Madness Monday – Looking beyond the surface leads to missing Uncle Fred

Gravestone for Fred Stanwood and brother Bert Jerome

Gravestone for Fred Stanwood and brother Bert Jerome, Crystal Lake Cemetery, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Uncle Fred.  Unmarried.  That’s the only thing my grandmother had to say about her mother’s older brother.  Quite odd, given that she had photos, stories and other interesting bits of history on her mother’s other five living siblings.   I didn’t think much of it as a new genealogist; after all, Fred didn’t have children.  What was there to research?  As I matured in my techniques and skills, it did not matter that Fred was without descendants who would later care about his life and history.  It mattered to me, as he was part of the family, and his life was important.

In the late 1980s, I snapped the photo above, taken at Crystal Lake Cemetery.  Benjamin Stanwood, brother of Fred and Bert J. Stanwood, purchased the plot for his unmarried brothers.  Bert was buried there; curiously, Fred was not.  Where did he go?  Where did he die?  No one seemed to know.

As the internet advanced and databases became available, more details on Fred’s life emerged.  As late as 1912, listed in the Duluth News-Tribune were details of Fred’s multiple real estate transactions, buying and selling land in St. Louis county, Minnesota.  In 1913 appeared an article which mentions Fred’s purchase of a truck.

Duluth News-Tribune, 1 Apr 1913

Duluth News-Tribune, 1 Apr 1913

Clearly this was a successful young man who is building up a strong business in the lumber industry, not one who is afflicted with mental illness.

Additional online research also yielded Fred’s date of death – 9 January 1958 in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota.  I still wondered why he had not been buried in the plot that was purchased for him, but busy with other research, did not pursue the answer to this question.

However, my curiosity was peaked upon the release of the 1940 census, in which Fred was enumerated as an “inmate” at the Fergus Falls State Hospital.  Reviewing the 1920 census found him previously at Rochester State Hospital, where he’d also been when registering for the WWI draft in 1917.   Now I was determined to find Fred’s story.    Did he remain institutionalized his whole adulthood?  What was the diagnosis?   Did he continue to have a relationship with his family?

Death Certificate for Fred Stanwood

Death Certificate for Fred Stanwood

After receiving Fred’s death certificate, the mystery of his diagnosis was solved – “Schizophrenic – paranoid.”  I sent off to the Minnesota Historical Society, holder of early state hospital records.

History of Fred's hospitalization at Rochester State Hospital, 1917.

History of Fred’s hospitalization at Rochester State Hospital, 1917.

Given Fred’s opportunity to pay visits to the prostitutes that were known to frequent the lumber camps where he worked, I’d wondered if his condition may have been due to Syphilis.  This document ruled out that theory, and also showed Fred’s behavior at the time of his admission in 1917 – “has little or nothing to say except when addressed, then says little…takes little interest in thing about him.”  Sad.

The records show that Fred was “paroled” from Rochester 28 July 1920, but returned after only two weeks.  After several subsequent escapes from the hospital, he was finally transferred to Hastings in January 1923.  It is unclear how long he was there, and he has not been found on the 1930 census.  However, we know Fred was eventually released, and by 1936 made his way to the County Poor Farm in Duluth, Minnesota.  His mental condition had substantially declined, as noted in the probate document shown below which committed him to Fergus Falls State Hospital in 1937:

State of Minnesota, County of St. Louis, Probate Court - Report of Examination, 1937.

State of Minnesota, County of St. Louis, Probate Court – Report of Examination, 1937.

Fred is now described as “quarrelsome, disturbing, destructive, threatening, noisy at county farm requiring him to be locked up part of the time….At the examination he discusses property & law suits which according to the records are not according to his ideas.”

His brother Ben was listed as next of kin on this document; one would think Ben would have provided information to the examiners, but perhaps not.  While Fred’s behavior is clearly described, the examiners have discounted the potential accuracy of his statements regarding real estate and litigation; one may argue it was quite likely that his land holdings may have caused some sort of legal action, if he was not of sound mind to make business decisions after his 1917 hospitalization.

Fred remained at Fergus Falls until his transfer to Willmar State Hospital in 1943, where he lived the remainder of his days.  Hopefully he had the opportunity to be outside, assist with farming or other activities, instead of confined into a room.  We will never know the details, but one can hope.

Still wondering where Fred was laid to rest, I went back again to his death certificate:  “U of Minn”  was listed as the cemetery.  Earlier this week, in an email exchange with the “Anatomy Bequest Program,” I learned that Fred’s body was donated for research, and then he was cremated and his ashes spread in the lake at Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Digging below the surface of indexes and online resources provided substantial insight into Fred’s life and his illness.  It also yielded unexpected information on other family members, including Fred’s father, Albert, who was described as “intemperate.”  However, questions still abound – did no one inform the hospitals of Fred’s pre-paid plot at Crystal Lake?  Certainly Ben would have, given he had personally made the arrangements.  Who made the decision (albeit wise!) to send him to the University post-mortem?  Was Fred of decision making capacity to make that decision?  Did one of his brothers give the permission to do so?  Or was it standing policy for the state hospital?

The biggest question of all remains – was Fred’s family embarrassed by his condition?  Did they ever visit him, or was he completely alienated after his hospitalization?  Why didn’t my grandmother ever mention Fred’s condition?  Endless questions – the genealogist’s impetus to keep searching!


2 responses to “Madness Monday – Looking beyond the surface leads to missing Uncle Fred

  • sierrapope

    This is great research. Have you read Annie’s Ghost by Steve Luxenburg? His family has a similar story. He touches on the same threads of how mental illness was perceived 75 years ago.

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