The Re-humanization Project has a regal sound to it, as if singlehandedly, one can revive the dead. But that is what I’m trying to do, in a way. As far as I can tell, there are two ways to immediately dehumanize a person. First, strip away a person’s main identifier, like their name. Second, replace it with a warning label.
We’ve seen it done before—think pre-WWII Germany, Jews and a yellow star on a lapel. Think nowadays and the words illegal alien. The strangest thing about dehumanization is that sometimes it’s on purpose, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes it’s both.
In my search for my Great-aunt Glenna, I discovered a group of women who, like my relative, were erased by time but also by illegible handwriting. It sounds odd, but it’s true.
The 1940 United States Federal Census is a cache of data kept for time and all eternity. The problem is that the information was handwritten and, most times, done in cursive, recorded according to how the person writing everything down heard the statement and then later, how another interpreter read that same record.
Imagine the Census taker assigned to State Hospital South, writing the names, ages, marital status, race, and gender of six-hundred-and-eight people who were from every place imaginable.
Of course, every place imaginable comes with every accent possible. Add to this another set of circumstances years and years later—a pair of eyes scanning and reading documents, deciphering them, then entering everything into the computer. That’s how the accident part of all this happened.
Suddenly, a person is erased from history over an exaggerated loop, an extra stroke, a lopsided slant, or an unconnected letter, a person named Dorothy Drew becomes Dorothy Dunn, forever.
It’s instant parallel universe stuff, two of the same persons having two very different lives at the same time. All the while, information about Dorothy Drew is divided and changed, and very little of Dorothy Dunn is found.
Or worse, the misspelling binds somebody to a totally different person who shares (the new) name, and Dorothy Drew becomes someone else entirely, without notice.
I was testing a theory I read about, that women (in particular) were thrown into mental institutions to help the Eugenics propaganda machine.
To qualify as unworthy, women had to be in their childbearing prime (early to mid-twenties), from immigrant parents, belong to large families, were poor, and/or were considered promiscuous—Oh, and documented as “idiots,” “imbeciles,” and “morons” aka the rating scale of intellectual ability.
So far, I haven’t found anything noting someone as an “imbecile” or any of the other putdowns. No, that would fall under their medical history, and HIPAA laws restrict those kinds of tidbits. However, I did discover how women fell into the other categories.
Ancestry.com has a breathtaking amount of information. Hordes of histories, names, places of birth, places of death, newspaper articles, military rosters, even wills, all found within a few keystrokes. The quickest route I found to located someone was through Census records. It’s amazing! It was so easy! It also made me super-knowledge greedy.
The downside of having so much information is that it can also be a big deep rabbit hole if any of the clues are wrong.
So, I decided to narrow my search to females only (sorry, guys). I looked through State Hospital South’s 1940 Census and made a list of women ranging in age from their early twenties to mid-thirties, roughly the same age Glenna was in 1940. I took those names and entered them into Ancestry.com.
To ensure identity, the main points I looked for were a woman’s name, birthplace, birth year, and marital status. Then I pulled up Census records of the individual going back every ten years.
Here, I could see if the person had immigrant parents, how many siblings she had, marriage status, and how much the head of the household made the previous year.
What Glenna didn’t have going for her by her twenty-fourth birthday was that she was single, on the verge of spinsterhood (which, in the eyes of Eugenicists, translated to unwanted and not of value for the greater good). She also had a set of grandparents from Wales (maybe a small technicality).
Glenna was from a family of seven. Her family was poor and had been for a good ten years, and she came from a broken home (her parents were divorced by 1940, which meant Eugenicists would find the whole family unacceptable and would want to end the potential spread of their DNA to future generations).
Among the Census, I found tons of others who fit these same criteria. This didn’t surprise me. However, I didn’t expect how many died so young (in their early thirties and forties) from ailments like heart attacks while living at State Hospital South. Thirty-year-old women dying of heart attacks?
A secondary pattern emerged one I hadn’t anticipated. I discovered misspelled names and wrongly transposed ages all over the place. My first thought was, “Hmm, that can’t be good. How is somebody supposed to find them?”
Of the hundreds of people I looked at, one was very consuming to me. I located her on the same State Hospital Census. From the photographed microfiche list of patients, the handwritten version of her name was almost entirely indecipherable, as was her age. The only thing going for me was that every patient was separated by gender and last names were alphabetical.
The computerized translation of her name was Huby Snickles. She was a married female, was forty-four years old (although the numbers looked like she could have been twenty-four), and she was born in Missouri.
Huby Snickles? The name was someone’s wild guess that was obvious. In cursive, her first name seemed to say, Huby, but her surname was hardly identifiable at all. It could have started with an S, or was that an L or a spidery G?
The letters following were slanted in all directions and had extra spaces between them as if the writer wasn’t sure how to spell the last name or wasn’t sure what the owner of it had said.
Perhaps it was a Missourian accent that made her name hard to understand? Maybe it was daily electroshock treatments that made some women struggle to communicate? I don’t know.
I cross-referenced all names close to Huby, plugging in Ruby or Judy or Ruthy, and added Snickles after. I found a few possibilities but nothing that tied together her name with her place of birth, her marital status, or her age.
I expanded my search and took a picture of the Census, highlighting her name in glowing, scrawling cursive. Then I sent it to the big leagues, to Reddit.
Reddit is a shared information platform full of experts, intellectuals, great guessers, and intuitive people ready to help anyone. People on the site answer questions from “What does this name look like to you?” to “Does anyone recognize this unknown Jane Doe, murdered in 1972, and does anyone know her murderer?” I love this place!
Immediately, I got replies.
“The name is Huby Snickles.”
“It looks like it could be “Huby Sxichels.”
People gave suggestions of any number of possible names and where to look. I tried them all to no avail. I gave up and decided to change tactics.
I wanted to know what life was like inside the walls of an institution in the ‘40s. Maybe I could get to know these elusive females that way?
My attempts to get information through State Hospital South hadn’t gone well in the past (it seemed they were so protective of themselves they didn’t want to admit they were a hospital at all).
So, I emailed Idaho’s Historical Society and requested material about State Hospital South from 1920-1960, not expecting much. I also didn’t think I’d hear back from anyone for several weeks. I was wrong on both accounts!
Within twenty-four hours, I received two pdfs about the institution. One was a pamphlet outlining the day and the life of patients in the hospital, what the patient needed to bring with them for their stay, activities offered, how to send packages, and visiting hours. Information gold!
The second pdf was a hospital audit from 1946 to 1952 detailing expenditures of the facility, like how much the hospital spent and on what, and how much the place brought in through their farming practices. The document also came with a list of patients and how much each had in their accounts. What? Isn’t that against HIPAA rules? Apparently, not.
I found my Great-aunt in the June 1952 section. She had $8.08 in her account. I also found Dorothy Drew, which only confirmed she was not Dorothy Dunn, but Dorothy Drew.
The file also gave the status of each patient during the audit, followed by a date. “Here” meant they lived in the facility. “Died” suggested they died on the premises.
There were other statements too, like “Paroled” or “Discharged” (I’m not sure what the difference is), “Dead” (having died off-premises), “Eloped” (I’m not sure what this means, either), and “Escaped” (there were two, although, I know of another who left the hospital without permission and died while MIA. This bit of information was not reported in this audit).
Of the females mentioned who had died in the facility, I cross-referenced them with death certificates that the hospital had to put out publicly (probably in the name of transparency). Every one of them matched up.
And then I found it, the person I had obsessed over almost more than my own relative. She was in the 1952 audit. It had to be her, not Huby Snickles, but Lula Stichels, typed on a page in black ink, no indecipherable handwriting anywhere! Except, there may have still been a typo.
Hours of searching for her new name led to nothing. I could not find a single Stichels on Ancestry.com, but I did find a Lula Etta Thompson Stickles, married, born in Missouri, and in 1940, she was forty-four years old. Check, check, check, and check!
It occurred to me what might have happened during the Census in 1940. Lula said her name was Lula E. Stickels, which the recorder heard as Lula-y and wrote Lulay Stickles (although they weren’t committed to how to spell Stickles and struggled, writing over their original account). Much later, Lulay Stickles (Lula E. Stickles) became Huby Snickles to someone else struggling to read overtly curly cursive. I don’t know for sure, but, short of finding one Huby Snickles, it’s the most plausible answer so far!
My next step is to write the Stickles family and confirm. Hopefully, I’ll get more information on her!
I guess what bothers me most about what I’ve found is that it seems there’s no ownership of these women—no sense of family acceptance or acknowledgment. Otherwise, someone would have made sure their names were spelled correctly, wouldn’t they? Where is the resounding call, “She’s ours! She is one of us!”
Instead, a woman is hidden. Her name is misspelled, her age is marked wrong, she’s dehumanized with two distinct titles on substantial public records, “inmate” and “insane,” and poof! She disappears without a trace. It’s not fair, not to her and not to her extended family.
In letting her become invisible, the shame of her existence becomes pronounced, bigger, thicker, stronger. She becomes otherworldly, a monster hiding in the closet, for no reason other than once upon a time she struggled emotionally.
Who knows if her collapse was warranted? Who knows if her depression was reasonable, or even if she had depression at all? What if her delusions were caused by a momentary nervous breakdown—high stress forced upon her with no support and no outlet? What if she was fine but fit the no-no criteria of someone else’s twisted ideal? What if she was simply epileptic?
Why should seizures, or depression, or opinion, or even schizophrenia equal shame? It’s not her fault, and it’s not her family’s fault either! That’s why I’m doing this! Okay, so I’m not raising the dead or anything as grand, but I’m doing something.
I haven’t proved or disproved the theory that mental institutions were used to weed out the unwanted yet. However, I have concluded something—
The misspelling of someone’s name was an accident, a misinterpretation, that’s obvious. That’s easy enough to fix! However, the tag of “inmate” and “insane” was anything but an accident, and still comes across as warning labels. I believe the best way to right this wrong is to find these women, tell their stories, reclaim them, strip away their label and rebrand them as “Mother,” “Sister,” “Friend,” or “Great-aunt,” they deserve that much.