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The Albertis of Eureka Springs: A tale of Insanity and Inheritance - Part 1

There is a saying I have heard a few times in my life...The definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result. There are days where I think insanity might be what drives me to keep digging into the past of my ancestors. Especially when I spend weeks searching for a piece of information and come up with nothing.

Researching our family history has taught me a few lessons. First, I am not patient. I want everything immediately. Especially when it comes to fascinating tidbits about our clan. Two, I might be a little bit crazy. Why else would I spend so many late nights scouring the inter-websfor clues?

Three, hard research work pays off. What you are about to read if proof of that. Never a dull moment in this family!

I don't have a good Alice analogy this time, but I can say that the experience of locating, requesting and reading this next set of records made me feel a bit like Alice at the Mad hatters tea party. If you begin to feel a bit bonkers reading this blog, don't worry....all the best people are!

The Waiting Game I have been quiet on the blog front for awhile because I have been waiting for the courts of Jackson County, MO to complete my copy requests. I requested the probate records of both Albert and Laura, the divorce decree of Charlotte Bloch and Albert and Albert’s naturalization paperwork.

All of these records are kept in a storage cave in Independence, MO. Can’t you just imagine that place? Endless rows of dusty archives, creepy fluorescent lighting and a clerk as old as the records shuffling down the isles to locate my requested records. In other words, it takes FOREVER to get them.

I received Albert’s records a few weeks ago. First, let’s go over the naturalization and divorce records. The naturalization is pretty straightforward and didn’t provide any new information.

It confirms that he became an American in 1900. I have added his two witnesses to my research list, perhaps those connections will open new doors. I imagine they are business acquaintances of some kind. Maybe more on that later.

Divorce in 1913

The divorce decree backed up some of the stories we’ve heard about what Charlotte got in court. They were officially divorced on February 19th,1913. Charlotte got exactly half of every property and $1,000 in alimony. They owned two properties.Their house in Kansas City valued at $7,500 and 75 acres of land in Shawnee Township in Kansas valued at $15,000. I am still looking into what this land was used for. A 1914 platte map of the area shows it as farmland. Adrian, MO, Laura’s birthplace, was also called Shawnee Township at that time. An interesting coincidence? Or another lead to explore?

By my math Charlotte received a settlement of about $12,250 before she paid her court costs.

That would have been around $300,000 today. This was equal to about one year of Albert’s salary.

He and Charlotte married when she was just 16 years old. She had three children and buried one of them. Her husband left her for a younger woman in very public way. Is there an amount of money that compensates for those hardships?

She died just three years later with only a few thousand dollars of that settlement money left in her estate. I don’t imagine she was great with money. It probably wasn’t something she had to think about, or was allowed to manage, as the young wife of a wealthy man. With the facts I know about her life, I wonder if it was a happy one.

According to the KC Star Article from 1912 announcing their divorce, Albert was worth $75,000 in 1913 around $1.8 Million today. It is safe to say the divorce settlement didn’t break the bank. He walked away still a millionaire. Before the ink on the divorce paperwork was dry, he married his second wife Laura in Niagara Falls, NY. Just 26 days later.

A-l-b-e-r-t-i spells Alberti

Now that we’ve explored the divorce records and the financial situation at the end of Charlotte’s life, let’s move on to Albert and Laura. The KC courts mailed me probate records for an Albert Alberti. Just one tiny problem. There was another A.A. Alberti roaming around Kansas City. His probate records consisted of 10 pages. He died in 1933, had just $40 to his name and no living heirs. A bit of a research red herring that I waited six weeks for.

I was so certain that Albert would have a will. In a determined huff, I contacted the probate records department of every county he lived in. The conversation with every Records Clerk I spoke with, in all five counties, went pretty much the same way...

Records Clerk: “Last name of the deceased?”

Me: “A-l-b-e-r-t-i”

Records Clerk: “First name?”

Me: “Albert”

Records Clerk: “The name is Albert Alberti? The last name is the same a the first name, just add an i?”

Me: Yep.

Records Clerk: “Are you sure that is the name?”

Me: Yes.

I wonder if Albert got that reaction a lot in his life. If so, I can relate slightly to how annoying it must have been for him.

I digress. The point is, no record of an executed will exist in Delaware, Arkansas, Missouri, Nevada or Iowa. This doesn’t mean he never wrote a will. It just means he never filed it with a county court. Maybe it’s still tucked in a rusty old safety deposit box somewhere.

It is very surprising to me that someone who was worth over a million dollars and dealt in insurance and finances his whole life would fail to legally prepare for the end of his life. We know he was ill during his last years, but perhaps he thought he had more time. Perhaps Albert’s finances took a hit in the 1929 stock market crash. Maybe they blew all their money traveling the world. With no final statement of his assets I may never know exactly. Whatever money was left, it’s likely his wife inherited everything upon his death in 1940.

A Person of Unsound Mind

Now on to Laura’s probate records. My hope was that these records would provide clues to the state of their lives and financial situation in their later years. We really don’t know a lot about their lives between 1928 and 1940. A record of travel exists for a trip home from Italy through San Francisco, then on to Kansas City in 1928. Albert was 73 and Laura 46. I can’t image how taxing a journey like that via train and steamship was for them.

Albert and Laura - taken around 1925

They appear again on the 1930 census living in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Another 10 years go by with no publicly recorded activity until Albert’s death in 1940. He was buried in Kansas City and from what I can glean from the probate records, Laura left Arkansas and was living in Kansas City in 1943. She still owned their Arkansas home, but abandoned it and its contents.

Laura’s probate records are extensive and they paint a pretty sad picture of the last 13 years of her life.I have decided to remain as objective as possible as I share these findings. I do have some theories about how and why these events unfolded as they did, but for now, I will hang on to them.

Her probate records were housed in Jefferson City,MO. In what is called the deep archives. They actually had trouble getting them to me due to their size. Too large to scan and e-mail and apparently also a challenge to photocopy and mail. I think everything might be a challenge for state employees. I tried to get the clerk to explain why they were so extensive, but she couldn’t be bothered to read them. After a 6 week wait, the brown UPS package arrived at my door on Monday.

Laura’s assets equaled approximately $30,000 in 1943. Almost $430,000 today. While that is only a fraction of Albert’s wealth from 30 years earlier, it is still a very healthy sum for that time. The first page of the documents is titled: Probate Court of Jackson County Kansas City, MO in the matter of the estate of Laura A. Alberti, Insane.

At age 61, just three years after the death of her husband, Laura was living in the Robinson Sanitarium at 30th and Paseo in Kansas City.

The Robinson Sanitarium was a hospital for mental illness and nervous disorders. It was built in 1913 as the Christian Church Hospital, with a mission to provide free care for the sick. The owner spent too much money on the elaborate architecture and due to financial challenges it was sold to the VA In the 1920’s. It became a home for disabled WWI Veterans. During Laura’s stay from 1943-1944, the hospital got a new owner - Dr. Robert Patterson. He ran the hospital from 1927 to 1957 and was known to use controversial methods to treat his patients, including: chains, wet sheets, cages and ice pick frontal lobotomies.

In the late 50’s Dr. Patterson developed mental illness himself and stopped practicing psychiatry. The doctor became the patient. Only this time at his own facility. A book titled, “Encyclopedia of Haunted Places: Ghostly Locales from Around the World” lists The Robinson Sanitarium and claims that the ghost of Dr. Patterson can still be seen from the windows of the hospital. Apparently he received a frontal lobotomy and didn’t live long afterward.

In 1975 the Robinson Sanitarium became a home for the criminally insane.Today it is an apartment building. You couldn’t pay me to live in that place! Ghost stories aside, when I discovered that Laura was living in an insane asylum that abused and tortured it’s patients, I felt terrible. I have read about how women with mental illness were “treated” in the 1940s and how easy it was for a their husband or male relative to have them committed.It’s a disturbing fact to discover on my own family tree.

At this time I don’t know how or why Laura was admitted to the asylum. I have requested a court order for her patient records from the Missouri Department of Mental Health. I hope those will shed some more light on things. Like I said, I have put together some theories and will expand more on those when my records request is approved.

Here is what I do know based on the probate records from 1943-1964:

In 1943 - The husband of Laura's niece (Zora), Guy Bowen, filed a motion to have her declared a person of unsound mind by the State of Missouri. He recommends himself to serve as her legal guardian. Laura was served an official notice by the Sheriff of Jackson County and informed of her right to appear at the guardianship hearing and obtain counsel in her defense.

A notice of these events was also published in The Daily Record, a local KC newspaper.

A court appointed representative and investigator, Alex D. Saper, appeared at the hearing on Laura’s behalf. On December 16th, 1943 at 10 o’clock in the morning, The matter of the sanity of LauraA. Alberti was heard before a Judge. Just two pieces of evidence were provided.

The testimony of Guy Bowen and a letter from the medical office of V. Edgar Virden, M.D. , written by Dr. MB Ketron.

The letter says:

Dear Sirs,

In the matter of Mrs. Laura Alberti of Eureka Springs and Kansas City. I have known her for 10 years and have witnessed her progressive mental failure. She is at the present time a patient of the Robinson Sanitarium with the diagnosis of dementia precox and is incurable.

Dementia Precox was the most common psychiatric diagnosis in the 1940s. It was used when doctors didn’t know what was actually affecting a patient. Dementia Precox symptoms were: mental weakness, nervousness, depression or disorganized thinking.

Today it would have been called Anxiety in it’s minor form, or at it’s most extreme Schizophrenia.The note from the doctor makes me curious if Laura was being treated in Arkansas as well.

There is also an itemized list of expenses that shows up a bit later in the 1945 files, well after Laura was declared insane and stripped of her rights. It shows the amount each witness was paid for their testimony during her hearing:

Alex Saper, Investigator - $25.00

Witness expenses in sanity hearing - $18.00

Dr.Marvin Ketron - $36.75

That was that. Her brother in law was appointed her legal guardian and curator of her $430,000 estate. In fact, on that same day, all four of Laura’s brothers and sisters were named beneficiaries of her estate. Someone was looking to out for Laura’s interests. A surety bond was taken out to protect against any mismanagement of the funds. Typically this is something the estate owner requires of the executor of their will, but perhaps the court mandated it.

Home Sweet Home

In May of 1944 Laura was relocated, by Sheriff’s escort, to the Nevada State Hospital #3 in Nevada, MO.

I assume this move happened so Laura could be closer to her family in Adrian, MO. The Nevada State Hospital was another lovely institution where “Dementia Precox” was commonly treated with Electro-convulsive therapy. Her estate paid the hospital $90.00 every three months for her care and board. It was her permanent residence for the next 8 years. She was allowed $5.00 a month for spending money. Once, she was given an extra dollar for stamps.

The Nevada State Hospital #3 was opened in 1885. It was the third and largest hospital for the insane in Missouri. Some accounts report that the building was a mile in circumference. It operated like a small town and employed a large number of people in Nevada. My research reveals that it had a movie theater, baseball team, dairy, hennery, seamstresses, laundry facilities, a cannery, carpentry shop, hog farm, tunnels, dormitories, a fire station and a nursing school. It also had its own cemetery where 1,500 patients were buried before it closed in 1991. Many of those graves are unidentified.

I had a nice conversation with the Vernon County Clerk about the hospital. I was curious what he remembered about the place. He told me that when they shut the doors in 1991, they turned everyone out on the street. Only the criminally insane patients were re homed in a nearby county.

Laura moved in with her brother, Charlie Martz in 1952. So she didn’t have to experience eviction from her “home”. I wonder what happened to everyone else. It’s safe to say Missouri’s mental health system has had problems for long while.

In Part 2, I will dive deeper into the remaining years of these records leading up to Laura’s death in 1965. Her guardian was required to file a detailed record of the expenses paid out of her estate each year and submit detailed statements regarding the sale of her personal belongings, property and investments. Stay tuned!

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