SEARCHING FOR ISOBEL

by Sandra J. Souza Pineault

 

Embarking on a genealogy project is always a personal mission.  When I began searching for the story of my grandmother, Isobel Bento Correia Mota, the mission was one that had been spurring me on since my youth.

 

 Isobel Mota circa 1917

 

Shrouded in mystery and myth, her life was impacted by the times in which she lived. 

The justice system in the twenties often adversely affected immigrants, particularly women.  Womenís rights in general were in dire need of reform and the double standard was alive and well.  Health care, especially in the work place, was also abysmal.  As a health care professional myself, and because of my grandparentís stories, one of my goals was to understand how the healthcare of immigrants, or lack thereof, affected their futures and that of their families. In the case of my grandparents this was crucial in understanding what happened to them. 

This is also the story of the genealogical adventures that I encountered as I looked for the truth of my grandmotherís life and death. These turned out to be more unusual than seeking out birth and marriage certificates.

Growing up with three other siblings, I was the oldest and learned of my Grandmother Isobel in the early 1950ís when I was ten or twelve years old.  I never saw her or visited her at Tewksbury State Hospital where she had been confined since 1928. Little was said of her except that when my mother visited she returned visibly upset.  We learned of my grandmotherís death in 1957, a year after it occurred at the hospital.

In 1996, my mother told me that there had been a baby born to my grandmother in Tewksbury and his name was Peter.  Astonished, I urged her to go to Probate Court to obtain Isobelís medical records.  She did so and with the acquisition of the records we began the research, for the records yielded much treasure. An accurate date of immigration allowed us to get a record of her passage from the archives in Boston. 

Physical examination records allowed us to imagine what she looked like.  Diagnostics told us what they considered her problems to be.  Often we read of a tidy and quiet woman working in the sewing rooms.

It was at this point in time that Isobel really held my interest and my goal to find out all about what befell her was set.  I devoured genealogy how-to books and began searching in earnest.

Family lore indicated that Isobel was ďcriminally insaneĒ so through the Plymouth Library research service, I looked through the late 1928 dates in the newspaper to see if there were any murders and such involving her. She had been living there when her problems arose. This effort produced nothing. I followed all kinds of leads to find her court records to discover that the Plymouth Courthouse burned in the 1970ís and many records were lost.  I attempted to contact various and sundry people at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute but without success. For about a year, I was shunted from one department to another.

Finally, in to one of those miraculous turns of genealogical research events, someone  gave me the right name and phone number and a helpful woman in the correctional system assured me that indeed I could get the records. She promised to send me a number that would allow me access.  I awaited the number and the next search step.

About a week later I received, by mail, a large envelope. It was a document that would change everything.

The envelope contained Isobelís court record dated September 28, 1928 and a document entitled:  The Story of Isobel in her Own Words, a record of an interview by a social worker of Isobel Mota on that same date.  This document is 6 pages long, a single spaced blue, old type mimeograph copy that needs a magnifying glass and much patience to decipher.  Getting this document was when I knew that Isobel was guiding this search.

I consider this document her love letter to me, to her family.  In meticulous and lucid detail Isobel tells her life story, that of her parents and siblings and growing up in St. Michaelís, her immigration, how she met her husband and the birth of her children (including the death of one), both her and her husbands employment records, where they lived and on and on.  

Isobel was born in St. Michaelís, Azores in 1897, one of ten children. She immigrated to Bristol, Rhode Island on May 20, 1915 on a steamship, two weeks after the ship Lusitania was sunk. She journeyed alone with ten dollars in her pocket to join her married sister who was awaiting her in Bristol, Rhode Island.  She met and married my grandfather, Manuel Mota (he was born in Funchal, Madeira) in 1916 in Bristol and they had their first child, a daughter, my mother Angelina, in 1917 in Taunton, MA.  Their son Charles was born in Taunton in 1923.

For a time, life was good for Manuel and Isobel. They were both hard workers.  Isobel worked in various factories in the area and he became an iron worker finding excellent wages at the Glenwood Range Factory which flourished in Taunton.  It is with this job that the decline of this small immigrant family began as we will see later. They lived in various cities and towns, including New Bedford and New Jersey, as well as Taunton.  Manuel, for a time worked for the railroad. They were doing so well that they were able to visit Manuelís parents, Maria and Antonio, in Funchal, sailing to Madeira three or four times - unheard of financially in those days.  Lastly, they both found work at the Plymouth Cordage Company in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which manufactured rope for ships and other needs all over the world. He was a rope maker and she a rope spinner.

In 1925, the 18 month old child Charles died of Tubercular Meningitis in Taunton and things began to unravel.  After the death, they moved to Plymouth, MA. 

In Plymouth, the proverbial seeds of tragedy continued to sprout.  The years at Glenwood Range led to Manuel developing Silicosis, an occupational disease, (also common in miners), that affects the lungs and can be fatal. Quartz had been used as sand in a poorly ventilated room and workers at Glenwood Range incurred silicosis from the silica dust.  In studying this disease, I was able to connect with a researcher at the Tufts New England University School of Community Medicine. She was doing her thesis on the Glenwood Range Company in Taunton and the deterioration of the health of the workers.  Out of this tragedy was formed the Division of Occupational Safety at the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Workforce Development.  Not before workers, such as my grandfather, however, paid with their lives for their work.

This researcher scanned her files of workers compensated for their conditions for my grandfatherís name, but to no avail.  She indicated that some workers were afraid that if they reported their illness they would lose their jobs.  Indeed, those workers known to have silicosis nodules were fired.

The Plymouth Cordage Company which was thriving in Plymouth from the days of the whaling ships in 1824 to 1966 was a fascinating source of information. At itís peak the company employed nearly 2,000 workers. The Plymouth Cordage Company was a very progressive company with regard to social programs, including health care and housing. There is now a Plymouth Cordage Co. museum in the main building which has been restored and the Plymouth Public Library also has resources for the company.  Somehow Isobel and Manuel fell through the company benefit cracks as both his and her health deteriorated.

Family legend has it that Manuel became very ill and perhaps in search of a cure or to spare his small family the experience of his demise, he sailed to Madeira and sometime shortly thereafter he passed away.  He was 32 years of age.  The archival center in Funchal, Madeira (A.R.M. web site can be found on the internet), were extremely helpful but a death certificate could not been found and no family has been found yet in Funchal.  Even the files of U.S. military draft registration (which all males of a certain age, regardless of citizenship, are required to do) fail to show anything regarding him. Research continues.

For Isobel, left along with her daughter in Plymouth, there was despair.  Living at 16 Cherry Ct. in Plymouth and with her behavior becoming more and more disturbed, she was taken advantage of and her maternal and housekeeping skills began to diminish. She was reported by a neighbor and the police arrested her for what amounts to disturbing the peace.  She was 31 years old, beautiful and alone. Other family members are far off in Taunton.  Her daughter Angelina, my mother, was removed from her care by the state and placed in an orphanage in Boston sometime in 1928.  It is believed that she was placed in the Home for Little Wanderers.  She was 10 years old.

In the late twenties women who did not meet the societal image of ďproperĒ women, were often incarcerated for ďreformĒ until they behaved themselves. There is, of course, no question that an immigrant woman would find herself even more discriminated against.  According to court documents Isobel was given a two year open-ended sentence and sent to the Womenís Reformatory in Framingham, Massachusetts in September of 1928.  She was at this time four months pregnant.

From the Womenís Reformatory Isobel was sent to the state Infirmary in Tewksbury, Massachusetts where she gave birth to a son named Peter on March 4, 1929.  She was never to leave the Tewksbury State Hospital Asylum.  She languished at the hospital for 30 years until her death in 1956.  She never recognized her daughter who tried to visit her mother after release from foster care.

During this time in my research my own health problems surfaced and heart surgery put a halt of about a year to my research. As soon as I could, I continued the painstaking work of unraveling this story of my grandmother.  I attempted to get birth certificates for the child Peter and was defeated at every point.  I finally assumed that he had been adopted. I directed my work back again to Isobel.

It appears that there was some psychiatric problem, perhaps severe depression and situational anxiety, apparent in Isobelís behavior.  But, after reviewing the documents, one wonders which came first: her illness or the incarceration (the proverbial chicken or the egg).  Certainly after the birth of the child at Tewksbury Isobelís condition worsened.  One can only imagine the despair, the fear that she was experiencing not knowing what had become of her husband and her children (for now her newborn had been taken from her as well). Care of the mentally ill, or disturbed, was then limited and medications to calm and alleviate symptoms had yet to be discovered.  There were only bars on the windows and treatments such as electric and insulin shock and hydrotherapy.  There could be private care but in the case of most immigrants, especially a woman alone, there were no funds for that luxury.

What became of the baby born at Tewksbury Hospital, the designated infirmary for the Womenís reformatory?  Isobelís family knew of his birth, even his name, as the information was passed on to Angelina when she reached her majority.  Both of Isobelís children were to make their own difficult ways, each of them unaware of the otherís existence and each of them unaware of what had happened to their parents. In the case of Peter this would continue for 77 years.

The story takes on Dickensonian dimensions.  The genealogical research, for me, reached the point of high personal involvement.

I began seeking information from relatives regarding photos of my grandmother or anything that they knew about her.  I discovered another cousin living in Canada whom I never knew, a first cousin of my mother, my grandmother being his aunt.  To my, and his, astonishment he never knew of my grandmotherís nor my motherís existence.  That was also true of the few relatives left in St. Michaelís. The stigma attached to Isobel and her children was also a sign of those times. Not only did these relatives not know of their story, many did not know of them at all.

I continued to seek information to complete family charts and the like.  My story was filling in and continuing to grow.  My husband and I -and my files- relocated from Massachusetts to Florida.  I believed that I could now begin to write the story, that I had it all.  I did not yet know that I was far from finished, that the most important discoveries were yet to come.

In speaking with a sister, I mentioned that I had not been able to get to my grandmotherís grave site in Tewksbury.  As another added insult when my grandmother died in 1956, her family was not told for over a year and no one was there for her funeral and burial.  She was placed in a pauperís grave. Since my sister lived in Massachusetts she offered to go to the grave in the name of all of us, especially my mother who had died in 2000.  I said I would look up the information which I had on the cemetery. Unable to find that information I searched the hospital web site.  I noted that there was now a Tewksbury Hospital Cemetery Project and I contacted one of the coordinators. This led to a discussion by phone with the person responsible for the cemetery.  In speaking with her and describing my grandmotherís story, I mentioned the child born there.  She took an interest and subsequently discovered, that the baby had lived and had been put into state care upon discharge some 8 months after birth.  She then consulted the 1930ís census and the Social Security Death Index and concluded that he had not died.  On the Internet she found the name Peter J. Mota, age 77 years, at 5 addresses across the country.

Carefully I composed 5 letters to these individuals and mailed them.  I did not expect anything to come of this. Genealogists know that there are dead ends at every turn.

On March 28, 2006, exactly three days after sending the letters, I received a late telephone call from the West Coast.  We had found Isobelís son -77 years after his birth!  He was hearty and hale and absolutely astounded, as was I, that suddenly he had a family, a heritage and roots.  He had obtained his birth certificate and it matched completely.  In the days immediately following that call, e-mail photographs went back and forth.  The resemblance to his sister, my mother, was astonishing and further cemented our certitude. There was great consolation for this man that he had been with his mother for 8 months before he had been discharged from the hospital into state care.

In the days since this discovery there has been a visit to Florida by Peter to meet his niece, this writer, and one to New England where we all gathered for a larger reunion.  In New England on May 21, 2006, Memorial Day weekend, the family visited the tiny numbered grave where Isobel was buried fifty years ago at Tewksbury Hospital.  The grave had a number, Number C185, but no name.  The little portion of the larger cemetery where she was buried actually was called NoName Cemetery. The Cemetery Project people have listed 10,000 people in both the barren cemeteries at Tewksbury Hospital.  There are 1,000 markers in the small woodland patch where Isobel lies.  The listing doesnít count the patients buried in the cemetery who died in the first 30 years of the hospitalís existence which was in 1854 (however a death index was put together by volunteers). These cemeteries in state hospitals exist all over the Commonwealth.  There is a bill sitting in the House in Massachusetts which would require these hospitals to, at least, fence and identify these grave sites.  In the case of Isobelís grave, children from a nearby school run and walk through the field, not knowing they are trampling on the tiny markers nearly buried in the grass and woodland debris.  My family is planning to place a small named stone on my grandmotherís grave.  Fifty years after her death, on May 21, 2006, all of Isobelís four grandchildren and her son circled her final resting place where they had placed flowers. There the hospital chaplain celebrated her place in our lives and this long awaited reunion.

A circle has been closed.  More still remains to be researched, but the basic facts are known and a child brought back into his family. Incredibly, Isobelís son is healthy and still lives an active life, still working in the company of which he is a partner on the West Coast.

It was my thinking early on as these incredible discoveries began to surface, that Isobel was guiding me to her own story.  I know now that it was not only her own story but the finding of that lost little boy.  When one has completed a genealogical research project the result is usually a book or data base which objectively archives family history.  In this instance, we not only will have that for ourselves and those who will come after us, but a tangible flesh and blood result in the person of the son of Isobel, lost for 77 years.  Isobel is no longer lost and neither is he.

 

 

Isobel Motaís grave site

at the Tewksbury State Hospital, Tewksbury, Ma

 

Noname cemetery

Marker C185