What happened to Lizzie?

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Once I do my first couple of run throughs on the paperwork from the NARA, I look again, and usually more than once. I sat and put in order the 89 pages of the special examiners report so that I could see in their order the documentation. It took me a couple of hours to dig through the 369 pages for the ones that were numbered for the report. I’ll deal with ordering the remaining pages according to date and topic later.


This time through will be a much slower process and sure enough on page seven I stopped. I remember running cross the letter with the information in it on my first wild and reckless review of all of the pages looking for the big chunks of gold. I had made a mental note of it and now was the time to do a bit more digging.


Elizabeth “Lizzie” McFarland Booth Canfield Oakley was institutionalized for being insane. From everything I have ever read in those days it was very easy to throw someone in the insane asylum for the simplest display of anger. By the time the asylum finished drugging you up, shock treating you, and giving you freezing water baths, if they hadn’t driven you insane you would wish you were.


There are a lot of discrepancies as to where Lizzie even was. The one thing most people seem to agree on is that the second week of March of 1887, after 6 years of marriage to George, Lizzie “went insane”. George’s daughter, Hattie, helped her stepmother pack for her trip. All seem to agree that she was entered into the Machias Poor House which at that time took patients that were insane. Machias is about 27 miles from Olean, where the Oakleys lived. By horse and buggy the trip could take 3.5 to 4.5 hours one way on an average of 8-10 miles per hour.


Searches of the old records do not turn up Lizzie at the home in either the 1880s or 1890s. In 1892 the laws changed and it seems that she would have had to been moved to a state mental institution if she were still alive. Some of the family believed that she was moved to Buffalo. Buffalo is 74 miles from Olean.The new law would have had her sent to the Buffalo Hospital but the records that were searched show that she wasn’t there.


Edith claims that on the day she met George in 1889 he had been to the asylum in Machias to deliver a pair of slippers to his confined wife. This possibly could have been an attempt on her part to soften George’s reputation as a deserter in the examiners report.  There was no other mention of any visits to Lizzie by any member of the family in 89 pages of documentation. It is really no wonder that they managed to lose her.


Other searches were requested of State Hospitals in the area that Lizzie could have been sent to. The examiner went to the county seat in of Cattaraugus County, New York and made a search of the records held there. A charge for Elizabeth Oakley for 52 weeks from the Machias Home ending on October 31, 1890 was made to the town of Olean for $64.48 for room and board. Her name didn’t appear in the following years and a headstone with E Oakley can be found in the pauper’s cemetery there. The Machias Home couldn’t find a record of her admitance when inquired.


The State Board of Charities in Albany, New York was contacted about Lizzie’s case. The reply from them was that an Elizabeth Oakley was admitted to the Willard State Hospital on May 9, 1887 and died there on October 8, 1890; she was 34 years of age. The Willard State Insane Asylum was 126 miles from Olean. When contacting the Willard State Hospital directly and inquiring about the admittance of an Elizabeth Oakley, no record of her admittance could be found.


By the time anyone looked for Lizzie most of the people that knew of her existence were dead or feeble minded. Paper trails were gone, letters thrown away, people had moved on with their lives. The sheriff that had received the original message to deliver to George of his wife’s passing was long dead. Her son testified that she had died in 1894, but he had heard the message through 2 other people. Like the whisper game played in grade school, the message could have changed before it ever reached the final destination.


I searched on each of the hospitals to see what type of information could be found. To my great surprise there was an article about the Willard State Hospital. Craig Williams, a curator of the New York State Museum had driven out to the State Hospital about the same time it was to be shut down. To his amazement, in the attic he found 400 suitcases that had belonged to patients of the Hospital that had never been claimed. I emailed him at the New York State Museum to see if he could tell me if one of those cases had belonged to an Elizabeth “Lizzie” Oakley. Take a moment and read the touching story in the Village Voice from 2004.




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