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.