Hump Day: Provincial archives open door to fascinating family histories

Hump DayHump Day
By Brian Cormier
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Moncton Times & Transcript
Editorial section

Have you ever found a website that has you obsessed? I’m sure you have. Lately, I’ve become enamoured with a website that has sucked me into its mysterious vortex of fascinating discoveries, family secrets and tragedy.

Believe it or not, I’m talking about the New Brunswick Provincial Archives. On the surface, this probably sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry, but I fully admit I’m now a big fan of the best kept secret in New Brunswick for anyone interested in doing research on the histories of their family, friends and neighbours.

It’s quite fascinating to look through their searchable vital statistics archives, especially the detailed marriage and death certificates from early in the last century up until 1960. While not that terribly long ago, I managed to find out a lot of stuff that I didn’t know before — most of it rather sad, some of it mundane, all of it interesting.

Some of the human errors are downright baffling. I wonder if some of these record-takers were drinking on the job, but then again, maybe there are some deep dark secrets of which I’m not aware. For instance, somehow my uncle Normand became a Melanson instead of a Cormier on his marriage certificate. Not sure how that happened, but there didn’t seem to be any whiskey stains on the photo of the archived document, so the person who wrote the document appears to have been sober, if not distracted.

Every family has mental illness, depression or developmental challenges throughout its history, but thank goodness the terminology has changed for the better.

While I certainly realize that the terminology used for various ailments back in the 1930s was considered fine at the time, similar words used these days would literally cause jaws to drop. Even the outdated and now-offensive term “mentally retarded” would have been kind when compared to the underlying ailment noted on my poor great-uncle Alyre’s death certificate: “idiocy.”

He died in 1933 in the Saint John Provincial Hospital. He was my paternal grandfather’s brother and was born severely developmentally challenged. Back then, with zero support and no idea how to manage these individuals, they were often institutionalized. This is exactly what happened to young Alyre, who died at 34.

My cousin tells me that our great-aunt once told her that, as children, Alyre would sit alone in the corner of the room cowering in fear of the other children. It must have been so sad to see that. No one back then — the 1900s and 1910s — would have had a clue what to do, I’m sure, other than simply send them off somewhere.

And I’m certainly not being judgmental of my great-grandparents. It’s just what was done. With 10 or 12 kids per family and barely enough money to feed everyone, the challenge of caring for a child like this would have been too much for many to handle. Coupled with the lack of education, understanding and support — well, they were simply doomed to be institutionalized, for the most part.

I could just imagine this poor little boy not understanding any of his surroundings and his family not understanding him. While childhood photos of most of the other children likely existed, I doubt he was memorialized on film.

He died on Jan. 14, 1933, after about 2.5 years in the Saint John Provincial Hospital. The death certificate cites chronic myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) as the cause of death, with “idiocy” as a contributing factor. I printed the death certificate and still shake my head. That term seems so cruel in this day and age. I can’t imagine the conditions there in the 1930s. It couldn’t have been pleasant.

Then there was my great-great-grandmother, Julienne Robichaud, who died on May 13, 1923. She was on my paternal grandmother’s side, so no relation to Alyre. She also died in the Saint John Provincial Hospital, much to my surprise when I read her death certificate more closely while researching this column.

Julienne died of loban pneumonia, with the main contributing factor of “recurrent mania” listed. I’m assuming that “recurrent mania” is what we likely call bipolar disorder these days. According to the death certificate, it’s something from which she suffered for 50 years. She entered the hospital on April 4, 1923, and lasted just over a month until succumbing on May 13.

Another death certificate for my paternal grandfather’s sister Emélie clarified that she died of stomach cancer at the young age of 35 on Sept. 29, 1943. Family legend had her dying of lung cancer, but the death certificate is crystal clear in that regard. It even notes that she had surgery in August — likely a futile attempt at stopping the disease or perhaps a way to determine how far it had progressed. There were no MRIs back then.

The terminology on marriage certificates was understandably outdated in those days, too. For an unmarried man, the rather benign “bachelor” was used — a term still used today, especially on reality television. But for women, the horrible term for single back then was “spinster,” an image that conjures up images of an 80-year-old woman living by herself with 35 cats. Today, we just use the word “single.”

If you have Internet access, New Brunswick’s Provincial Archives website is an excellent place to find out more about your family. The good, the bad — and the tragic.

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