What To Do About the Children?

Ward of Notre Dame de Lourdes, Orphanage, Manchester N.H., ca. 1900. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection. 3.2002.2537.5
Ward of Notre Dame de Lourdes, Orphanage, Manchester N.H., ca. 1900. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection. 3.2002.2537.5

In July 1908, my great-grandmother Graziella Metthe was committed to Norwich State Hospital, diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis. In the months leading up to her commitment, she was living with her family in a shed.  Once she was hospitalized, her four children (including my grandmother Beatrice) were left in the care of her parents, Pierre and Azilda Bonneau.

Azilda must have been overwhelmed by her responsibilities. Pierre was ailing, which made her the de facto head of the household. His elderly mother lived with them, too. Several of their children still lived at home, including one who had a chronic lung disease. On top of that, she was expected to care for her mentally ill daughter’s four children, who were between the ages of seven and one.

I found a letter in Graziella’s patient file addressed to the Superintendent of Norwich State Hospital in October 1908. Alexandrine, her sister, had written on behalf of her mother (Azilda may not have been able to write in English). She asked if there was any chance that Graziella’s condition was improving and whether she could be sent home to her family. “If my sister does not get well soon we shall have to find some way to place those children.”  The Superintendent responded that Graziella had taken a turn for the worse, and that “…it would not be wise for her to leave the hospital for some time yet.”

When I read this exchange of letters, I felt a great sadness for both my great-grandmother Graziella and my grandmother Beatrice.  At the same time, I found it strange to be so moved by their tribulations. After all, these events had taken place over a hundred years ago!  Why would they affect me now? As I became more involved in genealogy, I realized that these people I was researching were more than mere historical characters — they were my people, my family.  I hadn’t expected to be so emotionally invested in the family saga when I started my work.  But it wasn’t long before I began to feel as if I was riding an emotional roller coaster.

Searching the 1910 U.S. Census

If Azilda was considering placing her grandchildren in someone else’s care in 1908, perhaps the 1910 census could tell me where they ended up. I went back to Mom’s genealogical research, only to find that she had never located her mother in the 1910 census, the first one in which Beatrice’s name would have appeared. This omission by my mother, the avowed genealogist of the family, puzzled me.

During the 1910 census, Graziella was enumerated among the patients of Norwich State Hospital. At the same time, in Danielson, her parents Pierre and Azilda Bonneau were still living on Cottage Street. However, only one of the four Metthe children still resided with them, three-year-old Pauline. Elsewhere in the census records for Danielson, I found Philippe Metthe living on Franklin Street with his parents, David and Rosalie. But I could find no sign of Beatrice, her brother Leonard, or her sister Dinorah anywhere among the Danielson census records.

I broadened my online search of the 1910 census records by not limiting it to any geographical area. I suspected that the name Beatrice Metthe was not that common, so I was hopeful that I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the number of results that a search for it might return. As it turned out, the top result was for a nine-year-old girl named Beatrice Metthe, who lived in Manchester, New Hampshire.

At first, I didn’t think that this could be Grandma. Mom never mentioned that her mother had lived in New Hampshire; in fact, I had never heard her speak of any relatives who lived in that state. As far as I knew, all of Mom’s ancestors were from Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Quebec. I was about to skip over it when I noticed that this Beatrice Metthe had been born in Connecticut in 1901, just like Grandma had been. It was enough of a coincidence to induce me to check out the census record anyway. I clicked on a link that took me to a digitally scanned image of the actual census sheet, filled out by the enumerator in 1910.

Year: 1910; Census Place: Manchester Ward 10, Hillsborough, New Hampshire; Roll: T624_863; Page: 26A; Enumeration District: 0157; Image: 979; FHL microfilm: 1374876.
Year: 1910; Census Place: Manchester Ward 10, Hillsborough, New Hampshire; Roll: T624_863; Page: 26A; Enumeration District: 0157; Image: 979; FHL microfilm: 1374876.

The head of the household in which she lived was a man named Hercule Davignon. Everyone else in the household was listed and described according to their relationship to him: wife, son, daughter. Beatrice was listed at the end and was listed as his “add child.” What did that mean — “additional child”? Did they mean “adopted child”?

While I stared at the image, pondering its meaning, I suddenly remembered that Azilda’s maiden name had also been Davignon. Did she have a brother, or some other male relative, named Hercule? If so, maybe it was my grandmother living in New Hampshire in 1910.  I wondered if Mom had seen this census record and dismissed it as I almost had.  As in the story of great-grandfather Philippe’s disappearance, she seemed willing to overlook evidence that contradicted what she always knew about her family.

Even though it seemed likely that this nine-year-old Beatrice Metthe living in New Hampshire in 1910 was Grandma, I wanted additional proof to convince myself that it was indeed her in this census record. Perhaps I was overcompensating for Mom’s lack of diligence, but I needed to be sure my conclusion was sound before adding this intriguing fact to the family history.   Since I still didn’t know where Beatrice’s brother Leonard or her sister Dinorah were at the time, I needed to locate them in the 1910 census as well. Maybe by finding them, I’d be able to either to prove or disprove that the Beatrice Metthe in New Hampshire was my grandmother.

At the same time, I realized that researching my great-great-grandmother Azilda’s family more thoroughly might help as well, especially if I could establish that she was related to Hercule Davignon of Manchester, New Hampshire. When I first started researching my family history, I had focused on my direct ancestors, not their siblings. Now that I wanted to clarify the relationship between this Beatrice Metthe and Hercule Davignon, I could see how looking for collateral relatives — brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins — could be a way to solve a genealogical dilemma by coming at it from a side angle.

Searching Quebec Church Records

I knew that Azilda had been born in Quebec in 1855, to Narcisse Davignon and Martine Messier. I hadn’t bothered before this point to find out if they had any other children. Indeed, it would have been unusual if they did not, being a Roman Catholic family in the province of Quebec. I searched the Institut Généalogique Drouin’s collection of French-Canadian church records which included volumes from the same church where Azilda had been baptized. I started with the year that her parents had married (1843) and continued for about twenty-five years, until the baptisms of their children stopped appearing. It turned out that Azilda had been one of twelve children, one of whom was a younger brother named Hercule, born in 1865. This would have made him about forty-five in 1910, just like the Hercule Davignon in Manchester who appeared in the census with Beatrice Metthe as a member of his household.

Back to the 1910 U.S. Census

Feeling more confident that it was my grandmother I had found in New Hampshire, I returned to the 1910 census to search for Beatrice’s other two siblings. To my surprise, I found that seven-year-old Leonard Metthe was also listed in Manchester, New Hampshire, living in St. Peter’s Orphanage. I browsed the census sheets that came before and after the one on which he appeared. I counted 141 residents (or “inmates” as they were called on the census form) of the orphanage — all boys, ranging in age from two to fourteen years. After further searching, I found Beatrice’s six-year-old sister Dinorah listed in the orphans ward of Notre Dame de Lourdes Hospital, also in Manchester. She was among 119 girls, ranging in age from three to fourteen, who were cared for by the Sisters of Charity. The presence of her siblings, Leonard and Dinorah, in the same city where I had found Beatrice had to be more than just a coincidence. The Metthe children, except for Pauline, had been sent away to New Hampshire while their mother was in the asylum.

Refectory, St. Peter's Orphanage for Boys, Manchester N.H., ca. 1900. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection. 3.2002.2623.6
Refectory, St. Peter’s Orphanage for Boys, Manchester N.H., ca. 1900. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection. 3.2002.2623.6

A Theory Emerges

Looking at the facts I had accumulated — yes, those genealogical facts that I used to think of as dry and uninteresting — I put together a theory about what Azilda might have done when she learned the disappointing news about Graziella’s mental condition. I speculated that knowing it would be a long time  before Graziella might be able to care for her own children, Azilda sought the advice of a Catholic priest. Instead of consulting her parish priest, she turned to a family member who was a priest, Father Isidore Davignon, also of Manchester, New Hampshire. As pastor of St. George’s Catholic Church, he may have had some influence with the other Catholic institutions of the diocese, including the orphanage and the orphans ward at the hospital. I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that he used his connections within the diocese to have Leonard and Dinorah placed in those institutions. He might even have been the one to suggest that his brother Hercule take in Beatrice, the eldest, because she might have been considered less trouble to take care of than her younger siblings.

My Reaction

For days after making this discovery, I couldn’t get the plight of Beatrice, Leonard, Dinorah, and Pauline out of my mind. In 1910, all four of the children were living apart from each other. Only the baby, Pauline, had been fortunate enough to remain with her grandparents, Pierre and Azilda.  Beatrice had been placed with family in a regular household, but her great-uncle Hercule, his wife, and their four children were probably little more than strangers to her. Leonard and Dinorah had been relegated to orphanages where they knew no one. How they must have longed for each other and for their institutionalized mother! How would they have known, young as they were at the time, whether they’d ever see each other again? I imagine this separation was traumatic and had lasting psychological repercussions on the children.

As sad as this turn of events must have been, I know that the dispersal of Graziella’s children wasn’t due to cruelty on the part of the family. As I re-read the letter written to the Superintendent of Norwich State Hospital, I sensed that sending her grandchildren so far away had been a difficult decision for Azilda. The burden of caring for so many dependents under her roof had left her with no other choice.  But even sadder was that this was just one of many losses my grandmother suffered when she was a child.  Maybe Mom subconsciously looked away from the census record that would have revealed this unfortunate chapter in her mother’s life.  Maybe she didn’t want to ride the same emotional roller coaster that I was on.

Despite the emotional issues my family history has brought up for me, I am grateful for the way genealogy helped me learn more about what happened.  It has helped me draw parallels from my grandmother’s life, through my mother’s, and on to my own.  Trauma that is not fully dealt with tends to get passed on to the next generation.  My hope is that by exposing these unfortunate events, and parsing their meanings, I can stop the effects from being passed on yet again.

Author’s note:  This article is adapted from a chapter from the manuscript of Secrets of the Asylum.

4 thoughts on “What To Do About the Children?”

  1. Very interesting and well-researched family story. Narcisse Davignon had a brother Edouard (b. 1821) who married Clemence Lareau in St-Athenase. One of their sons, Louis Bruno emigrated to Wauregan CT where he was married in 1885 to Josephine Kerouack, a cousin of my grandfather. Their only surviving son, Saul S. d’Avignon was a colorful character who lived in Norwich. Another character was Edouard’s son Nelson (Narcisse) who became a Protestant minister, eventually settling in Illinois. I have a a researched essay on this branch if you are interested.

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