up on your story so maybe I can get some answers to my mystery.

Cathy H Paris said...

I am looking forward to reading part 2.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Hi Jennifer. Just curious, have you found any more information on this case? I was and still am intrigued by part one. I am eagerly looking forward to reading part two.