I recently read Steven Luxenburg’s book, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret,” about the discovery of an aunt he never knew existed and his search for information about her. It’s an honest look at a family’s struggles with mental illness and showcases our inherent need to connect with the past.

The author criss-crossed the country over several years, tracking down any possible living family members, friends or neighbors who might have known his Aunt Annie or could shed any light on the situation. He opened an estate for her with the local Probate Court decades after she passed and obtained court authorization to have her medical records released. Along the way, he re-examined many events that occurred throughout his life and gained a greater understanding of his mother and her relationships with other family members. He makes no judgments about what his mother did or did not do or about the manner in which the family handled Annie’s condition.

Annie’s Ghosts provides a solid overview of the country’s mental health care system during the first half of the 20th century and leads us on Mr. Luxenburg’s journey, step by step, as he discovers new records and information. I enjoyed the book and could identify with many of the questions and feelings Mr. Luxenburg shared with his readers.

Surely many genealogists have experienced the same situation; discovering a previously unknown relative who was institutionalized and never discussed. In the course of researching my Davis family, a cousin and I discovered Great-Aunt Cora Davis, sister to our grandfathers, John Thomas and James Edgar Davis. After reading the lengths to which Mr. Luxenburg went to get information on his aunt, I feel like a bit of a slacker for not trying to pursue Cora more than we did. In my defense, our Aunt has been gone more than 100 years and there is no one alive today who would have any first-hand knowledge of her or the situation. We can’t even say for sure that she or her condition were kept a secret. There are a lot of things that my father simply did not discuss about his family (for example, Everything!) but that doesn’t necessarily make it a secret. It was just things that he didn’t want to discuss or couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in hearing about it.

Mt. Hope Retreat

Mt. Hope Retreat, Baltimore Maryland.
Photo from Asylumprojects.org

Cora Davis was born in 1883 to John and Maria (nee Kelly) Davis in Baltimore, the fourth of seven children. Hers is one of several birth certificates that I have not been able to locate at the Maryland State Archives. She missed the 1880 census and 1890 is not available. By 1900, the family was living on a farm in Baltimore County, during a short hiatus from John’s usual work as a copper smelter or in the refineries. Cora was not in the household at that time, but was included among Maria’s “5 living children.” She was enumerated as an “insane patient” at Mt. Hope Retreat, an asylum in Baltimore run by the Sisters of Charity.

Cora is not listed a survivor in her mother’s 1909 obituary. A year later, on 8 February 1910, Cora died at Mt. Hope Retreat. Her death certificate indicates her parents’ names as “not known” and the informant as “Records, Mt. Hope Retreat.” Her primary cause of death was list as chronic dementia, with which she suffered for over 11 years and the immediate cause was chronic gastritis for about one year. She is buried in the Davis family plot in Oak Lawn Cemetery, Baltimore.

One piece of information I am not sure about is that the death certificate lists her residence as Middletown Maryland, about 60 miles away from Baltimore. To the best of my knowledge, the family never lived in that area. Because Cora lived at Mt. Hope in 1900 and died there 10 years later, I find it questionable that she moved to Middletown sometime in between. A page-by-page search of the 1910 census for Middletown yielded no familiar names.

I truly wish I knew more about Cora; her condition, her time at Mt. Hope, her relationship with the family. I have not found any records from the institution, but  if there are any, they would surely be protected as private medical records. The buildings of Mt. Hope, once the home of 600 patients, were demolished in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Discovering a family member with mental illness, or any number of other “family secrets”, is bound to happen when one is researching their family’s history. How to handle it depends on a lot of different factors and will be discussed further in an upcoming post.