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?

hannah death certificate.jpg

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:" 

hannah's death card.jpg

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.

Finding Hannah

What I found stopped my heart and changed my life completely.

Genealogy is a puzzle, a mystery that unravels and sorts itself out (sometimes with more questions than answers) the more you research.  Finding missing pieces continually drives me forward.  The more dead ends I encounter, the more compelled I am to push forward and discover my ancestors and the lives they lived. 

When I started researching my family tree with, I couldn't wait to find answers about my paternal great-grandmother, Hannah English Stafford.  Very little was known about her.  I knew she died when my grandfather, Frank Stafford, was little boy, and my father said the cause of death (from what he understood) was a brain aneurysm.  All that seemed a little vague to me, and I began the journey trying to discover more about her.

My grandfather came from a small town in western North Carolina called Spruce Pine.  Shortly after his mother's death, the 1930 census shows he moved with his father, John Stafford, and John's new wife, Sadie, to Washington County, Tennessee.  Several years later, he met and married my grandmother and finally settled in Baltimore, Maryland, until he died in 1982.

I began with my grandfather's birth certificate.  The state of North Carolina started recording birth certificates in 1913, but I assumed since my grandfather lived in a rural area and was born in 1913, no birth certificate was filed.  Therefore, in 1941, he applied for a delayed birth certificate. 

(Can we just pause for a moment at the fact the midwife was named Biddie Buchanan?  Could a midwife get a better name than that?)

(Can we just pause for a moment at the fact the midwife was named Biddie Buchanan?  Could a midwife get a better name than that?)

From this, I had his father and mother's names.  My aunt also gave me her birth date, November 9, 1878, and death date, January 15, 1921.  I plugged all this information in.  And those little leaves started to show up.

I found her in the censuses for 1880, 1900, and 1910 when she lived in an area near Spruce Pine called Snow Creek.  In 1920, the census states she lived in the Grassy Creek area of Spruce Pine.  This census particularly interested me because this is the last census before she died.  Hannah was forty at this point, and my grandfather was a little boy of eight.  She had a total of six children in her home in 1920, the oldest being 20, the youngest six.  I can see they rented their home, and my great-grandfather worked as a laborer at the Harris Clay & Mining Company.

Now I really needed to find her death certificate.  Even early on in my research, I realized how important death certificates are.  Not only do they list the cause, date, and place of death, but they usually will give you the deceased person's parents' names and places of birth, a little gem taking you into the next generation. 

What I found stopped my heart and changed my life completely.

hannah death certificate.jpg

Hannah died in Morganton, North Carolina, a town a little over forty miles from her home.  And she died at a psychiatric facility called Morganton State Hospital. 

No one ever mentioned this.  Ever.  The idea of a state hospital started all sorts of feelings and emotions running through me.  Why was she there?  What happened in her life to get her there?  How much did my grandfather know?  What was this hospital like?  Who went there?

I knew a journey had started for me.  I needed as many answers as I could possibly find, and I would exhaust every resource until I found them.