Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tracking Mental Illness in a Family

With a Masters in Clinical Psychology, I am always fascinated when noting mental illness in old records.  I have found clues in census readings, family stories, pension records, old letters, and sometimes, just by viewing pictures of a person. I have an interest in tracing back when possible, different diagnoses. For instance, there seems to be a fairly strong thread of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s in my Murphy family. I haven't begun to actually trace it back, however.

I have probably done the most genealogical research on my Adamson family. From the beginning, I noticed that an 1850 census for William Adamson in Crittenden County KY included his his twenty year old son, James Adamson, as "Idiotic” and living with him. Years later in my research, I found that William's son, Aaron Adamson was listed in the 1850 Harrison County IN census living with his aunt.  He was listed as "Insane". I found it is quite striking that two of William Adamson's sons are labeled with mental illness in census readings.

Aaron Adamson's son, Moses Thompson Adamson, was my great-grandfather. He was described by my grandfather as lazy, never working a day in his life, etc. Apparently after his service in the War of the Rebellion, he never held a job. He lived to age 79.  One of his obituaries ended with this line: "His experiences in prison affected his health throughout his life.". Another obit read: "On December 31, 1862, he was taken prisoner at Stone River, and months of confinement in prison affected his health from which he suffered throughout his life.".  It seems that the family felt compelled to try to explain him and his behaviors.

When I got his pension papers from the National Archives, I began going through them very carefully. He clearly had times where his mental difficulties were exacerbated. As I kept studying his life, I noticed that whenever a child of his died, his symptoms appeared to worsen.

Looking over the extent of his life, Moses' father died around 1850 when Moses was 12 years old. It appears that shortly around that time, two of Moses' younger sisters also died. I haven't found any trace of Moses from 1850 until he enlisted in the War at age 23 in 1861. In December of 1862, he was taken prisoner and spent time in a POW prison. Upon release from prison, he began to complain of severe head pain, and was diagnosed with disease of the brain. While he was home on furlough in April of 1863, he married Lydia Ann Bullard (see picture), and then returned to his unit. In September of 1863, he was wounded in his hand at the Battle of Chickamauga. One of his cousins, William Adamson, was killed there the same day. One can only imagine what that whole battle scene must have been like. It appears that Moses was hospitalized from Sept. 1863 until he was discharged in October 1864. It seems unlikely that he would have been hospitalized for over a year for a hand wound, so I wonder if his stay was related to his mental health. Just speculation.

After his discharge from the Army, Moses returned home to Olney, Illinois and remained there until his death in 1917. His first child, a son, Robert Aaron Adamson,was born in August 1864, just 2 months before Moses was discharged from the service.

Moses and Lydia Adamson went on to have a total of 12 children. Shortly after Moses and Lydia's youngest child died, they took in a toddler and raised her also.  By this time, Moses and Lydia were close to sixty years old.  Sadly, eight of their twelve children died young.

1865-son Robert Aaron died at 8 months old
1878-son Riley C. died at 4 months old
1881-daughter Lydia Maud died at 12 months old
1884-daughter Bertha L. died at age 14
1884-son John died at about 20 months old
1888-daughter Mary Ann died at age 20
1893-daughter Margaret died at age 18
1896-son Homer died at age 9

It seems that Moses had great difficulty dealing with each death. Certainly the War would have made that struggle worse, but millions of men were able to come through the War experiences and go on to live productive lives. Moses just didn't seem to have it in him. Pension records indicate that the family was never able to leave Moses home alone. After I learned that Moses' father, Aaron Adamson, had been listed as "Insane" it certainly led me to consider a genetic factor playing out in Moses.

Of the four surviving children of Moses and Lydia Adamson, I have not learned of any instances of mental illness, so the gene may have played out, or perhaps was given to some of the eight children who did not survive. Of course, I only really know of my grandfather (son of Moses and Lydia) and his children. I need to try to connect with descendants of my grandfather's siblings to further this research. So far no madness has presented!

Interestingly, from my research in the Adamson family, I have found some other instances closely related to Aaron Adamson's family of origin. As I said earlier, two of William Adamson's sons were listed in census readings with mental illness. Another of his sons, Robert Adamson, had a son (Robert Ellsworth Adamson) who was declared Insane and was committed to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in 1894. Robert had another son, Andrew Jackson Adamson, who also appeared to be quite unstable.

It would be so interesting to be able to learn more about the children of William Adamson. He had 11 children (that I know of), but not a lot is known about most of them. Who knows what madness lurked among the family all those years ago?


  1. This is a fascinating piece of detective work! I have also tried to ascertain where a certain tendency to depression in one of my family lines may have come from; there are some hints there, but nothing concrete, yet.

  2. Thanks for reading the blog, Greta! I appreciate your comments! It is really interesting to try to track the different areas of life in our past!

  3. Sue,
    I find this entry very interesting. I have a MSW and was a clinical social worker with specilaized training in trauma in children. Now retired and able to aim energies towards my family I have struggled with the instances in my own family with how best to enter that info in my tree files. Look forward to reading more.