Mom was a young girl of eight or nine when she first heard about her aunt Alice Tillotson. (This would have been about 1933.) Grandpa was looking at a photograph from his childhood, in which he was six years old and standing next to his sister, Alice, who was about fifteen. Mom asked her father why she had never met his sister, and Grandpa replied that Alice had been put in an institution for the “feeble-minded” many years earlier. In 2012, when I began researching mom’s family tree, I came across my great-aunt Alice and was touched by her sad story.
The photograph Mom talked about was probably one of the many that her family lost in the 1930s, when Grandma was committed to the state hospital and Mom put in the county home. The only evidence I had of Alice’s existence was in the Battey family genealogy written in 1932.1 Her entry reads, “Alice Maud Tillotson, b. 20 June 1887, res. Exeter School, Slocum, R. I.” I remember, when I first read this, thinking that the Exeter School might have been a boarding school. I was wrong.
Alice Maud Tillotson was born in 1887 to Frank Tillotson, Sr. and Lydia Jane Battey. She was their second child, but the first one who lived past infancy. After Alice, there were two more children who died in infancy. Finally, my grandfather, Frank Howard Tillotson, was born in 1896, nine years after Alice’s birth. The family lived in Coventry, Rhode Island, where Frank, Sr. worked as a spinner in a textile mill.
In 1901, Lydia Jane died of tuberculosis. Alice was thirteen years old and Grandpa was five. It was an unfortunate time in Alice’s life to lose her mother, just as she was entering puberty. By that time, it must have been clear that was something was wrong with Alice. Frank Sr. hired a housekeeper to help him raise his two children. Josephine Albertine Anderson was a Swedish immigrant and a widow, as well. I was told by my mother that Josephine doted on Grandpa because he was as blond and fair-skinned as any Swedish son of hers would have been. Alice was another matter. I suspect Josephine was less interested in an adolescent girl with the mental capacity of a five-year-old.
By the time the Rhode Island State Census was taken in 1905, Josephine Anderson had become Josephine Tillotson, having married Frank Sr. a year or two before. In that same census, Alice was living in Oaklawn School for Girls in Cranston. It appears from the census record that the staff at the school — which was more of a reformatory for girls with behavioral problems — had no idea where her parents were, or where they were from. The space on the census form where the birth places of her mother and father should have been, read, “New England?” It appears that Frank Sr. and Josephine Tillotson dropped her off at the Oaklawn School and left no return address.
Five years later, in the 1910 U. S. Census, Alice Tillotson was listed as an inmate at the State Almshouse, and the birthplace of her parents was listed as “unknown.” Alice was, by that time, over the age of twenty-one — too old for the Oaklawn School for Girls. She had been transferred to an institution for adults, despite her mental age being equivalent to a child’s. The State Almshouse was a place where unwanted people of all kinds — crippled, sick, mentally ill, intellectually disabled, senile elderly — were left by family members who were unwilling or unable to take care of them.2 In that same census, Frank Sr. and Josephine were listed as living in Plainfield, Connecticut, where he worked in a mill and she took in laundry.
Meanwhile, Alice languished in an institution that sounded like a snake pit. The State Almshouse was described by a physician who oversaw the medical care of inmates of Rhode Island state institutions during the early twentieth century. “Overcrowding developed rapidly. The feeble-minded, the idiots, the morons, and the ambulatory aged were crowded into ill-lighted and not well ventilated basements, soon to become worse from the lack of pure oxygen and sunshine.”3
Alice remained in the almshouse until 1913, when the Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded began accepting women and girls. She was among 72 females admitted that year, more than doubling the population of the school.4 Alice was diagnosed, using the terminology of the day, as an imbecile. It was a scientific term to describe a person’s mental capacity, as were the words “moron” and “idiot.” An imbecile was defined as someone with a mental age of three to seven years capable of communicating and performing simple tasks under supervision, and more functional than an idiot, but less than a moron.
According to land records, in 1913 (the same year that Alice was committed to the school for the feeble-minded), Frank Sr. and Josephine Tillotson bought a small farm in Brooklyn, Connecticut, where they raised Grandpa until he left home to fight in World War I.
There are things I’d like to know about Alice’s story that I can’t. With her intellectual disability, she wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone what happened to her and how she felt about being removed from her family. I don’t know for sure whether Frank Sr. and Josephine ever visited her in the state institutions, but I suspect they did not. Maybe they were too poor to take care of a daughter who was essentially a small child in a woman’s body.
But most of all, I wonder how Grandpa felt about losing his sister. He was about seven when she disappeared from his life, which meant that they were perhaps much closer in mental age than they were in chronological age. Did he wonder what she had done wrong that caused her to be taken away? Did he worry that it might happen to him, too, if he didn’t behave himself? Since it is impossible to know these things, I did the next best thing. I tried to learn something about the Exeter School, where Alice was living in the 1930s when the Battey genealogy was published.
- Battey, Herbert Verner. Samson Battey of Rhode Island; The Immigrant Ancestor and his Descendents. Council Bluffs, Iowa, 1932.
- Schneider, Eric C. “Mental Retardation, State Policy, and the Ladd School, 1908-1970.” Rhode Island History, v. 40(4), November 1981. p. 134.
- Jones, Henry A. Dark Days of Social Welfare at the State Institutions at Howard, Rhode Island. Providence: Dept. of Social Welfare, 1943. pg. 36.
- Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded in Exeter. Report. Providence: 1913. pg. 10.