A Family Secret

The picture you are looking at is the Fenner Family Homestead at the corner of The Middle Road (now County Road 46) and the road that goes to St. Joachim.

When Great Great Grandpa Fenner came over from Germany sometime between 1840 and 1850, it was all bush. In 1851, according to the agricultural census, only four acres were cleared. He had one cow, one horse and four pigs. He had a wife named Annie, and a child had been still born that year.

The following census was in 1861. The census said that he was living in the same household as John and Augusta Fenner and their three children, two of whom had been born in Germany.

The 1871 Census reveals that Great Great Grandpa had three children — William Henry, who according to the Census was born in Germany; Adam (my Great Grandfather who was 6 at the time); and Mary Ann (5). As I stared at the old fashioned handwriting on the scan of the document, I couldn’t help but wonder why there was no woman living in this household. It didn’t seem to make any sense that here was a single man (over 50 at the time) with three small children and no female presence at all.

So I did some scrolling around just to see if I could find a clue. And I sure found one. A big one, one that took my breath away. Scrawled in the margin was the note “His wife is in the Asylum”.

I think it took me a couple of weeks to get my breath back. At first I didn’t want to believe it. Don’t we all want our ancestors to be Important People — politicians, leaders in society, things we can be proud of? I went into a strange little bit of denial at first, thinking that it must be somebody else.

But my curiosity got the better of me, and so I started digging into the historical records of the asylums which had been newly established in Upper Canada, starting with the Toronto Lunatic Asylum around 1850. In the 1860s, the former Fort Malden was turned into a temporary asylum while the brand new London Insane Asylum was being built.

Short version of a long story — I found her. (Note that this woman was not Annie, wife number one — Anna Barbara Wolfe, whom he married in 1850. Though I haven’t been able to find a death certificate for Anna Barbara, the census of 1861 says that GG Grandpa had been married in 1853. So the woman in the Asylum would have been his second wife, Mary Elizabeth Dietrich Fenner.)

First, I found her in Toronto, from 1858 to 1862. The Toronto records (which I have seen, again in the original handwriting) said that she was transferred to the Malden Asylum. I never did find her in the Malden Asylum, likely because of poor record keeping. And then, in 1870, I found her again in the London Asylum.

Of the thousands and thousands of patients at the London Asylum over the years, Great Great Grandma Fenner was Patient 49. She must have been on the first train from Malden to the newly opened London Asylum when it first opened.

A big part of me wants to believe that this is a mistake .. that it must have been another Fenner family. But it’s not very possible that she was one of those OTHER Fenners. Other than John Fenner’s family in Comber, and my grandfather’s family in Ruscomb, there were no other Fenners in Essex County. Or even Kent County. The closest Fenners were in Waterloo. And I know the woman in the asylum wasn’t John Fenner’s wife. Augusta Fenner, John’s wife, was present and accounted for in all the Census in Comber until she died of old age. So the woman in the asylum must have been my great great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Dietrich Fenner.

I am gradually piecing together this fascinating (though sad) story. I have found some amazing things, including the handwritten case book from the London Asylum. The records say that Mary was a good worker. She knit. And she sewed. And she worked in the kitchen. And that physically she was very healthy. As for her mental state, the diagnosis was “dementia” (I have discovered that there were three diagnoses at the time — melancholia; mania and dementia. My guess is that dementia was a catch all word for people who were not just depressed, but rather really out of touch)

The records also say over and over again — “She scolds people”. In otherwords, she told people off a lot. There are two instances where she was admitted to the infirmary — once because another patient (or could have been a staff person) whacked her with a mop and broke her arm. Another instance, she got an eye infection when another patient scratched her eye. The notation after that last instance said “She’s back on the ward, noisy as ever”.

Quite a picture emerging of Mary Fenner. In the hospital records, there is no mention of my grandfather or her four children (whom she appears to have given birth to in the eight years between her release from Toronto in 1862 and her readmission to London in 1870). The Toronto records say that she was 39 when she was admitted to the Lunatic Asylum, had no living children, but had given birth to five stillborn children . The records say that she was married, though it didn’t say who her husband was. That she could read and write, that she was born in Germany and her religion was Lutheran.

She must have come back to the farm for a time. My Grandma Wallace’s records (which were based on oral history rather than the census), said that Mary Elizabeth died when Elizabeth the fourth child was only one day old. So, based on that, it would seem that the official story was that she died in childbirth.

In reality, she didn’t die until 1901. She lived for 31 years in the London Insane Asylum. She had 19 grandchildren by the time she died. It would be nice to think that her children might have visited her and introduced her to at least one of her grandchildren.

But that’s not too likely. For all intents and purposes, I’m guessing she was declared dead by the family when she was committed to London.


Posted on April 9, 2012, in Essex County Families, society and culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Kimberley Richardson

    Hello Victoria,

    I’ve been trying to decipher this myself for some time. I’ve been trying to map out my family tree and hit a road block with Adam Fenner, who I thought was my great great-grandfather. Turns out he may have been a step gg-grandfather…

    While searching, I found mention of Anna Barbara, but never could figure out exactly what happened. This whole part of the story was so confusing – If Adam came to Canada between 1840 and 1850, how was William H. born in Germany in 1862? Did Adam return to Germany after Anna’s death? Where does Mary come in? So many questions…

    In your post titled “Two Brothers – Two Wills”, you mention William was Mary’s son, but not Adam’s. I had an “Ah ha” moment… That would explain a lot.

    I also found the London asylum list/census recording Mary E. Fenner as being a resident until 1901.

    This is where it gets weird: I’ve also found Mary E. Fenner identified as Sarah Deitrich in a database… Not sure what to make of that…

    My grand-mother is (was) Bernice Fenner. Her father, William Henry Fenner, was born in Germany, March 4, 1862 . I found Mary E. Deitrig (sp?) identified as his mother. She and her husband Adam Sr had Adam R., Mary Ann and Elizabeth (d.o.b Sept 22, 1868).

    As for your feelings of denial… I hear ya!
    I started looking for other family ties, but came up empty handed. So, I figure, unless there was some sort of monumental mix up, your gg-grandmother and mine are the same person and did in fact reside in an asylum.

    The reason she may have been removed from family records, or identified as deceased, is that way back when, people were ashamed of family members who suffered from mental illness. The asylum was just a place to hide and forget them. So sad…

    Thank you so much for sharing this. It has helped confirm many things for me.

    Take care,
    Kimberley Richardson
    (A distant cousin)

    • Hi Kimberley — I am really happy that you send me this email. I’ve wanted to connect with William Henry’s family to see what they knew. I am really surprised at the amount I’ve been able to find out about the Fenners even though they’re a pretty close-lipped bunch. I think I now understand some of the reasons why.

      I am now quite sure that it was our gg grandmother who was in the asylum … there were no other Fenners in Essex County at the time or anywhere in the area. Except for John and Augusta in Comber, and their families are all accounted for in the various censuses. Our branch of the family seems to have inherited all the mysteries. It is the note in the margin of the 1871 Census beside Adam Sr.’s name that says “his wife is in the asylum” that pretty much confirms that Mary Elizabeth, our gg grandmother, was the woman in the asylum (three of them — Toronto, Malden and London. And three stints in jail before the asylum residencies)

      I don’t think either Mary or Adam ever returned to Germany — I have the registry records listing all the registry transactions related to the sale to Adam Sr. of the farm in Ruscomb and all the various mortgages etc. You want to read some contradictory, crazy records? The financial transaction relating to the farm in Ruscomb is pretty complicated. One thing is clear … Adam Sr. was not a wealthy man. He or Mary wouldn’t have had enough money to go back to Germany. Just a theory .. I don’t think I’ll ever know unless Adam or Mary comes back to tell me.

      Question: where did you find the reference to Mary Elizabeth as Sarah? I saw it on William Henry’s death certificate, but there are a lot of mistakes in that record. It lists him as 81 years old, which he wasn’t. No doubt it’s the same person because it lists him as dying in an accident, which is what really did happen to William Henry and the date is consistent with other records of his death and also the obit in the Comber Herald. As far as William Henry being born in Germany, I think that’s what they told people to explain who this boy was whom Adam Sr. did not acknowledge as his son (he did provide a home for him though so I think GG Grandpa must have been a pretty good guy).

      But if he was Mary’s son (which my grandmother’s family records confirm he is), he couldn’t have been born in Germany. Because she was a Fenner when she went into the Toronto Asylum for the first time in 1858. (My grandmother’s records say that William Henry was Mary’s son by a previous marriage in Germany but the timelines don’t add up). Records also say he was born in 1862, in 1865 and 1866. A lot of confusion about the your great grandfather William Henry. (I have been able to tell that there was a relationship between the four children — William Henry and my great great grandfather witnessed each other’s marriages, so I’m pretty sure they regarded themselves as brothers. William Henry is also listed as my Great Grandfather Adam R’s half brother in his obituary).

      I’d love to hear more about your family and where you all ended up. Where do you live? I”m in Hamilton but try to go back to Essex County a couple of times a year. My sister still lives there so it’s still very much home.

      Good luck — let me know what you find out as you climb this crazy family tree. The play that I’m writing about this is coming along well .. it will take me about a year to research and write but I am enjoying every minute of it. (Even though when I first discovered this, I felt quite sad every time I thought about Mary. It’s consoling to think that life in the bush wasn’t very pleasant either … maybe having three square meals and not having to do the arduous work of a pioneer farm wife would have had its advantages too.)

  2. Kimberley Richardson

    Hello again 🙂

    The whole “Birth of William” story is quite the mystery. I’m sure if I questioned my aunts, they would remember some stories. Nobody spoke back then… Yet everyone knew something!

    As for the Mary / Sarah info, I found it while looking up Adam Fenner on the RootsWeb internet site. I was already confused with the Anna Barbara / Mary info, then out pops Sarah…

    I’m not sure where the person on the website found the initial info but I’ve only just started scratching the surface. My next big search will consist of finding out where William Henry really came from and who is Sarah. Thank you for wishing me luck! I think I’m going to need it 🙂

    I also came across the prison registry for Mary Fenner but thought it surely could not be the same person… Although you’ve confirmed this as well… A bit of a misfit, that one lol!

    I live in Gatineau, QC (my mother is a Québecer).
    My paternal grand-mother, Bernice, married a Richardson from Tilbury (of Scottish descent). Most of my father’s side of the family reside in Ottawa and surrounding area, but one of my aunts still lives in Tilbury.

    If I find anything interesting, I’ll be sure to let you know!

    Take care,

    • If you find out anything from your aunts, Kimberley, I would dearly love to know what you find out. And if you’d like copies of the info about GG Grandma Mary Elizabeth I’ve collected, send me your address and I’ll send you her London Asylum records. My email is vlfenner@gmail.com.

      This is really an amazing story. I’ve been digging into the history of psychiatry (such as it was) in Victorian Upper Canada. It’s fascinating. As far as the name confusion, I wonder if it’s because Mary herself used a couple of names. She was in jail three times — the first time the record listed her own name, the second time she was listed as Barbara Fenner (must have been the same person again because all the dates are consistent and there were no other Fenners in the area. GG Grandpa’s first wife was Barbara so maybe she just got delusional about who she was.

      BTW, about the jail terms — she was in first of all for three months in 1858 for “securing goods under false pretences. She was not convicted, presumably she was sent back to the farm in Ruscomb. Then she was back again in jail a few months later — the record says “assault and insane”. She was sent to the Toronto Lunatic Asylum after that one. She was released from the Toronto Asylum in 1861. The records say she was released to the Malden Asylum, which had been opened right around that time to handle the overflow from the Toronto Asylum (Toronto was the only one in the province when Mary went in in 1858). And then she was back in jail at the Sandwich Jail in 1862 and sent to the Malden Asylum (which was the former Fort Malden in Amherstburg). She must have come back to the farm for the next 8 years, because that’s when she had four children (I wonder if she got pregnant with William Henry in the Malden Asylum (since the 1871 Census lists him as 9 years old, which would mean he was born in 1862). But we’ll never know for sure.

      What I find really surprising (happily so) if that GG Grandpa Adam took her back after her time in the Toronto Asylum. And it wasn’t the family that had her committed — she was admitted to Toronto on a judge’s warrant rather than by the family. The next part of the job is to try to find the court records relating to her jail terms. Maybe it will give some more clues about what happened.

    • Kimberley

      I am not related to the Fenners but I believe I am related to the Richardson family of Tilbury that Bernice Fenner married into.

      I would very much like to correspond with you to see if we can confirm this connection. Please email me at ancestry underscore research at ymail dot com.


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