While organizing my grandma’s family history records last year, something unexpected caught my eye – the commitment papers for Hannah Powers mingled within a stack of probate records. I immediately stopped what I was doing and read all the documents about Hannah Powers and her commitment to the insane asylum.
What began as a perusal of court records out of curiosity led to more digging to “connect the dots,” as they say, triggering a common occurrence in family history research – a story emerged, which led to questions, which led to more research, where more details of the story emerged. This is an ongoing cycle in family history – but well worth the effort!
Note: I have not done an exhaustive search on this topic, but want to share what I have gathered to show how stories come together when compiling info from multiple sources. I included links to some of the sources used, but not all of them. And, this is a great reminder not to overlook court records! You never know what you will find!
Hannah Ketchum was born on August 19, 1813, in Rensselaer County, New York, to Stephen and Hannah Ketchum. She married Clark Powers in 1840 in New York. Clark, an early settler of Steuben County, Indiana, had returned to his native New York from Indiana for a short time. (Clark Powers is the brother of my 4th great-grandfather, Stephen A. Powers.) Clark and Hannah returned to Steuben County where they permanently settled near many other members of the Powers family in York Township.
Clark and Hannah had 6 children: Hannah, Joanna, William (died as an infant), Josiah, Stephen, and Elnora. Clark Powers, a well known and respected member of the community and former member of the Indiana State Legislature, passed away at the age of 56 in 1859. Hannah remained a widow until her death more than 25 years later.
It is unclear when Hannah’s mental health originally became a struggle, other than the fact that this particular episode began sometime around April/May 1863. Did she have prior issues with anxiety or depression or something else since a young age? Did she face circumstances after the death of her husband that led to a mental breakdown? Was she more overwhelmed than usual with the prospect that her son Josiah, who was nearly 16, could serve in the Civil War? Unfortunately, there is much we will never know because pertinent records do not exist or are not accessible.
Here is what we do know, based on the commitment papers found at the Steuben County Courthouse in Indiana and other resources available online.
In late 1863, Hugh D. Wood, M.D., examined Hannah Powers at the request of the Steuben County Justices of the Peace. His statement included a detailed list of 11 points regarding Hannah’s current living situation, health, and evidence of insanity. Dr. Wood’s testimony was included as part of the inquest proceedings that found Hannah of unsound mind, and indeed proved a major determining factor in her hospitalization. As such, the court recommended, per page 3 of the commitment papers, that she be admitted to the “hospital for the insane for treatment” and that “her being at large could be dangerous to [the] community.” Page 5 of the commitment papers states that “Hugh D. Wood shows to the court that Hannah Powers… is a person of unsound mind and incapable of managing her own estate. We suggest therefore that a guardian should be appointed for her.”
This process of a detailed exam by a doctor in conjunction with an inquest to determine one’s sanity seems to adhere to state statutes on the mentally ill at that time. According to the Indiana Archives and Record Administration, “an Act of 1818 empowered circuit courts in Indiana to conduct inquests into cases of suspected insanity and to appoint guardians for individuals adjudged insane. Later acts gave courts the power to commit such persons to state hospitals. Over time inquest paperwork became increasingly detailed, with long lists of questions about the individuals accused of insanity and detailed statements by examining physicians. One copy of the inquest was sent to the state hospital. Another copy was kept by the county clerk or the information transcribed into so-called ‘Insane Books.'” (Click here for more information.)
The following is a transcription of Dr. Wood’s official statement to the court.
First That the said Hannah Powers is free from any infectious disease or vermin
Second That her age is fifty years and she became insane about five or six months ago. That the first symptoms of said disease as I have ascertained from inquiry and by personal knowledge were a disposition to injure her younger children from as she alleged a fear that they could come to want and saying she would destroy them to save them from such a fate. She then seem (sic) determined to commit suicide by starvation and actually refused any nourishment for days and even weeks.
Third The duration of her disease has been about 5 months
Fourth Fear and anxiety respecting her property was the exciting cause as far as known.
Fifth The disease is probably hereditary.
Sixth She has never been subject to epilepsy.
Seventh She has attempted to commit violence upon both herself and younger children as stated above
Eighth She is a widow.
Ninth She is not a professor of religion.
Tenth Her occupation housekeeping and the duties pertaining thereto.
Eleventh The medical treatment has been the use of tonics and stimulants.
From this document alone, a bleak story emerges on the status of Hannah’s life in 1863. She suffered from a mental illness, assumed to be hereditary, that caused her to not only be suicidal, but to believe that her children would be better off if she hurt them rather than to let them potentially suffer from “want.” Even worse, she had already attempted to hurt her children. Something happened to change Hannah’s mental state about 5 months previous to this document, but what? We just don’t know. And how did Dr. Wood have personal knowledge of the matter? As it turns out, there is a very good explanation for that.
In September 1863, Hannah’s oldest daughter, also named Hannah, 21, was unmarried and probably still living at home (she never married and lived with her mother in 1879 when she died). Joanna, nearly 19, was already married. Josiah, probably also still living at home, turned 16 just 11 days before Hannah’s hospitalization.
As the middle child, Josiah may have been one of the “younger children” mentioned in Wood’s statement, or he may have been grown enough to escape Hannah’s violence, however that played out. After Josiah were the two youngest children: Stephen, who would have been nearly 12, and Elnora, 9. Stephen and Elnora were most at risk for their health and their lives during the time of their mother’s illness.
Someone, somehow, stepped in and saved those children. It likely would have been the younger Hannah, or possibly Josiah, who may have witnessed first hand their mother’s downward spiral. Or, it could have been Joanna, even though she was married at the time, and from there Joanna would likely have told her husband. No matter how it happened, the news spread.
And who was Joanna’s husband? Hugh D. Wood, M.D., the same doctor that examined Hannah Powers, and officially testified of her insanity in court proceedings that ultimately led to her admittance to the insane asylum for treatment.
I suspect that such proceedings could be taxing on the doctor with any patient. In this case, to testify of your own mother-in-law’s insanity must have been very difficult, indeed. But thank goodness he did, assuming his evidence is correct and truthful. Those children were very likely in harm’s way and needed help. No wonder he very specifically stated that he knew from “personal knowledge” the dire situation in the Hannah Powers home.
I contacted the Indiana State Archives for information on Hannah Powers. They confirmed that Hannah Powers, born 19 August 1813 and living in York Township, Steuben County, Indiana, was admitted to the Central State Hospital in Indianapolis on September 29, 1863. Unfortunately, there is no record of the date of discharge or any patient records available for research.
Without the help of official records, it is difficult if not impossible to determine Hannah’s discharge date. I have not been able to determine even approximately how long Hannah remained at the hospital. It could have been months, it could have been years.
One curious circumstance appears in the 1870 census. The records indicate that Stephen, now 19 and a law student, and Elnora, now 16, are both living with their older sister Joanna and her husband, Hugh D. Wood. Notice they are not found living with their mother. In fact, I was unable to find the elder Hannah Powers nor her daughter, Hannah Powers, in the 1870 census. Perhaps they are “hidden” in plain sight in the census, and can be located with a more intensive search.
I wonder – did Joanna and Hugh step up and help out with the younger siblings when Hannah was unable to care for them herself? Or was it just a coincidence the children lived with them in 1870? We don’t know from the commitment papers exactly who is assigned to be Hannah’s guardian and the manager of her estate, or if someone was legally assigned as a guardian to Stephen and Elnora. Could Hugh Wood, through familial or legal responsibility have filled that role? That would be another interesting twist to this story and Hugh Wood’s part in it.
We do know that Hannah was indeed assigned a guardian to manage her estate per the court’s request. In the undated final document of the commitment papers, Alonzo Powers petitions to the court to recall that Hannah Powers had spent time, per court order, as a patient at the insane asylum, “where she remained untill (sic) she became of sound mind [and] that she now resides in said county and has recovered so that she is now of sound mind.” He requests that the “question of her recovery may be tried and that she may be restored to her rights & priveleges (sic).”
Who is Alonzo Powers, the petitioner? He was most likely Hannah’s nephew, who lived nearby. Alonzo Powers, Hannah’s nephew, was the son of Calvin Powers. Calvin and Hannah’s husband Clark were brothers. Alonzo would have been 27 when Hannah went to the hospital, and so he was well of the age to legally petition on her behalf.
Whenever the petition occurred, it is comforting to know that Hannah had recovered enough to go home by that time. Hopefully, her mental health continued to stabilize and improve.
Later, Hannah spent several years living with her children both in her home and in theirs. In 1879, the obituary for Hannah Powers’ daughter Hannah indicates that she passed away “after a lingering illness” at the “residence of her mother” in Metz, Steuben County, on the family homestead.
Hannah Powers herself passed away in 1885. Her obituary states, “for several years past Mrs. Powers has been residing with her children. A few months ago she came to Angola and remained with her daughter Mrs. Wood, until her death, which occurred on Monday morning, March 9, 1885… short [funeral] services being held at the residence of Dr. Wood.”
Did you notice where Hannah was living at the time of her death? And where her funeral services were held? In the Wood home – yes, the home of her daughter Joanna and Dr. Wood, the same person who testified of the breakdown in her mental health which led to her hospitalization, and later, recovery. The same daughter and son-in-law that for whatever reason took in Hannah’s two younger children in 1870.
What kind of relationship did Hannah have with her son-in-law, I wonder? It is hard to say, but my hope is one of mutual respect and understanding. The Powers family experienced a grievous time of trauma and distress but happily, Hannah’s health improved to the point that she could enjoy her family for many years after her breakdown.
What happened to the younger children, whose welfare was the cause of such distress? Shortly after his mother was admitted to the hospital, Josiah enlisted with Co. A, Indiana 129th Infantry and served in the Civil War. He died within a year at Chattanooga, Tennessee, in August 1864.
Elnora lived with her mother in her later years and eventually married John Cameron, M.D., in 1880. They had a son, John Clark Cameron, in 1886. Tragically, Elnora passed away just a few weeks after the birth, and within a month after that, her son also passed away.
Stephen had impressive career aspirations and worked hard to succeed. He practiced law and served a six year term as the elected judge for the 35th Judicial Circuit from 1888 through 1894. His obituary provides more biographical information. It appears that Stephen was able to overcome the trauma and uncertainty of his youth which is a very happy ending, indeed.
What happened to Hannah Powers after her treatment at the Central State Hospital for insanity? Did her mental health problems follow her? Was she able to recover fully from the treatment? We will never know, for sure, what life was like for Hannah following her hospitalization, but we do get a glimpse of her later years in the biography of Hannah’s late husband the Hon. Clark Powers:
Since her husband’s death, she has managed well the affairs of the estate and of her household. She has ever been a kind mother, and has cared for and educated her children. She is a quiet, unassuming woman, and has strong convictions of right and wrong. For many years she has been deaf, but she is a constant reader, and, as age creeps slowly in, she passes her time most agreeably, respected and beloved by a large circle of neighbors and friends.
This description is a far cry from that contained in Dr. Wood’s testimony. This does not sound like a woman who tried to commit violence against herself and her children. This does not sound like a woman who was considered dangerous to her community. This does not sound like a woman who actually tried to starve herself to death.
Perhaps, Hannah really did recover enough from her illness to function in society in a healthy way. If the source of her distress was the possibility that her children might “come to want,” did watching them grow into productive members of society help quell that fear?
And finally, what can we learn from this story?
Mental health is important. It is crucial to seek proper treatment for mental illness, which can affect any family.
Life can be hard – whether now or in the distant past. Our ancestors lived through tough times and we can, too. Even in those dark times, there is hope.
Families are complicated. Sometimes, we have to do hard things to help the people we love. Truly, a strong, supportive family can help all of its members thrive.
Author’s Note: The court documents do not specifically say “Hugh D. Wood is Hannah’s son-in-law,” they do not give the names of her children or deceased husband, etc. How did I know it was this Hannah Powers and not a different Hannah Powers? Carefully reading the documents and pulling out clues helped me verify her identity.
The documents state that Hannah Powers is 50 years old, a widow, with “younger children,” and living in York Township, Steuben County, Indiana, in 1863. Hugh D. Wood had “personal knowledge” of her condition and Alonzo Powers – likely a family member based on his name – was her petitioner to regain her rights.
This Hannah Powers fits all of the criteria. In 1863 she is a 50 year old widow with 2 to 3 “younger” (not necessarily very young in age) children at home. She lived in York Township for decades before and after 1863. As her son-in-law, Hugh D. Wood would likely have personal knowledge of her situation at some point before the courts got involved. And for many years, Hannah lived in very close proximity to her brother-in-law Calvin Powers. His son Alonzo would have been raised alongside his aunt, which could account for why he would petition on her behalf (assuming that’s who he is – we have no identifying characteristics for Alonzo in the record other than being a citizen of Steuben County).
After searching for other women by the name of Hannah Powers of that age, at that time, and in that place, I could not find anyone else who came close to fitting the description of the Hannah Powers described in the court records.
The key evidence came from the Indiana State Archives when an archivist confirmed the information I had on Hannah Powers – that she was born on 19 August 1813 and living in York Township when admitted to the Central State Hospital in 1863. This is a perfect reminder to look for information in different record types and locations. Archives are fantastic resources but not all of their materials are available online, such as the CSH admittance records.
One interesting source for future research would be a study of newspapers at the time of the event to see if this case is mentioned.