The old joke goes, “Is insanity hereditary? Yes- you get it from your kids!” But, truly, mental illness is no joke. So, I tread very carefully when dealing with this difficult issue in my research. What purpose does it serve to expose ancestors’ mental health issues? In the case of my current project, the story of Catherine Kenny Seeley [alias Catherine C. Fitzallen], I think it may be helpful. Without the context of a history of mental illness in her family, Catherine’s life appears to be a series of criminal acts, committed by a crazy old lady who just wanted to amass as much money for herself as possible. Somehow, at least to me, the possibility that she suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, makes her a much more sympathetic character.
Research into her family (assuming I am researching the correct family), indicates that Catherine’s eldest sister, Rose had been committed to an “insane asylum” in Utica, New York, sometime between 1855 and 1866. Another sister, Theresa, died quite young, at the age of 26. Theresa married a man named Solomon Shattuck in 1866. They had five children, one of whom was William Henry Shattuck, born in 1870.
In September, 1893, William was on trial for killing his wife, Sadie Radley, to whom he had been married less than a year. In the course of William’s trial, it was brought out that his mother, Theresa, had suffered from “violent headaches which rendered her flighty” since the birth of her first child. During her last illness, in 1876, her husband described her as being irrational. William Shattuck’s defense at her murder trial, was that, like his mother and aunt, he was insane.
The insanity defense failed. William was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. On October 5, 1893, a few weeks after entering prison, the Albany Morning Express reported that William had been sent to the prison hospital because he was “mentally unbalanced.” The reporter added, “It is really too bad that the Dannemore [prison] insanity expert was not secured to testify for the defense at the trial.” William died in prison on January 16, 1897. He was 26 years old.
The words used to describe William’s mental condition certainly could apply to Catherine as well. Her behavior over the years most definitely demonstrated “exalted lies, the telling of strange stories…” and “delusions.” The fact that she did “foolish things” can not be denied. Thinking about Catherine as possibly suffering from serious emotional issues sheds a different light on her life story – one that is actually quite heart-breaking.