Friday, July 12, 2013

A quack? in Davenport and a leading orphanage in Terre Haute

Two recent articles open up records and publications with a lot to say about the practice of medicine and the treatment of orphans in the late1800s and early 1900s in the Midwest.

Writer and editor Greta Nettleton was bequeathed four trunks full of long-stored family memorabilia, which among other things revealed the career of "Mrs. Dr. Rebecca J. Keck" (1838-1904) of Davenport, Iowa. "She may have been one of the most prominent self-made female entrepreneurs in the Midwest," writes Nettleton in the current issue of American Ancestors: New England, New York, and Beyond from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Keck was the object of legal and personal attack by orthodox medical practitioners in both Illinois and Iowa (but bear in mind that mainstream 19th-century medicine was itself little better than witchcraft). Evidently a book is in the works. I hope it will get into more detail about her business and medical views as well as the official doctors' views, and her therapies as viewed today.

Megan Birk, Purdue graduate and historian at the University of Texas-Pan American, has an article in the current issue of the Indiana Magazine of History. She gives a fascinating account of a forgotten champion of institutional care of orphans and neglected children, Lyman P. Alden of the Michigan State Public School in Coldwater and later the Rose Orphan Home in Terre Haute, Indiana. Alden's contention that good institutional care is better than placement in just any home, a view that has long gone out of fashion -- indeed, many of the histories of orphans and orphanages were written by advocates of home placement. Again, a book on "the rural placement in the Midwest" is in the works.

The article refers to work on other Indiana orphanages, but not the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum, for which records are readily available at the Indiana Historical Society, as well as a master's thesis from the 1940s and my article in The Hoosier Genealogist: Connections in 2011.

The asylum does not seem to fit the expected pattern, as the women in charge fostered and supervised placement in homes even though the institution's revenue largely came from per capita payments from public authorities. I haven't seen the Rose records at the state archives (names indexed on line by the Indiana Genealogical Society) but the IOA records contain information at the individual level that could be used to determine the institutions' actual policies about placement, as contrasted to they said they were doing.

Greta S. Nettleton, "Researching Mrs. Dr. Keck and Her Daughter Cora," American Ancestors vol. 14, no. 2 (Spring 2013):30-34, 41.

Megan Birk, "Lyman P. Alden: Setting an Institutional Example," Indiana Magazine of History vol. 109, no. 2 (June 2013):89-113.

Harold Henderson, "Early Midwestern Orphanage: The Indianapolis Orphans Asylum, 1851-1941, A Way Station on the Winding Road of Life," The Hoosier Genealogist: Connections vol. 51, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2011): 6-17.

Harold Henderson, "A quack? in Davenport and a leading orphanage in Terre Haute," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 12 July 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.] 

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