I still have a few records to hunt down, but it’s quite likely I’ll never know what really happened to Ellen “Nellie” Farrell, my great-great grandmother. I know she was “adjudged insane” in 1886, just weeks after her baby boy died. The cause of that insanity is probably lost to history.
History has an unpleasant story to tell about “insanity” in women in the 19th century, too. One of the more infamous stories comes from “Elizabeth Packard, who differed with the theology of her clergyman husband, was forcibly placed in an Illinois state hospital. She remained there for 3 years. At that time, Illinois law stated that ‘married’ women could be hospitalized at a husband’s request without the evidence required in other cases” (NLM, Diseases of the Mind). After her release she wrote three books, bringing public attention to the state of asylums in the United States.
Despite a truly benevolent beginning, asylums began to devolve by the time Elizabeth, and Nellie, experienced them. Misunderstanding and unfair, even masochistic, treatment of women in mental health was rampant throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. I still think other explanations are quite plausible, but circumstances suggest Nellie’s life in Topeka was grim and that she was likely committed for grief, not an uncommon occurrence: “The grief experienced after the death of a loved one and domestic troubles were also diagnoses given to women (Pouba & Tianen, 2006).”
This may not surprise many of us, and I suppose that is a good thing. Understanding the injustices of the past may help us avoid them now, and in the future. But for it to be so personal, in my family, is an odd experience. Adding to this discomfort is the possibility my great-great grandfather had something to do with it: “Women diagnosed with insanity by domestic troubles were frequently admitted by their husbands (Pouba & Tianen, 2006).” Perhaps just as Ms. Packard’s husband did.
I will look into Kansas law at the time, but if Nellie’s husband’s testimony is what lead to her being committed, this is the image of that man. Edward Hugh Farrell, my great-great grandfather.
Despite his beard, I don’t think it’s fair to automatically assign nefarious purposes to him.
Compassion for him within me suggests he may have been scared by his wife’s grief, grieving for his son himself, lonely, lost, ignorant, and subject to the influence of his community and culture.
But Nellie, oh Nellie. To grieve, to be torn away from your family, and die young in an institution among strangers. Life in the 1880s had plenty of suffering to offer humans, as it always has and always will, but this is a particularly terrifying, and all to common, offering. And certainly one of the darker stories in my family history that will lead to something in the Songs.