Seeing Hannah: My Trip to Spruce Pine

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About a year and a half ago, I decided I should take a trip to the cemetery to visit Hannah's gravesite.  I had wanted to visit the little town in western North Carolina for decades, and I finally made a point of it Memorial Day weekend in 2012.  At that time I had no idea I would be starting a blog, so I didn't take as many photos as I should have.  I will go back.

Spruce Pine last May.

Downtown Spruce Pine

Downtown Spruce Pine

An abandoned theatre outside of town.

An abandoned theatre outside of town.

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A house along a country Bakersville road.  Although rundown, I find it absolutely beautiful.

Hannah's grave at the Bear Creek Baptist Church, Bakersville, NC.  Note the incorrect date of death.

After leaving Tennessee, I headed east.  The western mountains of North Carolina are difficult to fully describe:  majestic, daunting, breathtakingly beautiful.  I had to be incredibly careful not to look around too much as I soon realized running off the road and rolling down the tree covered mountains is a definite possibility! 

I located the church and graveyard in Bakersville and wandered around looking for her headstone.  The entire cemetery has a beautiful backdrop of the mountains.  I came upon Hannah's parents, cousins, brothers, grandparents.  Almost giving up, I found her resting place almost right at the entrance to the cemetery. 








I made my first stop in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where my late father's cousin lives.  To my knowledge, only one portrait of Hannah exists, and it hangs in a house in Jonesborough.  I had to see it in person, mainly because there are no copies, and I wanted to take a photo to have as my own.  The portrait is actually a painting from (my best guess) the 1890s, painted when Hannah was probably around 20 years old.  When I stood close to it, I could see the aging and chipping of the paint at the top, and it probably will not survive for too much longer.  But I did my best.  And now I have a picture of Hannah.









After spending time in Spruce Pine and Bakersville (and a big thank you to the Bakersville Public Library for being so kind to this freaky intense woman in their Carolina Room), I headed to Morganton to see the hospital where Hannah died.

The main building at Morganton State Hospital, now Broughton.

The entrance into the main building.  The door strikes me as being very old, and I wonder if Hannah walked through it before being admitted.

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The cemetery at Broughton flanked by two angel statues.

The graves of the people buried at Broughton, mentioned in Tom Jimison's articles. 

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A brief history of the mental health system in North Carolina

Discovering Hannah's death certificate felt like opening the door to part of my family's past that had been hidden for decades.  But after contacting Broughton Hospital, I had to come to terms with the realization that I may not find out much about her life and death.  I decided the best route would be to find out how much information was out there about Morganton State Hospital during Hannah's stay.

The main source I took my information from is called People, Patients and Politics: the history of the North Carolina mental hospitals, 1848-1960 by Clark R. Cahow.  Unless otherwise stated, I owe all the information to his research and discoveries.

Dorothea Dix, activist for the mentally ill and created the first American mental asylums.

Dorothea Dix, activist for the mentally ill and created the first American mental asylums.

The state of North Carolina had no institutional care before 1856.  Mild to moderately mentally ill people who were not considered violent mainly roamed throughout their towns asking for money and suffered abuse as the town oddity.  Some wealthy families sent their mentally ill relatives to institutions in neighboring states.  Those considered dangerous to society had basically two choices:  the local jail or hidden away.  When Dorothea Dix crusaded for a mental hospital in North Carolina in 1848, she made the following statement:

In Lincoln County, near a public road, stands a decent dwelling; near by is a log cabin, strongly built and about ten feet square, and about seven or eight feet high; no windows to admit light; the square logs are compactly laid; no chimney indicates that a fire can be kindled within, and the small low door is securely locked and barred.  Two apertures at right angles, ten inches long by four wide, are the sole avenues by which light and air are admitted within this dreary cabin, so closely secured, and so cautiously guarded.  You need not ask to what uses it is appropriated, the shrill cries of an incarcerated maniac will arrest you on the way...examine the interior of this prison, you will see a ferocious, filthy, unshorn, half-clad creature, wallowing in foul, noisome straw.  The horrors of this place can hardly be imagined:  the state of the maniac is revolting in the extreme...For assuring public and private safely, his family have the only alternative of confining him on their own farm rather than seeing him thrown into the dungeon of the County jail.

At this time, insanity and mental illness was considered divine judgment on people who brought on the condition themselves due to wickedness and/or inferiority.  Family members of mentally ill people felt shame and embarrassment. In the later 1880s, public attitude somewhat changed to where it believed institutions could actually help and cure the mentally ill, but not completely:  "All too often the mentally ill person continued to be regarded not as a sick person to be treated but as an undesirable charge to be tolerated.  Once the public became convinced that hospitalization was an end in itself, the local community found it easy to forget the patients committed.  Patients sent to a large, centralized, and somewhat isolated institution were now out of sight and soon out of mind." 

After Morganton State Hospital opened in 1883, the institution soon suffered the misfortunes of the other asylums in the state:  overcrowding and budget cuts.  In the "Report of the State Hospital at Morganton, N.C. for the Two Years Ending November 30, 1920," the superintendent of Morganton State Hospital, John McCampbell, MD, remarks to the Board of Directors that "At no time during this period have we had a full corps of officers and employees, and more than once we have been reduced to the point of grave danger for a lack of proper help."  I believe Cahow sums it up best when he states, "The first hundred years of institutionalized care of the insane in North Carolina is best characterized as a period of public indifference and meager State appropriations which resulted in inadequate facilities, low salaries, insufficient and poorly trained staff, undermanned and overworked professional personal, and a political structuring of the hospital system that fostered patronage and direct interference." 

The more research I do, the more I seem to find, sometimes conflicting.  But what I found next was shocking and disturbing.

Chasing Hannah

Finding how Hannah died set off some kind of emotional upheaval within me.  Knowing my great-grandmother died in this hospital was something I never expected.  I felt a very intense connection to her even though I had never met her.

Hannah had my grandfather at age 34, the same age when I gave birth to my son.  What did my grandfather know?  Did he know she was sick?  What did family members tell him when she went away?  Did he know she was going to a hospital?  Did he know she would die?  How did he cope as a young boy of 9 without his mother?

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I had to take another look at her death certificate.  On closer look, I noticed her death date was different from the one on her grave marker.  The date my aunt provided me was January 15, 1921.  The cemetery in North Carolina also lists her death date as January 15, 1921.  The date on her death certificate shows January 22, 1922, a full year after the date my aunt gave me.  Why is this information wrong?  A clerical error?  I tend to lean to the death certificate as the official and true date, but I will forever wonder why her headstone is incorrect.

Additionally, the death certificate shows an erroneous name for her mother.  Hannah's mother's name was Mary Jane Sparks, not Elizabeth Hunter as shown on her certificate.  I have to chalk this up to another clerical error, but I have to believe whoever was providing information to the hospital did a very sloppy job.

Now to her cause of death.  From what I can tell from the writing, the cause states bulbar paralysis as the reason.  The clearest definition I found states it is a "chronic, progressive, generally fatal paralysis and atrophy of the muscles of the lips, tongue, mouth, pharynx, and larynx due to lesions of the motor nuclei of the lower brain stem, usually occurring in late adult years."

After doing some searching on Google, I quickly found out that Morganton State Hospital is still running and now called Broughton Hospital. I desperately wanted to find some information...any information that would give me insight to my great grandmother's hospitalization and death.  I decided to call the hospital and request some details and possible records they might have archived. 

An operator quickly transferred me to a woman who handles genealogical calls.  She very professionally and patiently answered whatever questions I had.  According to her, in the 1980s the hospital sent most of the records to Raleigh where they were subsequently destroyed.  My heart sank.  But she thought maybe they could find something about Hannah's time there and sent me a form for my father (who was still living at the time) to fill out with any information I may have about Hannah.  I sent the form back to the Broughton Hospital Health Information Management Department and anxiously waited for any information they could give me. 

I received back a very thin envelope.  One piece of information they had was what they called the "death card:" 

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The librarian at the hospital also found a few other pieces.  One was from the patient ledger book, which stated:

Hannah Stafford, Patient #8060, Admitted: 10/21/1921, Female, 42 years old, Married, NC, Mitchell County, Education:  Reading/Writing, 1 attack, Duration 6 years, Cause: Unknown, Died: 1/22/1922, Cause of Death: P. & Brain Disorder (may be abbreviation of paralysis), Beacher Paralysis (spelling may be off -- record handwritten and difficult to read).

Another from the Grave book: 12-2-1909 -- 7-2-1925:

Hannah Stafford, Patient #8060, Died 1/22/1922, 11:15am, Body shipped to Spruce Pine, NC.

The last came from the county Correspondent Book 1915-1926:

Correspondent of Hannah Stafford: D.J. English, Admitted: 10/21/1921.

Although I couldn't have been happier to get what little information the hospital could offer, I still wanted more.  I began to contact people who I thought could give me insight into what the mental health care system was like in North Carolina at the time.  Maybe then I could understand what Hannah went through at Morganton.