Archival Kismet
Finding Friendship and Frustration in the Archive of an Institution for the “Feebleminded”

Finding Friendship and Frustration in the Archive of an Institution for the “Feebleminded”

Chelsea Chamberlain

The methodology proposed by “Archival Kismet” is to go where the archive leads you (while bearing in mind, of course, all the people, structures, and historically contingent happenings that have produced “the archive” in its current form). Sometimes you follow archival sources down a dead-end rabbit hole, or along a new and exciting path of study, or into a dense jungle of intertwined concepts waiting to be untangled. Other times, the archive provides not something you can follow, but rather a place you stop short, left with a collection of unanswerable questions and tears in your eyes.

Letter from a patient of the "Pennsylvania School for Feeble Minded Children" to a friend.
Letter from a patient of the “Pennsylvania School for Feeble Minded Children” to a friend. (Case 3573, School Record Book S, 213, Elwyn Archives, Elwyn, PA)

I was in the archive of the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children at Elwyn, scanning a School Record Book from the early twentieth century, when I turned to an open envelope.[1] Folded inside were five typewritten letters from November 1910, signed by two of Elwyn’s residents. Like other institutions that housed the so-called feebleminded, Elwyn provided a mix of short-term education and long-term custodial care to residents with wide-ranging mental and physical abilities, and demanded unpaid labor from all those who could work. Historians attempting to tell the history of these institutions “from below” have all confronted the frustrating dearth of surviving words or objects from those who were ensnared by the rapid growth of eugenic ideology and institutionalization at the turn of the century. Such scholars have often relied on creative approaches to the reports and publications of staff or psycho-medical experts, rare photographs, or oral histories from later decades.[2] This gap in primary sources helps explain why these letters – multiple pages of residents’ own words, written for each other! – felt moving, significant, and shattering.[3]

The writer of all but one of the letters, who I’m calling Ethel (Elwyn still operates today, and its Human Rights Committee requires that I use pseudonyms), was admitted to Elwyn in 1909 at thirteen years old. She had brown hair and gray eyes, and her admission record describes her as truthful and obedient, but nervous and prone to wetting the bed.[4] She quickly made a “Best Friend,” Anna.[5] Although they were about the same age, Anna had been at Elwyn longer than Ethel; she arrived in 1906 as a nine-year-old. None of the records that I’ve located indicate why either girl was sent to Elwyn or who sent them, but Anna wrote often to a sister who lived outside of the institution. All letters to family were screened by staff, who reported that Anna seemed to expect she would spend only a short time at Elwyn before her sister would come and take her away. Because Ethel’s medical record lacks a family history, she was likely sent to Elwyn by an orphanage or similar child welfare organization. Anna had her sister, but Ethel had no such family on the outside. She formed one with Anna: “I have on (sic) mother or father to look after ne (sic) any more I like you the Best girl…”

Letter from a patient at the
Letter from a patient of the “Pennsylvania School for Feeble Minded Children”. (Case 3573, School Record Book S, 213, Elwyn Archives, Elwyn, PA)

The notes these teenagers traded provide a glimpse of the rhythms of institutional life: meals, school, unpaid labor, time spent together in a “playing room,” the names of a few other girls who they had in common and passed messages through. They also make clear that Ethel and Anna had a caring, close relationship. They tracked each other’s whereabouts, each counting on the other to bring stability to otherwise unpredictable physical and mental states. They traded accounts of the “spells” that often upended their days. Ethel’s were powerful enough to knock her over, and she burned herself more than once in falls against uncovered radiators.

Anticipating these spells made Ethel anxious, but Anna’s presence helped allay her fears. “I hope I will not have any ontill (sic) you come out of school…I would like you to be with me,” she wrote. Ethel expected Anna to be attentive to her fits, to worry about her and allow her to “lay on your lap” to recover after a “hard” spell. It seems that Anna wished for her own spells to remain secret. In her letter to Ethel she wrote, “Are you going to tell every time I take them [spells] or are you not please don’t let any body see this…”

This small bundle of letters quickly became a bundle of questions. First, I had found a few other notes written by residents, but all of those were handwritten. These were typed, and I had assumed residents had no access to typewriters. Was that true? If so, who typed them, and what did they render accurately or inaccurately? Second, what were these “spells?” Seizures, or something else? Residents with diagnosed epilepsy had designated “spasm records” in their medical files, and Ethel had none (I have not located Anna’s medical files). Does this mean that what they experienced were not seizures, or simply that they successfully hid them from staff? Third, were these adolescent girls simply friends, or something more? Anna was punished at least once, a few months before these letters were exchanged, for “indecent conduct with another girl,” who went unidentified.[6] Based on what I’ve seen in Elwyn’s other records, I suspect that if Ethel and Anna had been caught in a sexual or romantic relationship, a note and record of punishment would have accompanied these letters, but I can’t know for sure. Does the nature of their relationship matter, historically or analytically? And finally, the most frustrating question, what happened to these girls in the years after this flurry of letters? Did they remain friends? Were they happy? What abuses did they endure at the hands of the institution and its staff?

I know that the rest of Ethel’s life passed entirely at Elwyn. She survived influenza in 1918, but died of appendicitis in 1930 at the age of thirty-six.[7] As for Anna, perhaps her sister did come for her, as residents’ family members regularly did. Maybe Anna’s efforts to hide her fits succeeded, and staff willingly permitted her release. But I haven’t found any records of release or reports after 1913. Anna’s life might have gone as Ethel’s did, ending at Elwyn after spending more years there than in the outside world. I wish I knew more, and it feels like this glimpse is so insufficient for understanding Ethel or Anna in their wholeness, their complexity, their humanity. The fact of these letters, the solidness of their relationship, feels urgent to share but hauntingly incomplete. COVID has made access to Elwyn’s archive, which was already tenuous, impossible. The archive won’t lead me to answers about these girls, so I’m left stewing in my questions.

And this prompts another collection of questions, too: about the purpose of writing history and the place of uncertainty within it. To put it bluntly, is there a way to include a story so full of questions in something beyond a blog post: an article, a dissertation, a monograph? Perhaps not one with a traditional historical argument, but here I’m inspired by the groundbreaking work of Saidiya Hartman, Marisa Fuentes, and Susan Burch, all of whose work shows the beauty, power, and significance offered by incomplete glimpses. I don’t need to know Anna and Ethel’s whole story – the nature of their letter-writing, spells, relationship, or even what transpired in the months and years after November 1910 – in order for them to matter, both as people with human dignity and as historical subjects who can inform a larger narrative about disability and eugenics. Indeed, these burning questions are an important testament to the nature of institutionalization as a process that deemed certain people incomplete and then worked to make them so by forcing them into regimented, sparsely documented, often foreshortened lives. I wish I knew more, but I am so glad for what I do know about the comfort and companionship that Ethel and Anna created in a hateful place. And I’m glad that now you know about it too.


    1. For more on Elwyn, see Chelsea D. Chamberlain, “Challenging Custodialism: Families and Eugenic Institutionalization at the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children at Elwyn,” Journal of Social History (2021),; Brent Ruswick and Elliott Simon, “Industry, Improvement, and Intellectual Disability: Finding the Hopes and Fears of Parents and Superintendents at the Pennsylvania Training School,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 17 (2018): 145–69.
    2. Examples of such patient-focused works on institutionalization include Sarah Rose, No Right to be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1840s–1930s (University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Ellen Dwyer, Homes for the Mad: Life Inside Two Nineteenth-Century Asylums (Rutgers University Press, 1987); Akihito Suzuki, Madness at Home: The Psychiatrist, the Patient, and the Family in England, 1820–1860 (University of California Press, 2006); Catharine Coleborne, Madness in the Family: Insanity and Institutions in the Australasian Colonial World, 1860–1914 (Palgrave MacMillan 2010); Michael Rembis, Devining Deviance: Sex, Science, and Delinquent Girls, 1890–1960 (University of Illinois Press, 2011).
    3. A piece that briefly discusses Ethel and Anna in the context of political theology and disability studies: Caroline Lieffers and Chelsea D. Chamberlain, “Crip Time, Sacred Time, and Holding History,” in Reimagining Curative Eschatology and Disability Justice Symposium, Political Theology Network (2021),
    4. Case 8323, Medical Record Book 11, 504, Elwyn Archive, Elwyn, PA.
    5. All quotes from these letters come from Case 3573, School Record Book S, 213, Elwyn Archives, Elwyn, PA.
    6. Record of Correction, September, Elwyn Archives, Elwyn, PA.
    7. Case 8323, Medical Record Book 11, 504, Elwyn Archive, Elwyn, PA.

Featured image caption: Letterhead for stationary at the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble Minded Children. (Case 3573, School Record Book S, 213, Elwyn Archives, Elwyn, PA)

Chelsea Chamberlain is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States with a focus on disability studies, law, and medicine. Before coming to the University of Pennsylvania, she received a BA from Whitworth University and an MA in History from the University of Montana.

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