Sunday, March 13, 2016

Grandpa Reappeared in the Insane Asylum

James Kirk was a successful farmer. In the 1870 census, he owned property valued at $3,600. Thirty years later, he gave his occupation as "Capitalist" on the 1900 census.

Perhaps that success and confidence was what landed my 3rd great-grandfather's biography in the 1880-published volume, The History of Polk County, Iowa. Along with other esteemed citizens, James' biography provided a pithy summation of his life up to that time. It was a gold mine for his genealogist progeny.

But James' later life holds some mystery. The final 37 years become very hazy.

In the 1900 Federal Census, James was living with his son Henry in Webster Township, Polk County, Iowa. Ten years later, he is nowhere to be found in the 1910 Federal Census, and there's no trace of him in Iowa's 1905 and 1915 state censuses. Where did this accomplished gentleman disappear to?

James and his wife Hester Griffith had eleven children. Seven of them were alive at the time of the 1880 biography, and each of them survived both of their parents. Yet, James was not enumerated with any of his kids in 1905, 1910, or 1915. Where was he?

From the unknown, James made a dramatic reappearance at the Polk County Insane Asylum. From a Record of the Insane, I learned that "Kirk J" was committed on April 14, 1917.

Insane Records 1910-1927, Polk County Insane Asylum

Less than two months later, on June 10, 1917, "Kirk, J" was paroled from the Polk County Insane Asylum. No explanation was provided for his committal or release.

Insane Records 1910-1927, Polk County Insane Asylum

Exactly one month after his release, the records simply state that "Kirk" was "Returned" on July 10, 1917.
Insane Records 1910-1927, Polk County Insane Asylum

The final record states that "Kirk, J" died on August 29, 1917 while a resident of the asylum.

Insane Records 1910-1927, Polk County Insane Asylum

Four short records hint at James' curious final four months in the Polk County Insane Aslyum, yet reveal nothing about who had him committed or for what reasons. His death certificate listed the cause of death as Acute Intestinal Intoxication with old age a contributing factor.

His daughter Mary (Kirk) Scovel was the informant on the death certificate, but another careful review of her appearances in the 1910 and 1915 census records still doesn't reveal James' whereabouts.

He must have been a man of some means at the time of his death. He was buried in Sunny Hill Cemetery instead of the city cemetery (which would be expected if he died in the asylum as a pauper), and his grave is marked by a large - presumably expensive - granite memorial.

My research continues with the hopes of locating his obituary and probate records. Given that he lived until 1917 - well into the age of photography - I am hopeful that not only can I pinpoint his movements in his final years, but also see his face.


  1. There is a relative of mine who was also committed to an insane asylum. Stories about her were in the paper. First, when she was "lost." Later, the sheriff requested reimbursement for his expenses in taking her to the asylum. These stories were in the local newspaper. There is also paperwork that was filed in the local courthouse particularly relating to making her son her legal representative. You can search in the local courthouse in the approximate time period for similar paperwork. As an aside, I think my relative had Alzheimer's since she was "lost" at that one point. Mr. Kirk may have also had Alzheimer's or some other type of senility.

    1. I wondered about Alzheimer's, too. I thought it was interesting that he was committed and then "paroled". That made it sound like he was there for punishment instead of medical necessity. Good recommendation on the courthouse and newspapers. I'm hoping to make a road trip out there one day to tackle some this personally, otherwise I may look into hiring a researcher. Thanks again for reading and sharing your comment. I appreciate it!