52 Ancestors Week 5: Census – My Most Unusual Census Record and the Eloise Asylum

Eloise Infirmary 1912

Annie's GhostA few years ago I read the memoir Annie’s Ghost by Steve Luxenberg. It begins with the death of Luxenberg’s mother and finding out that he and his siblings were now responsible for the grave site of an aunt he never knew about.  His mother had always said she was an only child and had not revealed she had a sister Annie who had been a patient at the Eloise Asylum just outside of Detroit, Michigan. He spent the next few years researching everything he could about Annie, his mother’s family and the history of Eloise. It was a fascinating story about family and how this asylum was a refuge and home for many and a prison for others depending on the patient’s individual experience.

Eloise History

Eloise started out as a poorhouse in 1832 and developed into a mental hospital, tuberculosis sanitarium and infirmary/poor house. According to Wikipedia, “It had its own police and fire department, railroad and trolley stations, bakery, amusement hall, laundries, and a powerhouse. It also had many farm buildings including a dairy herd and dairy barns, a piggery, a root cellar, a Tobacco curing building.” There were over 10,000 residents during the Great Depression but it started to wind down operations in the 1950’s until it finally closed in 1986. Only a few buildings still remain, but there is an active internet and Facebook community trying to preserve the history of the people that lived there for over a 150 years.

Eloise and the Mattson’s

When I was researching what happened to my 3rd great grandfather John Conway Mattson’s 2nd wife Rebecca Oberlander Mattson (and sister to my 3rd great grandmother) and their two sons Joel and Eric Mattson, I was shocked to discover that they were at Eloise in the 1930 census! They had continued to live in Buffalo, New York after the death John Mattson in 1899 until sometime before 1920. They were still living in Buffalo according to the 1915 New York State Census. Rebecca was working as a cleaning woman, Joel was a milk driver and Eric was a machine helper. At some point, before the 1920 census was taken, they made the decision to relocate to Detroit, Michigan where they still lived together. By then Rebecca was 69 year’s old and retired, but Joel (51) worked as a salesman and Eric (38) as a laborer.

1920 Census Mattson_Joel O Michigan Header1920 Census Mattson_Joel O Michigan

But by 1924, Rebecca has passed away at the Eloise Infirmary. How long had she been sick and been at the hospital? Was she a resident? So far there aren’t records to determine this definitely.

Oberlander_M J Rebecca Death Cert 1924 MI Wayne0001

However, we do know that by 1930 Eric and Joel are residents at Eloise.

Mattson_Joel O 1930 Census Eloise Michigan edited

1930 Census – Joel Mattson at the Wayne County Home and Insane Asylum, Eloise, Michigan

Mattson_Eric 1930 Census Michigan edited

1930 Census – Eric Mattson, Wayne County Home and Insane Asylum, Eloise, Michigan

Just why were the brothers inmates of the asylum? Was it poverty or illness? They do not appear to be in the same ward so that indicates they had different conditions. There is certainly much more to this story. Eloise was not just a place where people were sent to when families didn’t know what to do with their mentally ill, but a place where people voluntary went to receive care and where a large group of nurses, doctors and support staff were needed to maintain the smooth running of the institution….just what role did it play for the Mattsons? Of course there isn’t a simple answer to that. More later….

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4 Responses to 52 Ancestors Week 5: Census – My Most Unusual Census Record and the Eloise Asylum

  1. Eilene Lyon says:

    Did you discover this connection after reading the book? What an interesting coincidence. I’ll look forward to the rest of the story.

    • Rachelle says:

      Yes, I did find it out after reading the book, which was a good thing. I am not sure I would have known the significance of the location if I hadn’t read about Eloise previously. Just one of those happy serendipitous genealogical events!

  2. Laura says:

    Ooo, what a fun mystery! Well, fun now that its 100 years old. Not so fun for the family at the time. Can’t wait to hear more.

    • Rachelle says:

      The Mattson’s did go through more than it’s fair share of trials and I am always impressed by their strength and fortitude. Surprisingly, from a genealogical point of view, this working-class family (from 1790’s-1940’s) have given me my most prolific paper trail!

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