Week 7 – #52Ancestors

The theme this week is Outcast – I immediately thought of my grand-uncle, John Delp.
John was born in February 1888, to Rush Delp and Anna Witt.1 I have found only three documents relating to his existence, but they tell a sad story. By 1910, John was a patient at the Southwestern State Hospital in Smyth Co., Virginia.2 He died 14 July 1914, at the Virginia State Epileptic Colony in Amherst Co., Virginia.3 Cause of death: Exhaustion, with a contributory factor of Chronic Epilepsy. He was 26 years old.

John Delp is buried on the grounds of the VA State Epileptic Colony.

I can only wonder what his life might have been like. There was a stigma associated with epilepsy, even in the early 20th century. People with epilepsy were prohibited from marrying in many states, sterilization was encouraged, and people were generally ostracized from society.4 Was John’s condition so bad that his family felt it was better for him to be institutionalized? His parents had separated about 1900, so was it easier to hospitalize him than to take care of him? Based on census and other records, most of Rush and Annie’s children stayed with Rush after the divorce. Or was he hospitalized due to the social stigma? Did his parents ever visit him? Did his mother even know that he was institutionalized? These are questions that will likely never be answered.

The VA State Epileptic Colony opened in 1911, with a limit of 100 patients.5 This number increased to 845 by 1927, and to 3,686 by 1972. The name was changed to VA State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in the early 1900s, and then to Lynchburg State Colony (sometime before 1927).6 What is most fascinating, and disturbing, about this facility is its participation in the sterilization of patients. In 1924, Virginia enacted a sterilization act; sterilization could occur for two reasons (1) to “protect the welfare of society”, and (2) to promote the person’s health”.7 The case of Bell v. Buck would go to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the hospital’s request for the sterilization of Carrie Buck (the first person to be sterilized under this act). A summary of the case can be found here.

Unfortunately, it appears that it is impossible to obtain John’s medical records. From the Library of Virginia: “As of September 11, 2019, medical records will be open 125 years after the date of creation or after date closed, whichever is later. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires that individually identifiable health information of a decedent be protected for 50 years following the date of death of the individual (45 CFR 164.502(f)).”8


1 1900 U.S. Census, Scott Co., Virginia, population schedule, Estillville, sheet 24B, dwelling 350, family 355, Rush Delp; image no. 48 of 56, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7602/images/4117933_00557?pId=72387906 : accessed 13 Feb 2023); citing microfilm publication Series T623, roll 1727, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

2 1910 U.S. Census, Smyth Co., Virginia, population schedule, Southwestern State Hospital, sheet 1B, patient, John Delp; image no. 2 of 16, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7884/images/4454881_00051?pId=29565120 : accessed 13 Feb 2023); citing microfilm publication Series T624, roll 1649, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

3 Virginia Deaths, 1912-2014; 1914>24627-25173>File No. 24743; John Delp, 14 July 1914; image 118 of 555, “Virginia, U.S. Death Records, 1912-2014”, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/9278/images/43004_162028006053_0047-00118?pId=228935 : accessed 13 Feb 2023); citing Virginia, Deaths, 1912-2014, Virginia Department of Health, Richmond, Virginia.

4 Kaculini, Christian M., Amelia J. Tate-Looney, & Ali Seifei. “The History of Epilepsy: From Ancient Mystery to Modern Misconception.” Cureus 13 (March 2021): n.p.; article online. Cureus. doi:10.7759/cureus.13953: 2023.

5 Trista, “This Eugenics Movement for Epileptics and the ‘Feebleminded’ Started a Dangerous Trend.” Online article, 26 September 2018; History Collection, (https:// historycollection.com/this-eugenics-movement-for-epileptics-and-the-feebleminded- started-a-dangerous-trend/: accessed 13 Feb 2023).

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Library of Virginia, “A Guide to the Records of Central State Hospital, 1874-1961”, 2008; digital, Archival Resources of the Virginias (https://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=lva/vi00940.xml: accessed 13 Feb 2023).

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