What kind of genealogist are you? Perhaps you are a historian, accurately collecting and documenting the facts. Maybe you are a storyteller, adding color to the facts in order to entertain as well as educate. Some of you are scientists, crafting theories about the past, finding proof or disproving the tall tales. You might be a detective, relentlessly searching for clues in order to solve a mystery. I’m hoping you are all of the above.
I recently ran across an article in my local paper about a cemetery project associated with the Westborough State Hospital. The hospital ran for 125 years as a mental health facility. Hundreds of patients died over the years and many were buried in a pauper’s grave. My wife’s great grandfather, William Albert Clark, died there in 1912. William, luckily, was buried in the family plot in Arlington with his parents and his two wives.
I never thought of Westborough State as purely a mental hospital. My memory had William Clark dying from tuberculosis. I thought the facility was also used for convalescence or hospice. The article made me dig out all my notes.
William Albert Clark 1885
As a family historian, I can tell you the facts. According to his death certificate, William A. Clark died on September 1, 1912 at Westborough State Hospital. One month and four days earlier, he had been living in Somerville. He died of cystitis and a secondary cause was pneumonia. William was a widower and had been a harness maker.
As a detective, I question all the facts and search for more answers. Why was William admitted to a mental health facility in the first place? Did he contract cystitis and pneumonia before or after being sent to Westborough? I located a copy of The Annual Report of the Trustees of the Westborough State Hospital for the year ending Nov. 30, 1912. There is a very interesting table at the end of the Report – ‘Causes of Death, and Form of Mental Disease in Persons who died’. That year two men died of cystitis and they had both been admitted with senile dementia. Very likely one of them was William.
I put on my storyteller hat and look at the table of deaths. I can’t help looking at the details through the lens of my own experiences. One hundred and forty men and women died that year at the Westborough hospital out of about 1,200 patients, more than 10% of the total. Twenty percent died from pneumonia and 10% died from tuberculosis. While I understand that this was prior to the age of antibiotics, it strikes me that this was a very unhealthy place. Would William have lived longer if has was cared for at home?
(Continued in Part 2)
Mike Maglio is the author of Deep into DNA, a monthly column in The In-Depth Genealogist which focuses on the use of DNA in genealogical research. Mike can be found blogging at OriginHunters.
© Mike Maglio 2012