Genealogy 101 - 'Inmate' and 'Warden'_Washington County PA Genealogy and Family History_Little Washington

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Washington County 'Little Washington' Pennsylvania
 Genealogy and Family History



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Washington County Pennsylvania History and Families

Genealogy 101 - Inmate & Warden

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The Meaning of "Inmate" and "Warden" in the 1700s to early 1900s
By Judith Florian

The researcher confided: "I'm embarrassed that my ancestor was an Inmate!"

Today, we hear so much about "inmates" at local jails to maximum security prisons.  A certain shame has attached to the word. Inmate has come to mean a wrongdoer, a criminal, a less than savory individual, or was at least a person who lived a messy situation that ended in incarceration.

"Incarcerated" and "Inmate" did not always mean "jail", however.  In the 1700 and 1800s, both words were used interchangeably with "confined", yet none of these three words necessarily described a wrongdoer. Many times, these words were used to describe patients in long term care facilities, or who lived in "reform schools" or who were subjected to long-term warehousing at county homes.

Many of the souls who entered institutional care never lived outside those walls again. Some were too ill to live in society. Syphilis, unknown and unrecognized at the time, relegated many people to increasing insanity as the disease progressed. Other mentally ill filled the wards. adding their own voices to the screaming and howling common in these places before the 1950s. Encephalitis (brain swelling) from meningitis was common, especially before antibiotics in the 1940s.  These patients were unable to care for themselves because of mental and personality changes caused by their brain infections.  In the now-closed an dark tunnels at Mayview State Hospital, one can still see the metal hoops where chains kept some of the worst patients forever locked to the stone walls.  When I worked there, just walking into the basement made me shiver and nauseous to think of what these mentally ill persons whose physical illness induced insanity, had lived at the hands of medical and psychiatric "care".  This was in addition to shock therapy and lobotomies, done as the "normal" treatment of ill persons.

Yet, still others were put in institutions not because they were physically or mentally ill, but because the laws at the time gave men great power over women, women who were often labeled as "hysterical" simply because of the hormone-gender differences in how women viewed or interacted with the world. Many husbands abused their martial status by committing their wives to institutions only because the women dared to argue, disagree, or challenge their husbands. Women vocally protesting about home life, local issues, or community woes may have been viewed as hysterical, "unstable", or "too emotional".  Whether for a few months -- or years -- these women were deemed "insane" and spent time involuntarily as an inmate of an acute or long term care hospital, refused their freedoms, and after returning home lived under threat of re-incarceration if they disobeyed or displeased their husbands again.

Still others who entered institutional were children. The institutions ranged from private residences acting as "homes" with the husband and wife home owners acting as "wardens" or overseers, to large institutions such as the county home or county hospital for the insane. Orphaned, poor, or displaced children were often re-homed to these places. Parents who could not feed their children often placed them into county care. Other rambunctious or disobedient children were deemed "incorrigible" and thus were shipped to anyplace authorities could call a "reform" setting, whether in private "boys" or "girls" homes or county institutions. Like adults incarcerated for less than above-board circumstances, once children entered these places they often never left until death. If they were released at the age of majority, age 21, institutionally-raised minors often lacked the relationship and life skills needed to be successful on their own; they often were returned to the institution after getting into trouble or were placed in regular jail because they did commit a crime.  At minimum, many entered difficult lives as young adults.  Some were taught trades while living in "homes"; they had an easier transition to normal life when released.

When you find the word "Inmate" on a Census, you might need to investigate what type of place the person entered.  Often these entries also list a "Warden", making one think, again, that it was a jail or place of wrongdoing.  But, a "Warden" was simply anyone who was in charge of a place, even in a personal care or hospital setting.  There may be no indication from the Census to say for sure what the type of place was where the person resided.

You may be able to find mention of the place in County History books.  But most of these homes were known locally, but never documented except in the Census.  There was little or no County or State regulation until after the 1880s when, in New York, child advocates realized that animals were protected from cruelty but there were no similar provision for child rights.  They began working to create child protective laws, especially for children displaced into "homes", "clinics", and mental hospitals.  From those early laws, the otherwise healthy children placed in such circumstances as well as mentally and physically ill children placed into institutions began having more rights and protections.  But it took many decades to move beyond eliminating simple cruelty, which only mimicked the developing laws for animal protection.

You may also find some mention in Court House records, such as in the Prothonatary's office, if there was a court case.  Newspapers often mentioned children who were put into Morganza.  Earlier, some limited records exist for the County Home.

By the early and mid-1900s, these places became more regulated.  Yet, their records (which did not have to be kept before) also became more restricted and private.  Religious organizations running some homes may have made records, but also kept them much more restricted. 

You may need to write many letters to local and state Health and Welfare offices to see what historical records might exist and where these are housed.  Often, old records were simply thrown away, burned, or buried in a landfill.  Some records, however, have survived.  But as a researcher, you'll have to keep digging and persevere.

The Washington County Home record book of the 1800s was microfilmed; contact the Law Library.

The Department of Health and Human Services in Harrisburg can tell you what agencies or hospitals needed to be certified or registered.

The PA Archives may know where to find some medical records, but you will likely be refused access to "medical" records.

If a person was mentally ill or unstable, consider writing to each long-term care hospital.  If you are the son or daughter, you'll have more luck getting copies.

Consider writing (under the Freedom of Information Act) to the FBI to see if the person had an FBI file.  Pre and post WWII, the FBI documented many US Citizens including anyone they suspected of being "a Communist."


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Page added Jan 2009


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