My Ancestor was a Lunatic
By Kathy Chater
(Society of Genealogists, 115 pages, £8.99) My Ancestor was a Lunatic is a short but comprehensive researchh guide for genealogists. It includess chapters on the treatment of the mentally ill in different time periods, special interest asylums, the criminally insane, the mentally handicapped, deaf and epileptic, Scotland and Ireland, suicide, and those caring for the insane. Each chapter gives an overview of the legal, medical, and religious or theoretical framework for care, and what that meant in practice. The chapters include a guide to original sources as well as a bibliography. There is also a general bibliography and source guide, including useful websites, at the end.
My Ancestor was a Lunaticc has a sympathetic and well-balanced tone. It points out that although there were certainly abuses in the system, most of those caring for the insane were doing the best they could, with the limited knowledge and resources available.
The book suggests some unusual sources for research, as well as the more obvious ones. For example, I would never have considered using business records and wills to search for evidence of mental illness in a family.
The section on suicide is fascinating and contained much that was new to me. I didn’t know that those who died while committing a crime – for example a burglar who fell off a roof – could be deemed to have committed suicide while of unsound mind.
The only weak point of this book is that it is so short you never get more than a brief summary of anything. So while this is an excellent way to get started, most researchers will need to follow up with more in-depth reading, both for background information, and to get the most out of the original sources. Luckily, the bibliographies and source guides will point you in the right direction.
Kate Tyte is an archivist and expert on
mental health history
A doctor uses a ‘cupping’ technique to treat a patient