My An­ces­tor was a Lu­natic

By Kathy Chater

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - THE GUIDE -

(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

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