Aunt Lizzie and the Insane Asylum

We all have those family stories that are either uttered in hush hush tones, or not mentioned at all. “Uncle Bob was a lush”, “Grandma Nancy ran off and joined the circus,” or “Aunt Sylvia was a fan dancer.” Shhhh, don’t let the children know about Grandpa George and the money-laundering scheme.” Without these stories, let’s face it, our ancestor search would be a tad bland. In a day and age in which scandal is viewed as entertainment, our generation has a more forgiving outlook than our ancestors. Some family history is sadder than others. In this article, board credentialed professional genealogist Joan Shurtliff delves into the life of her Aunt Lizzie and Uncle Frank. Neither story is salacious, just sad – but in the end . . . a reality.

Lizzie is seated front row, second from the left. Chris is seated front row, second from right. (Photo courtesy of Joan Shurtliff)

Genealogical research is an adventure. I love the happy dance moments of a wonderful new discovery. But then there are what I call the “Oh, my” moments. Those are the ones when I learn something that nobody would ever talk about. Finding out that Aunt Lizzie had spent some time in an insane asylum was an “Oh, my” moment. Some family historians would prefer to dismiss family stories, but they are a part of the fabric of a family.

Aunt Lizzie was actually a g-g-Aunt. She was born in 1857 and raised on a farm in eastern Iowa. As a young woman, she went to work for Chris, a widower with five young children. Lizzie and Chris married in 1879 and went on to have five children of their own. In the late 1800s, the family moved to a Pawnee County, Nebraska, farm. In the picture above, Lizzie is seated front row, second from left, while Chris is seated front row, second from right. Photo courtesy of Joan Shurtliff.

The impression I got from various relatives was that it was a wonderful family. The children and grandchildren of Lizzie and Chris kept in touch with each other and had family reunions, even after the couple was gone.

One of the first things I like to do when researching a family is to follow them in the census. There Lizzie was, along with her brother Frank, in the 1910 Census – both were patients in the Nebraska Hospital for the Insane at Lincoln. What was going on?

I knew that g g-uncle Frank had a tough life. He, like other family members, moved from eastern Iowa to southeastern Nebraska in the late 1800s and farmed. He married twice, but both wives died young.

So what was with the Lincoln Insane Asylum? The records for the Lincoln Insane Asylum are part of the holdings of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). As intriguing as Lizzie’s situation was, the frugal German in me didn’t want to go through the time and expense of the court proceedings to get them, so I set about finding information from other sources.

Three censuses were of interest to me:

  • 1900: Chris and Lizzie are on their farm. I haven’t been able to find Frank.
  • 1910: Chris lives in Lincoln and Lizzie and Frank are in the Hospital for the Insane.
  • 1920: Lizzie and Frank are living together in Lincoln.

Whatever happened, Lizzie and Frank did get out of the Hospital for the Insane. The obituaries of both Lizzie and Chris state that the family moved to Lincoln in 1905. The family included children who attended university. Lincoln City Directories verify this (all at the same address):

  • 1908: Chris
  • 1909: Nothing
  • 1910: Chris (Lizzie)
  • 1911: Chris
  • 1912: Chris
  • 1913: Chris
  • 1914: Chris (Lizzie)
  • 1915: Chris (Lizzie)
  • 1916: Chris (Lizzie)
  • 1917: Frank
  • 1918: Frank

Wills and probates can be revealing. Chris’ will dated April 1911 states: “My said wife is now an inmate of the asylum for the insane, and so long as she shall remain in said asylum and be unable to manage and control the said (Pawnee County) farm, it is my will that my said executors shall manage and control the same…” Chris died in early August 1916. The petition for Probate of the Will, filed August 1916, lists Lizzie’s residence as University Place (now Lincoln), Nebraska.

Frank died intestate (with no will) in 1920. Because he owned a farm, his estate had to be probated. Lizzie submitted a bill: “To extra care for nursing Frank during the four years that he was at my home… as he was sick much of the time and needed personal attention and I gave him personal attention.”

My conclusions:

Chris’ will indicates that he was more focused on his farm. After the move to Lincoln, Lizzie and Chris spent little time living together. I would call it a “rough patch” in their marriage. Lizzie seemed to be more interested in the care of her family. A short time later, Lizzie and Frank became residents of the Lincoln Asylum for the Insane. Located in a rural setting outside of the city, the facility had almost 600 residents. There was precedence for patients to live there and not be insane. It is possible that Lizzie moved to the asylum to take care of Frank.

Chris died in August 1916. His probate states that he was a resident of Pawnee County, Nebraska, and Lizzie was living in Lincoln. According to the 1917 Lincoln City Directory, Frank was living in Lizzie’s house and, in her note that was part of Frank’s probate, she says she took care of him the last four years of his life. Frank died in 1920.

Old obituaries often put the deceased in their best light. But Lizzie’s strikes an honest note: “If one were to sum her life in just a few words, it can be said that she was a self-sacrificing woman, always thinking of others and laboring for others.”

Genealogists are sometimes in a hurry to work their way back from point “A” to point “B” and may miss facts that could give dimension to an ancestor’s story. The expert researchers at RecordClick understand various resources and can take the time to find information to give your story depth, whether it be an insane asylum, adoption, or citizenship.


U.S. Census: 1900, 1910, 1920. 1988 Letter from Irma Beck Smith to Berniece Matteson Coon. Used with permission. Lincoln City Directories, 1908-1918. Chris’ obituary, The Lewiston (NE) Post, 18 Aug. 1916. Lizzie’s obituary, Pawnee Chief, 6 Feb. 1924. Chris’ Will and Probate, Pawnee Co., NE Frank’s Probate, Pawnee Co., NE “Twentieth Biennial Report of the Superintendent of the Nebraska Hospital for the Insane at Lincoln for period ending 30 Nov. 1910.”