Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Reading Suggestion

A few weeks ago, I had a question about an ancestor so I went on and searched through some records.  Completely by accident, I came across a great great grandfather (Adam Kopp) who had been admitted to an asylum in Kansas for somewhere between five to ten years.  The Topeka State Hospital had originally been funded due to overcrowding at another institution for the mentally ill.  By the early 1900's, it's funding began to dry up and mass abuses of the inmates, including forced sterilizations and patients chained at the ankle for so long that their skin began to grow around the bindings.  This was when my great great grandfather was there!

I have a first cousin, Harry Brunius, whose best selling book on forced sterilization and the history of Eugenics was published in 2007.  In Better for all the World, Harry dissects the abuses dealt to the mentally ill during this time but I don't think he knew that our own great great grandfather was likely one of the victims.  

For weeks, I've been pouring over old family stories and pressing relatives for information but no one seems to acknowledge the absence.  In fact, one relative painted a sunny portrait of moving back to Kansas after having had children to be near "mom and dad." I found his grave at a Kansas cemetery where he is buried next to his wife and a few of his children so, at some point, he was reunited with them.  But it could have been after he died in the asylum.

Adam Kopp (my great great grandfather) was married to Anna and they had nine children.
Helena, my great grandmother, is pictured on the top right.

The history of the treatment of the mentally ill in America is grim.  In addition to the abuse of truly impaired patients, there were countless people (especially women) committed for angering their husbands and getting pregnant while unwed.  There are even a few cases on record where women were committed so their husbands could plunder their fortunes.  This is chronicled in the historical fiction novel I read last week, What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman.  There are two stories, one contemporary and one set in the 1930's, that examine the lives of women deemed mentally ill.  Some of it is sugary.  Clara, our heroine from the 1930's, is in love with an Italian immigrant and her parents commit her in order to get her away from him.  She has his baby while in the asylum and the baby is torn from her arms a few months after its birth.  The scenes are rather melodramatic but based in the truth of what many women experienced while committed.  After just having stumbled across my own relative's story (what little I know at this point), I was particularly fascinated by the book.


  1. Families often hid their mentally ill relatives to spare them the fate of an institution, but sometimes their families did them just as much harm. We know so much today about conditions that would have led to an asylum a century ago. As someone with loved ones who are "different," I encourage everyone to be more accepting. I hope you are able to learn more about your ancestor.

  2. With each passing decade, humanity grows more humane. This is why special interest groups and charities are so important. I'm glad you brought up this horrible fact in history. I'm not sure it has been entirely stamped out, but its good to know people remember, report it, and hopefully change the course of the future.

    Sorry, if that sounds soap-boxy; I'm a social worker, so my opinions are usually heavily laced with too much sarcasm, or too much empathy.

    I hope you find a way to write your G-Grandfather's story, either in fiction or non-fiction. And thanks for the book recommendation.

    1. Thanks, Donna. I am a social worker too (not surprising that this is a topic we both find interesting.)