“Timothy Adams, living near Moville, was sent to the insane asylum the past week.”1
When a casual online search turned up this statement printed long ago in a small-town Iowa newspaper, I was intrigued. There are three generations of Timothys in my family, and all three might have lived near Moville, Woodbury County, Iowa at the time of publication of this issue of the Sioux Valley News on 9 January 1890.2 Which Timothy, then, was sent to the insane asylum? For that matter, which asylum? And why?
As it turns out, this Timothy Adam was the youngest of the three, the son of Timothy and Odile (Millette) Adam, and the grandson of Timothée and Marguerite (Chicoine) Adam. He was born on 26 September 1869 in Chicopee, Hampden County, Massachusetts,3 where his parents, French Canadian immigrants, were employed in the area’s cotton mills.4 The family remained in Massachusetts until 1883 when they traveled west, first to southeastern South Dakota and then to homestead near the community of Moville in northwestern Iowa.5
When Timothy, Jr. was seven years old, he suffered a fever that led him to experience what was described as a fit.6 These fits continued, “sometimes three or four in succession,” although a week could pass before another occurrence.7 Apparently, however, Timothy “was never [a] very bright boy,” and furthermore, as he grew older, his condition became more unmanageable.8 He suffered memory loss and “wanted to run away constantly without occasion.”9 It was for these reasons, including his first unmanageable fit, that his father had Timothy evaluated and committed to the Clarinda State Hospital in Clarinda, Page County, Iowa, on 7 January 1890.10
One can only speculate as to what condition or conditions might have ailed Timothy. While the fits he suffered were perhaps epileptic seizures, low intelligence and a desire to run away from home were noted as secondary issues. Timothy was not the only child to cause his parents similar distress, as his younger brother, Edward, had run away several years earlier. In addition, upon Timothy’s entry into the asylum, it was noted that a member of his extended family had also been institutionalized: his mother’s younger brother, Joseph Millette, had entered the poorhouse in Beekmantown, Clinton County, New York, in 1869 at the age of nineteen.11 Records state that Joseph was an “imbecile,” intemperate, and, though he was of “respectable parentage,” his parents, too, were unable to care for him.12
At the time of Timothy’s admission to the asylum in the winter of 1890, the Clarinda State Hospital was brand new. Its first patients were received less than thirteen months before, and in fact, construction would not be complete until 1897.13 The Second Biennial Report of the Board of Trustees of the Iowa Hospital for the Insane at Clarinda reported a commitment to humane treatment, with avoidance of extreme measures such as restraint and isolation, and it can be hoped that Timothy and his fellow patients were treated with respect and kindness.14 Indeed, whether embellished or not, the Second Biennial Report stated of the years 1890-91, “Perfect harmony seems to exist between our superintendent and his subordinates.”15
The hospital housed a daily average of two hundred and sixty-one patients in January of 1890, a number that climbed over to over three hundred within a month.16 Although Superintendent Lewellen applauded the facilities as a whole, he also admitted that the hospital was overcrowded due to an influx of patients, many of whom had transferred from Iowa’s other mental institutions.17 However, the Second Biennial Report offered an encouraging perspective as to the overall conditions of the hospital, and plans were outlined for future improvements, including additions to the building and grounds as well as opportunities for patients to engage in both amusements and meaningful work.18
Timothy was discharged “without improvement” on 31 October 1891 after nearly two years at the hospital, perhaps once it was determined that no available treatment would be of help to him.19 It is not known whether he ever returned to his family. Sadly, Timothy died at the Clarinda State Hospital on 1 December 1894 at the age of twenty-five. Epilepsy was reported as his cause of death, which suggests he may have returned to the hospital due to a fatal seizure.20 He is buried in the hospital’s cemetery, many miles from his family and his former home.21
Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.