The Insane Asylum

When I discover an ancestor who spent time in an asylum, it’s a moment for reflection and gratitude for being born into times with a more sophisticated take, and better tools to address mental health care.

Provincial Hospital, formerly the Lunatic Asylum in St. John, NB

The former Lunatic Asylum in St. John, New Brunswick (McCord Museum photo, 1988)

Robert Patterson Holmes was a son of Isaiah & Jane (Kincaid / Kincade) Holmes, born in Studholm Parish, Kings County, New Brunswick, around the year 1860. Robert grew up in a household filled with boys, a few older and a few younger than himself. Like almost everyone living in this rural area, Robert’s father was a farmer.

Chores kept everyone busy, from spring plowing and sowing, to animal care, to building, fence and tool maintenance (while crops grew) through the busy harvest time. All the Holmes boys contributed to supporting the family farm. They likely also spent some time in school, at least enough to learn to read and write. As Free Will Baptists, [1] the family likely attended church services when able.

The 1881 Canada census shows the Isaiah and Jane Holmes’s household included three sons, aged 24 (Abraham) to 11 (George). Robert (21 years), however, was not in his father’s house, but living in a house next door with his slightly older brother, Jacob, and both engaged in farming. [2]

At first, I didn’t think it was relevant that the family split into separate dwellings. It is normal for young men to move out of the parental home (though, usually, it is when they marry). In retrospect, it’s possible Robert began to display symptoms of mental illness. If he had become disruptive, or otherwise hard to live with, moving him out, may have been a way to maintain peace, while keeping close watch over Robert’s condition.

In the next decade, Robert’s brother Jacob married, and for the 1891 census, Robert was a member of his parents’ household again. The record shows he was a blacksmith, a valuable trade for the family farm and the larger community, and he was earning wages.[3]

The records go silent for about seven years, until February 1898, when Robert Patterson Holmes, age 38, married Jane E. Fanjoy, age 18. The couple obtained a license, and were wed at the residence of Rev. B. H. Nobles in Sussex (Kings County). Rather than the customary, two marriage witnesses (often family members or friends), there was only one signature, of a May Fayette.[4]

Three years later, I did not find Jane in the 1901 Canada census, but I did find Robert no longer in Kings County, but in in Saint John City; no longer blacksmith or farmer, but   among the “Names of Insane in Provincial Insane Asylum”  –

Line 46: Robert Holmes | Married | Born 1863 | Age 38 | Born New Brunswick | [No religion] | Laborer. [5]

In 1904, two documents record his death, the first I looked at was the Saint John Burial Permit No. 777:

Date of Death: June 16, 1904 – Robert P. Holmes – 43 years – White – Male – Married – Residence: Sussex, N. B. – Place of Death: Provincial Lunatic Asylum – Place of Birth: Sussex, N.B. – Occupation: Farmer – Place of Interment: Sussex, N.B. – Nature of Disease or Cause of Death: Asthenia – Physician: J. Boyle Travers, M.D. – Undertaker: E. Hallett – City of St. John – June 17, 1904 – (signed) E. Hallett [6]

The second document, the Provincial Death Return, reports mostly the same information, slightly differently:

Robert Holmes – Residence: Sussex – When and Where Died: June 16th, 1904, P. Hospital – Male – Age 42 – Occupation: Farmer – Where Born: N.B. – Religious Denomination: Episcopalian – Cause of Death: Asthenia – Duration: 4 mos – Physician Attending: Medical Supt. – Signature of Party Making Return: J. Boyle Travers, M.D. [7]

I thought, perhaps, the official (Dr. Travers) tried to water down the stigma for the survivors by calling the institution in which he died, the Provincial Hospital, rather than, as the undertaker (E. Hallett) called it, the “Provincial Lunatic Asylum.” That wasn’t the case. As it happened, times were changing, and in 1903, the official name was changed to the Provincial Hospital. The doctor was correct and the undertaker acted out of habit.

The case of Robert Holmes was a lesson in jumping to conclusions, especially in dramatic and tragic circumstance. I was reminded that doing additional research will provide context and facts that result in sound conclusions.

I will likely never learn more about the short and difficult life of Robert Holmes (or his young wife who seems to have disappeared), however, he found peace. And he was not buried on the grounds, as were patients that had no family. Robert came home to rest in his native Sussex, King County, New Brunswick.

Sources:

Provincial Lunatic Asylum at St. John; http://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php?title=Provincial_Lunatic_Asylum_at_St._John

Free Will Baptist; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Will_Baptist

Lunatic Asylum photo courtesy of the McCord Museum, 690, Sherbrooke West
Montréal (Québec) H3A 1E9; mccord-museum.qc.ca

St. John, New Brunswick and the Origins of Canadian Mental Health Care; https://loyalist.lib.unb.ca/atlantic-loyalist-connections/saint-john-new-brunswick-and-origins-canadian-mental-health-care

Citations:

[1] “Canada Census, 1871,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M4MX-C9D : 24 October 2018), Robert Holmes in household of Isaiah Holmes, Studholm, Kings, New Brunswick, Canada; citing 1871; citing National Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

[2] “Canada Census, 1881,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MV6H-W97 : 20 May 2019), Robert Holmes in household of Jacob Holmes, Studholm, Kings, New Brunswick, Canada; from “1881 Canadian Census.” Database with images. Ancestry. (www.ancestry.com : 2008); citing Jacob Holmes, citing Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

[3] “Canada Census, 1891,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MWKF-92G : 3 August 2016), Robert Holmes, Studholm, Kings, New Brunswick, Canada; Public Archives, Ottawa, Ontario; Library and Archives Canada film number 30953_148103.

[4] “New Brunswick Provincial Marriages 1789-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVBF-S1VQ : 13 March 2018), Robert Patterson Holmes and Jane E Fanjoy, 11 Feb 1898; citing , , New Brunswick, Canada, p. 30, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton; FHL microfilm 2,024,691.

[5] “Canada Census, 1901,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KHK8-VFW : 16 December 2019), Robert Holmes, Saint John (county/comté), New Brunswick, Canada; citing p. 53, Library and Archives of Canada, Ottawa.

[6] “New Brunswick, Saint John, Saint John, Burial Permits, 1889-1919,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2WK-LY6G : accessed 6 March 2020), Robert P Holmes, 16 Jun 1904; citing Saint John, St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton; FHL microfilm 1,412,536.

[7] “New Brunswick Provincial Deaths, 1815-1938,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XGHJ-PJ9 : 17 August 2019), Robert Holmes, 16 Jun 1904; citing Sussex, Saint John, New Brunswick, certificate 002260, Provincial Archives, Fredericton; FHL microfilm 2,320,317.

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