Maternal · Prompts · Wednesday's Child

Leroy Burtraw

Emma Oakes, my great-grandfather’s sister, was married to Floyd Burtraw on December 9, 1908 when she was 18 and Floyd was 21. They had 3 children: Earl (1909-1946), Margaret (1911-2011), and Leroy (1915-1922).

Detroit Free Press, Dec. 13, 1908, page 83

In the 1920 Federal Census, Floyd, Emma, Earl, and Margaret were living on Prentis Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. From this page of the census, one would never know that Leroy existed. Instead, I found him as a patient at the Eloise Hospital and Infirmary in Nankin Township, Wayne County, Michigan (now Westland). He was 4 years and 7 months old. Leroy and a boy named Wilbur, who was 2 years and 9 months old, were the youngest patients in the entire infirmary. From the census, I couldn’t tell what his illness was. Next, I found his death certificate listing his date of birth as May 15, 1915 in Detroit and his date of death as October 2, 1922 at 3:30 AM at the Michigan Home and Training School in Lapeer County, Michigan. The poor baby died of otitis media (a middle-ear infection) with secondary/contributory causes of tonsillitis, endocarditis, and “feebleminded.” Next, I looked up the Michigan Home and Training School and found that when it opened in 1895, it was known as “The Michigan State Home for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic.” According to Merriam-Webster, “feeble-mindedness” is defined as an “impairment in intellectual ability” and is noted as a dated and offensive term. I wonder if doctors used the terms epileptic and feeble-minded interchangeably, and if Leroy was really epileptic.

Eloise infirmary building (on left), c1930 – from Friends of Eloise Facebook page

I wanted to find out more about the institutions that Leroy was committed/admitted to. Begun in 1832 as the Wayne County Poor House, by 1913 Eloise Hospital had three divisions: the hospital (mental asylum), the infirmary (or poorhouse), and the sanatorium (for tuberculosis patients). Leroy was in the infirmary on the date of the census, February 21, 1920. Before June 2, 1913, it had been called the Wayne County Alms House. Later, in March 1933, the infirmary became the Dr. William J. Seymour Hospital for infirmary patients, as well as mental patients with medical/surgical needs. I can only speculate why Leroy was there in 1920. I don’t think it was because his family was poor; Floyd had a job as a machinist at a factory in 1920. Was Leroy too young to be put in the mental hospital area for his “feeble-mindedness”? Did he have epilepsy, instead? And would that have been treated in the infirmary instead of the hospital? I wonder how long Leroy had been there before the census was taken, and how long after.

I do know, according to his death certificate, that he was seen by the doctor at the Michigan Home and Training School from July 1922 until his death in October 1922. The school began as the Michigan Home for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic in 1895 in Elba Township, Lapeer County.

Image from the 1896 Biennial Report

“Originally providing housing and care for epileptics, the home moved the epileptic patients to the hospital in Caro, Michigan, in 1913. This was done in order to focus more attention on teaching and training residents in hopes that they would eventually become productive members of society. By 1922, all residents were admitted only by order of probate court; this included mentally deficient and handicapped children, orphans, abandoned children, and juvenile delinquents, and special consideration was given to the poor.”

From Oakdale: The Lapeer State Home by Laura Fromwiller and Jan Gillis

Between July 1, 1917 and June 30, 1918 (3-4 years before Leroy came), the school’s rate of maintenance per patient per day was .66 cents. In their biennial report for the end of 1918, the school stated that “there are more than 300 on the waiting list who have been ordered admitted by the various Probate Courts.” An interesting item to note: “Our epileptic population – 65 male and 66 female – are children of school age and will not be transferred to the Michigan Farm Colony for Epileptics until provision is made for their training at the Colony. The balance are patients of low mentality and not eligible for transfer” (p. 14).

Attendant Minnie Kenietz and a resident in Cottage A Dormitory Room (from 1900 Biennial Report)

I don’t know if Leroy was physically well enough to enjoy the occupations at the school, such as farming vegetables and taking care of animals. In August 1922, according to the 9/21/1922 issue of the Flint Daily Journal, the population was 1,768.

Leroy Burtraw’s death certificate from Ancestry

When he died at age 7, Leroy had numerous infections (heart, tonsils, ear) and ended up dying of his ear infection, which may have been curable with antibiotics. Sadly, penicillin wasn’t discovered until 1928. Had he lived, Leroy may have eventually been forcibly sterilized as 2,339 people were at the school between 1914 and 1974.