The Kindness of Genealogical Strangers

The other day, I read a NY Times article on the graveyard at a state asylum in Mississippi, and this led me to think again about a family member who died in Camarillo State Hospital in California, Mabel Manson Ortmann.  I've wanted to be able to tell the story of her life, which was sad and maybe even tragic, but I've been stuck on learning the diagnosis that led to her admission in 1930 and finding information about why she remained there until her death in 1967.  My two requests to the CA state archives yielded nothing, not even a letter saying they couldn't release information to me, so I had put those questions back behind the brick wall concealing this part of Mabel's life.

The article set me to wondering whether I could find out if she had been buried in a similarly unmarked grave in Camarillo, so I began the process of googling here and there.  I came upon something called the "Asylum Projects," a wiki full of information about asylums in the U.S. and other countries, and I wound up posting a question in their forum about how I might get the information, but so far have gotten no response.

Pondering what else I could do, I decided to ask for help on one of the Facebook genealogy pages I belong to, "Genealogy!  Just Ask!"  I posted a question wondering whether anyone else had had experience with researching ancestors who'd been in mental institutions and asking for suggestions on how I might proceed.

Two days later, the thread has 73 comments, with 43 different people responding. I'm blown away by all the ideas and suggestions people have given me.

I've heard so many times about people dealing with other genealogists who hoard their information, pictures, techniques, and so on or always think they're right or won't accept any corrections you offer them.  I guess I've had a run-in or two with that kind of person, but overall that hasn't been my experience.

My experience -- especially this one -- leads me to say that genealogists are among the most generous people I've ever known, with their time, their information, their ideas.  I have so many great suggestions now of places to look, whom to contact, how to get the information I need.  Here are just a few of the things on my to-do list:

  • Try sending the CA Dept. of State Hospitals a patient information inquiry form (this is what I've done twice, with no answer)
  • Request her death certificate -- that might have information about her diagnosis
  • Contact the local history/genealogical society to see if they have information or know where the records of Camarillo are kept
  • Get a court order that will require them to release the records
  • Have a doctor write a letter stating that the information is necessary for family health history
  • Check probate records to see if there was a court case related to her committal
  • Look at the Camarillo collection at CSU Channel Islands, which now occupies the land and buildings that used to be the mental hospital.  (I found two memoirs in the collection that are giving me a lot of information, though none directly about Mabel.)
  • Check wills on Ancestry and other sources
  • Look in local libraries for records or information
  • Check with Patton State Hospital, where I discovered. through one of the responders, she was committed before being sent to Camarillo
  • Look at the Camarillo Hospital historical site

Well, those things will keep me busy for quite a while, I think.  What astonishes me is how quickly so much information came.  I just want to say thanks to everyone who shared their knowledge and experience with me.  Genealogists are the best.

How have you benefited from the kindness of genealogical strangers?


  1. These are all excellent ideas and some that can help anyone trying to access mental hospital records.

    The records for the Montana State Hospital are at the Montana Historical Society Research Center, and they can only release limited information about my great-uncles, saying access is limited to the former patient, their medical care givers, or if deceased the closest living relative (must provide a copy of proof of relationship as closest living relative). This would only give me intake reports, photographs, and family correspondence. For medical test results, nurse/doctor notes and full treatment materials, I would need a court order.

    So far, I've done neither step, but I plan to check the court records to see if there are any records of the commitment.

  2. I enjoyed reading your encouraging post, and I've bookmarked the Asylum Project site for information about the insane asylum where one of my ancestors died in 1881. I hope you're able to find the information about Mabel that you're looking for.


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