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Was my Ancestor Insane or Did They Have Encephalitis?

5 blog post imageWas my ancestor insane or did they have encephalitis?

I have been researching into the death of my great great grandmother that died in 1911 at the Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts.  Her cause of death was listed as “general paralysis.”  After researching into the hospital and the classification of her death in the previous post it is easy to first conclude that she was “insane” or had a mental instability.  The Taunton State Hospital was originally named the State Lunatic Hospital at Taunton before the name was made more PC and her cause of death falls into the category linked with the “insane” classification.

But wait, this ancestor of mine was not committed to Taunton until she was about 43 years old.  In the course of her life she was married, left England to come to American, and had at least seven children.  This doesn’t sound like a woman that did not have all of her wits about her.  Look at the cause of death classifications in Part 2 of this post; I found that they both list different forms of encephalitis along with general paralysis in the neurological category.

I have come to the conclusion that my ancestor most likely contracted a virus that caused encephalitis which led to her general paralysis and eventual death.  At the time, 1911, encephalitis was not well understood or for that matter easily tested for. So you may be wondering what exactly is encephalitis?  Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain that is caused by a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection.  The symptoms associated with viral encephalitis include but are not limited to:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Muscle weakness
  • Paralysis
  • Eventual Coma

Symptoms may occur within 2 days of infection or as late as 2 weeks after infection.  How does one contract a virus that causes encephalitis?  There are many different types of vectors which are living organisms, such as mosquitos, that transfer diseases from human to human or from animal to human.  I believe my ancestor could have contracted Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) from a mosquito.  I find this scenario to be probable due to the current occurrence of EEE in the state of Massachusetts as compared to the rest of the United States.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Technical Fact Sheet:  Eastern Equine Encephalitis, EEE is commonly found around the Atlantic and Gulf Coast states.  The states with the most frequent occurrence in 2016 were:  Massachusetts, New Jersey, Georgia, and Florida.

Below is a map of Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus neuro-invasive disease average annual incidence by county, 2004-2013 from the CDC.  I find it pretty interesting that there is a high incidence of EEE just south of the Boston area of Massachusetts.  My great great grandmother lived most of her life in Fall River, Massachusetts before being placed in the Taunton Hospital.


The take away from all of this is to “investigate” every piece of evidence you find.  Don’t take everything at face value when researching your ancestors.  Look deeper for the hidden stories.  Does this prove that my great great grandmother died from EEE?  No, not really, but it does shed doubt on her original classification of death.

Please leave me your comments below and as usual keep a look out for my upcoming post.