Finding Rose

(Note: This is the first draft of “Finding Rose” – completed in April 2019)


This is not a story about a woman’s descent into madness. Rather, it is a story of a family falling apart and the lies told to keep it secret for generations. Rosetta Silverstein Fielding (Rose) was my great-great grandmother.  Rose was also Patient 4151 at the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane. Her story is tragic, for sure. But the tragedy did not start in 1902, when she ended up in the “madhouse”. Nor did it end upon her death in that same madhouse 32 years later.

This story was passed down to me over generations. I am blessed with a rich oral history about my ancestors.  But it was Rose’s story that I’ve always found the most fascinating.  And horrifying.

The basics of the story was always the same. I heard it dozens of times as a child. It always went something like this:

Rose was born in a Jewish ghetto in London. She and James raised their family in Canada. When the kids moved to Utica, it was too much for daughter, Alice (Merry) to deal with. So, Rose was sent back to Canada and was committed to the insane asylum. Apparently, she was nuts and must have been very sick, because she died just a few years later.

Most of what I’d heard was true. Most of it.

The details come from my years of research into Rose’s history. That research confirmed many parts of my family’s story. It also revealed the big lie that was told hide their actions. There are no heroes in this story – maybe a few villains. I hope you enjoy it. (Note: I will try to not get too “in the weeds” about the methodology of my research, but am happy to answer any questions you may have. I’ve tried to be clear where there are holes in the story or when I am only speculating.)

Chapter One – Rose

Rose’s life both began and ended under remarkable circumstances.

Rosetta Silverstein was born on March 31, 1854 to Jewish immigrants, David Silverstein and Dinah Solomons in the East End of London. Her parents were involved with The London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (The Society), and were both baptized by The Society in 1852.  (Dinah’s 2 sisters, Jane (11yo) and Rose (7yo) had also been baptized that same year. It appears that the whole Solomons family converted.) The Society was a missionary group that worked to convert Jews throughout the UK, Europe and parts of the Mid East. Rose herself was baptized at the Jews Episcopal Chapel in May 7, 1854.

Rosetta Silverstein’s Birth Certificate – March 31, 1854. Her mother, Dinah Solomon Silverstein, signs with an “x”.
Rose’s record of Baptism – May 7, 1854

At the time, the East End was home to some of the most dreadful ghettos in London. Bethnal Green was among the worst of them. The living conditions were horrible – crushing poverty, severe overcrowding, lack of proper ventilation or clean water, filth, open sewage, disease and death were part of everyday life for the young Silverstein family. The following is an account of Bethnal Green from a journal of the time.  “It is but one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth, and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, teeming with disease and death, and without the means for the most ordinary observations of decency or cleanliness.”

Rose’s parents lived at 37 Alpha Place near Three Colts Lane at the time of her birth. David Silverstein and Dinah Solomon married at the Independent Chapel shown at the top left corner of this map.

The 1861 England Census shows 7-year-old Rose living at Palestine Place – without her parents. On the census record, Rose is listed as a “Scholar” at the Hebrew Girls School. While she evidently received an education, the reality is that she spent much of her childhood at Palestine Place. I find it notable that half of Rose’s life was spent in some sort of institution.

Map of Palestine Place, Bethnal Green, London, England. Rose attended the Hebrew Girls School here and was baptized in the Jews Episcopal Chapel.
Palestine Place, Bethnal Green, London, England, Headquarters of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (courtesy of – The Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People)

The London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews owned a five-acre compound in Bethnal Green. Palestine Place was a walled community that included the Jews Episcopal Chapel, the Hebrew Girls School, the Hebrew Boys School, and the Operative Jewish Converts Institute – a workhouse for men. The men worked at the presses used to print the various tracts that the Society published and used in their missionary work. The children typically stayed at the Schools until the age of 15 or 16. It was hoped that some would become missionaries, others were provided with a “good, Christian situation” upon coming of age.

I can only speculate about what happened to Rose’s parents and why she ended up in the Hebrew Girls School. It’s possible that David and Dinah died in London and Rose, having been baptized at the Jews Chapel, was taken in by the Society. However, I’ve not located an English death certificate for either of them. The English were excellent record keepers – it is unusual that there is no death record for either parent. I have also been unable to find any census record that shows them alive and living in England at the time.

It is also possible that, being faced with the horrible conditions of the East End at the time, David and Dinah chose to place Rose at the school. The reality is that she was probably better off in Palestine Place than she would have been had she grown up in the slums of Bethnal Green. The Society’s compound was described as almost an oasis from the squalor in the surrounding neighborhoods. Rose received an education at the School, one that likely lasted for 7- 8 years. She learned read and write, while her mother could not even sign her own name. She also would have learned a trade – most likely that of a tailoress or a seamstress. Perhaps her parents simply thought that this was a good opportunity for their daughter.

I have been unable to find how Rose came to Canada. She would have left the Hebrew Girls School at age 15. In the 1860s, Ontario was rapidly expanding and needed workers. At the same time, England was sponsoring programs to move workers to Canada, especially people from the very overcrowded neighborhoods of London. In J. Blackburn’s “Emigrant’s Handbook of 1864”, under the heading of “Demand for Labour”, it is noted that, in Ontario, “there is a large and increasing demand for farm labourers and female servants. To this latter class especially, Canada offers great inducements, and every hard-working respectable girl is sure to do well. Boys and girls over 15, carpenters, masons, bricklayers, blacksmiths, and shoemakers are also wanted.” (Italics added)

I bet Rose was a “hard-working respectable girl”.

Chapter Two – James

James Fielden would eventually become Rose’s husband. He was born on April 20, 1949, the youngest child of William and Susan Fielden, in the town of Todmorden, England. His father was a mechanic in one of the many cotton mills in the area. His sisters, Susannah and Jane were cotton spinners. By 1863, the Civil War in America began to have a serious effect on the cotton mills in England. Raw cotton from the states was prevented from reaching England, causing a great deal of unemployment. Many mills were forced to close or severely cut work hours. Since William and his children made their living in the mills, it is likely that they left Todmorden for Canada in order to find better opportunities.

Typical mid-1850s packet ship

In early 1864, the Fielden family, with the exception of one son, William (who never came to Canada), travelled about 55 miles southwest to Liverpool where they boarded a packet ship called the Constantine. A packet ship usually carried mail and small packages across the Atlantic, but would often carry immigrants in their hulls. Although the ship was bound for New York, the passenger list indicates that the family’s final destination was Canada. They travelled as “steerage” passengers, and spent the 30-40 days it took to cross the Atlantic in the belly of the Constantine, with possibly a hundred or more other passengers. The family arrived in New York on May 30, 1864. From there, they likely used a combination of steamboat and train travel to reach their final destination of Dundas, Ontario.

Extract of the Manifest for the ship “Constantine” showing the Fieldings on board.
Packet ships unloading at the South Street Seaport, New York City. The Fieldings traveled from New York to Hamilton, Ontario using a combination of train and boat.

The earliest record that I’ve found for the family in Canada is dated July 7, 1864, just 38 days after the Fielden family arrived in New York City, and likely less than a month after their arrival in Dundas. Tragically, mother Susan Eastwood Fielden died that early July day. I have, as yet, been unable to determine the cause of Susan’s death; however, it would not be uncommon for a steerage passenger to become ill while travelling under such dire conditions. Susan was buried in Grove Cemetery in Dundas, Ontario. She was laid to rest on July 10, 1864, in Section Single Annex, Row 16, Lot E ½ 7, Grave 6. Susan was only 51 years old at the time of her death. Her youngest child (my great-great grandfather) James was 14 years old.

Grove Cemetery in 2010 – Dundas, Ontario, Canada. Susan Fielden was laid to rest here on July 10, 1864 – about two months after leaving her home in England.

Chapter Three – Canada

After the tragic death of his mother in 1864, young James Fielding followed in his father’s footsteps and learned the blacksmith trade. In the mid-1800s, blacksmiths in Hamilton played an important role in the various factories that were quickly sprouting up in the city. Industrial machines required upkeep and repair, keeping the city’s foundries busy. Blacksmiths were essential to the growth of industry.

While his siblings were starting their own families in the area around Dundas, James likely lived with his father. The first record that shows James living on his own is an 1869 City Directory where 20-year-old James was a boarder at the Flamboro Hotel at 51 Merrick Street in Hamilton. The records I’ve located for James indicate that he worked as either a blacksmith or a laborer in Hamilton until the mid-1880s.

1876 map of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

James Fielden likely met Rosetta Silverstein sometime in 1869 or 1870, as the couple was married in late 1870. The marriage was performed by Reverend James Brock, a Wesleyan Methodist minister at St. Paul’s Church in St. Catharine’s, Lincoln County, Ontario. Sadly, St. Paul’s burned around 1880, resulting in the loss of many church records. However, I was able to locate the civil registration which lists the date of the marriage as October 12, 1870. James was 21 years old and Rose was a mere 16.

Rose and James Fielding in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

After their marriage, James and Rose moved to a downtown area of Hamilton, to a small house on Wentworth Street near King William. A review of the 1871 Census pages reveals a neighborhood full of working-class immigrants, mainly from England, Ireland, and the United States. While James and Rose did not yet have kids, most families in the neighborhood had a number of young children.

James and Rose quickly set about starting a family in Hamilton. On August 14, 1872, 18-year-old Rose gave birth to the couple’s first son, William James (Will) Fielding, Dr. Thomas White was in attendance. The birth likely took place at the couple’s home, although there was a fine hospital located in the city if a woman needed special care.

First daughter, Jane (Jen) Fielding was born in 1875, the same year that the growing family moved to 107 Robinson Street between Garth and Locke Streets, into a home that was owned by James’ father, William.

Rose and James had a second daughter, Alice (my great grandmother), born in 1876, and a third, named Gracie, on August 2, 1877.  Gracie’s birth registration indicates that in 1877 James is still working as a blacksmith.

During this time there were a number of tragedies in the extended Fielden family in Dundas. James’ sister, Susannah died in 1876 during childbirth. His brother, John returned to England with his wife, Elizabeth and their three living children – Mary Jane, John William and Frederick. The couple buried three infants and a 5-year-old daughter while in Dundas. Canada had not been good to them. Only father William and “Aunt Jane” were left in Canada with James and Rose’s young family.

While James and Rose were starting their family in the 1870s, there were two developments in Hamilton that changed the city forever and played a huge part in the story of the Fieldens – the Jolley Cut and the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane.

The city of Hamilton is defined by its geography, hugging Lake Ontario on one side and the Niagara Escarpment on the other. The part that is above the escarpment is called The Mountain; the part below is The Lower City. Getting from one to the other during the 1800s was a tricky business. Through the 1860s, access to the Mountain was limited to steep footpaths.

In 1860, James Jolley moved his family to the Mountain, believing that the air above the Lower City would be healthier for his ailing wife. Jolley was a harness maker and politician and needed a way to get to his business in city below. He financed the building of an access road that became known as the “Jolley Cut”. It was completed in 1873. Still, the steep switchback road was difficult to navigate and decades passed before there was much development on the Mountain.

However, the Jolley Cut made it possible for the construction of the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane, which accepted its first patients in 1876. Being situated at the Mountain brow, the Asylum was isolated from the city of Hamilton below. In the early years, the only way to get up the Mountain was via the Jolley Cut. This “road” was so steep that many horses were injured or killed when they became too exhausted to prevent their carriage wagon from rolling backwards. Despite the difficulty and the distance, Hamiltonians quickly found their way to the Asylum grounds. These Sunday visitations soon became the “in thing” to do. Sightseers flocked to the Asylum every weekend, hoping to catch a glimpse of the lunatics. This practice continued well into the 1920s.

Hamilton Asylum for the Insane

It is important to consider that the Fielding family grew up in Hamilton at the same time that the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane was conceived, built and expanded throughout the late 19th century. For 25 years, it was a normal part of their lives. The Asylum was built at the top of the Mountain, at the edge of the escarpment, overlooking the city of Hamilton. Rose was a young mother – 24 years old – and Alice was born in 1876, the same year the Asylum opened. The Fielding children were raised in its shadow.

Part of my research included hours of “interviewing” my Uncle Jim, who spent many summers as a child with his grandmother, Alice. When pressing for clues about our story, he recalled Alice saying that she and her siblings would often “picnic up the Jolley Cut”. Neither of us realized what that meant in that moment. It turns out that the Fielden kids were some of those “sightseers” hoping to see a lunatic!

Chapter Four – Family

During the early 1880s, Rose and James were busy raising their young family. They lived at 107 Robinson between Garth and Locke, in a home that was owned by James’ father, William. William was living in Dundas with his daughter, Jane. “Aunt Jane” was particularly close to the children. The kids often travelled to Dundas for visits. James still worked as a blacksmith. The 1881 Census reports that Rose is working as a tailoress, as her mother had years ago. She was likely trained in the trade as a child in the Hebrew Girls School.

Early this decade, the Fielding children started their education in the Hamilton school system. School was available for children aged seven to twelve, but not compulsory until the 1890s. In “grade school”, two grades would be taught each year. For example, 3rd grade would run from September to December, and 4th would be January to May. A “full” education in Canada would run through 8th grade. This would take five years – if the student passed all of their studies.

On September 4, 1882, 10-year-old “Willie” Fielding started first grade at the Maple Street School. According to his school records, his attendance was excellent. Will did not miss any school that year. However, his teacher Anna Cox reports that his grades were below average in most subjects. He scored 12 out of 30 in Reading, and 7 out of 20 in Writing. Only one student in his class was good at Arithmetic, but Will was one of 4 students scoring a zero in the subject. His overall score for the year was 118, the lowest in the class. Miss Cox did not list him as “promoted”. His parents paid forty cents tuition for the school year.

Will Fielden’s School Attendance Record – 1882 (Photo courtesy of Educational Archives and Heritage Centre of Hamilton-Wentworth)

That same year, 7-year-old “Jannie” (Jane) Fielding started first grade at Maple Street School with Miss Honsburgh. She also had perfect attendance, but was a much better student than her older brother. She had a perfect score of 72 in Literature, and earned the second highest overall score in her class and was recommended for promotion. This also cost James and Rose forty cents tuition.

Jane Fielden’s School Attendance Record – 1882 (Photo courtesy of Educational Archives and Heritage Centre of Hamilton-Wentworth)

In the fall of 1883, both Will and Jen were registered for another year at the Maple Street School. Jen finished the year, attending only 97 of the 122 days in the school year. But, unlike her experience in her first year, she struggled with her subjects. Miss Daville finally promoted her at the end of the year, but only after Jane repeated her third-grade studies in the spring.

Will attended only 46 days of school that year, leaving school in mid-March of 1884. His teacher, Alice Kennedy, listed the reason for his leaving as “working”. (There were 5 other boys who left that class for the same reason that year. It seems that a lot of households needed the income from their children.) Will was not yet 12 years old when his formal education came to an end. He had also proved to be a very poor student. Perhaps his parents decided it more important for him to contribute to the family finances.

During the 1884-85 school year, Jen was the only Fielding child registered at Maple Street. She passed her fourth-grade classes and was promoted by teacher Mary Group. This was the end of her education. She was 10 years old.

Alice and Gracie’s formal education followed this same inconsistent pattern between the years of 1885-1890. In the end, Will attended school for one and a half years, Jen for three years, Alice for one year and two months, and Gracie for one year.

In 1885, the family home on Robinson, owned by James’ father, was sold to William Auld. The family moved into a rented house at 107 Strachan E, and presumably, started paying rent.

I think this period in Rose’s life is significant in two important ways. Our family’s oral history ALWAYS included the “facts” that Rose’s children were well educated, and her husband, James, was a notorious drunk.

My mother, aunt and uncle, Alice’s grandchildren, were all shocked to learn how little formal education they all had. They recalled that, as adults, Alice, Jen and Retta were all very smart and avid readers. In fact, Alice home-schooled my grandfather, Fred Merry, until he went to high school. While I cannot prove it, I have to assume that it was Rose who had educated her kids. James likely never attended school. But Rose had been educated in London at the Hebrew Girls School. She was the educated one in the household.

I’ve searched for clues about when James’ alcoholism started to affect his family, and think that it most likely started in the early 1880s. The records I’ve uncovered paint a picture of a working-class family likely struggling to make ends meet. The 1882 school year was the only year that the children had perfect attendance at school, after that it was spotty at best. By 1884, Will left school to go to work. In 1885, the family started paying rent, maybe for the first time. Money was tight and the family needed the kids’ income to run the household. By 1891, 18yo Will, 16yo Alice, and 15yo Jen are all working at Hamilton Cotton and living with their parents, presumably contributing at least some of their income to the family finances. It was not always an easy life.

Chapter Five – Tragedy

In 1886, nine years after Gracie’s birth, 32-year-old Rose gave birth to another daughter, named Rosetta after her mother, but always referred to as “Retta”.  Dr. James White attended. On the birth registration, James Fielding’s occupation is listed as “Engineer”. At the time, he worked at Hamilton Cotton Company, one of the two big cotton mills in the city.

A year later, a blow was dealt to the family. They had recently moved to a rental at 92 Picton E, when Rose became pregnant with her last child. On May 27, 1888, 34-year-old Rose gave birth to James Henry, named for his father. Dr. James White attended this birth as well. Sadly, something went terribly wrong, and the baby died before a month passed. I have been unable to locate his certificate of death; however, the cemetery office confirms that James Henry Fielding was buried on June 21, 1888 in Hamilton Cemetery, Section CC-A. His grave is unmarked.

January 1890 was marked with more sadness for the family. James’ father, William Fielding, took ill with pneumonia. He struggled for about a week, but died from the illness on January 28. William Fielding never remarried after Susan’s death in 1864. He’d stayed close to his family, living in Dundas with his daughter Jane’s family, where Rose’s kids spent a good deal of time. He’d helped his son in the early years, having owned the home where James and Rose started their family. James followed in his father’s footsteps, learning the blacksmith trade. No doubt, his loss was difficult for them all. William was laid to rest alongside his wife, Susan Eastwood Fielding, in the Grove Cemetery in Dundas, in Section – Single Annex, Row 16, Lot E-1/2-7, Grave 5.

December 1890, took one more swipe at the Fieldings. Our family’s oral history of this event always left an impression on me. The basic version was always pretty much the same.  My uncle shared the story this way:

“Rose and James came home after being out at the dance hall. Of course, Pa was drunk. Jen said her mother and father were at the dance hall when Grace died. When they got home, Gracie was already dead. The kids were home alone and 14-year-old, Alice, as usual, was in charge. Gracie started to throw up a tape worm. Jen said Alice grabbed hold of the tapeworm, trying to pull it out of Gracie’s throat. It broke in half and that’s when Grace started to choke. Jen said Alice beat on Gracie’s back to try to dislodge the worm with her fist and that’s why Gracie died. Retta was very young. Retta didn’t remember much about her.”  Sadly, he also recalls that Jen blamed Alice for Gracie’s death for the rest of their lives.

The truth of Gracie’s death appears to be not quite so dramatic. Did Gracie have a tapeworm? Maybe. The death register lists the cause of her death as “cerebral meningitis”. A quick Google search finds that meningitis can be caused by parasites. So, maybe.

1890 Death Record for Gracie Fielding

The following notice appeared on the front page of the December 5, 1890 Hamilton Register, “FIELDING – In this city, at 133 Picton Street east, on Thursday evening, Dec. 4, Gracie, daughter of James Fielding, aged 13 years, 3 months and 1 day. Funeral on Saturday, Dec. 6 at 2pm. Friends and acquaintances will please accept this invitation.”

I don’t think it a stretch to believe that James’ drinking worsened over these years. Certainly, Rose had a right to a little depression after all of this. But the records make it appear that the family was pulling together over the next decade to improve their lot in life. The 1891 Canadian Census reveals that James, 41, works as a Stationary Engineer at Hamilton Cotton Company. Three of the children also work at the mill, William (18) as a Cotton Weaver, and both Jane (16) and Alice (15) are Cotton Mill Doffers – usually children with small hands, who could quickly remove the spindles from the spinning machines. In 1895, the family moved again, this time to 136 Cannon E, where they rented a house. The eldest, 23-year-old Will, is still with the family. It seems that the family was starting to do better financially during this time. With income from James, Will, Alice and Jen, they were able to purchase their first home in Hamilton. In 1896 they bought the house at 105 Murray E for $800.

Hamilton Cotton Company Advertisement

Later in life, Alice always recalled this time fondly. She and her siblings were active in the community. They skated and curled. Will was in a municipal band for a time. Aunt Jane’s place was a quick trip to Dundas and they visited often. And of course, there were the “picnics up the Jolley Cut”.

Alice was a daddy’s girl. She always ADORED James Fielden, and was close to him his whole life. As a young girl, she would often bring his lunch to the mill in order to spent extra time with him. By the same token, she really didn’t have a cross word for her mother, Rose, during this time. At least no one remembers that being part of her story.

In 1894, one more tragedy befell the family. On October 25, Aunt Jane died of complications of diabetes, which she had been battling for over a year. She was 48 years old. Jane was the last of the extended family in Ontario. She has always been a consistent support system for James and Rose. Undoubtedly, this rocked the Fieldens. After her death, only Rose, James and their children were left in Hamilton.

1894 Death Record for Jane Fielden Johnson

In 1896, after moving to their new home, 11-year-old Retta started her education at the Murray Street School in Miss Ainslie’s 5th grade class. She attended the full year at a cost of 20 cents per month, and was promoted. In 1898, Retta registers for Miss White’s 6th grade class and is promoted. In 1899, Retta passed 7th, again with Miss White. Retta was a good student.

In 1900, Retta began her eighth-grade schooling in Miss Bennetto’s class at the Murray Street School. (Interestingly, Susan Bennetto was the first female school principal in Ontario. She died in 1910, after a 50-year career in the Hamilton School system. The Murray Street School was renamed the Bennetto School after her death.) Retta’s attendance records indicate that she finished the fall term, but missed quite a few days of school. She only attended for 8 days in all of 1901. For some reason, although she received the longest and most consistent formal education of all the children, Retta dropped out of school in the spring term of her last year – perhaps an omen of what was to come next.

Chapter Six – Unraveling

The dawn of the 20th century marked the final unraveling of what was left of Rose’s life with her family.

In August 1899, the Fielding family structure shifted when 28-year-old Will became the first to leave Canada. According to the 1900 US Census, Will immigrated to Whitestown NY, a town located 6 miles from Utica. He rented a room in a boardinghouse on Henderson Street and worked as a loom fixer in one of the area’s cotton mills. (Will did not stay in the area for long. He has a colorful story of his own, traveling to different parts of the States, eventually settling in Maine.)

Will Fielding in the 1900 US Census. Living in a boardinghouse on Henderson Street in Whitestown, NY.

It wasn’t long before Will’s sisters decided to leave Canada for opportunities that lay ahead in the States. In late 1900 or early 1901, sisters Alice (25 years old) and Jen (26 years old) left Canada and moved to Utica NY. The women quickly found jobs at the Oneita Mills. While Jen hated mill work, Alice rather enjoyed it. Alice was always a hard worker, and always good at whatever she chose to accomplish.

Early postcard of the Oneita Knitting Mills, Utica, New York

It’s interesting that during their time in Hamilton, none of the Fielden children had any serious romantic interests. At least, none were reported. And Alice talked a LOT – she would have likely shared any stories of early boyfriends. In fact, they were all in their late 20s or early 30s by the time they married – rather unusual for the time.

Only James, Rose and 15-year-old Retta were left in Hamilton at the turn of the century. They were still living at the family home on Murray Street. By April 1901, James was still working at Hamilton Cotton as an Engineer. However, where there were once four paychecks coming into the household, now there was only one. The financial impact likely took a toll on James and Rose. Eight days into her last school term, Retta dropped out of school. While I can’t know exactly what was happening, I would argue that perhaps James’ alcoholism worsened as the financial pressures mounted. Rose was unable to deal with her depression after most of her children had left the country. Retta, the only child remaining in Canada, may have left school to help keep the house, and her parents, together.

By late 1901, Retta had no intentions of staying in Canada and was eager to join her sisters in Utica. The house on Murray Street was sold to James Kennedy on August 3, 1901 for $850. The Deed of Land spelled out the following legalese. “And the said Rosetta Fielding, wife of the said party of the first part hereby bars her dower in the said lands.” This document holds the only example of Rose’s signature I’ve been able to locate. I’m no lawyer, but apparently, Rose signed away her rights to any of that estate.

Deed of Land – Rose gives up any claim to the “estate”

To share what happened next, I will rely on our oral history. I heard this story dozens of times when I was a child. It was this part of the story that always shocked me. I still struggle to come to terms with it – especially now that I know the truth.

When Alice and Jen moved to Utica, they both started working at the Oneita Mill. One day, while at work, Alice got word that her family was at the train station with the Travelers’ Aid Society, and she needed to come get them. They all arrived at once – James, Rose and Retta. This was something that Alice was not prepared for. Alice got Retta a job right away at the Onieta Mills. But by this time, James was a mess, his drinking was beyond control. And Mother was “nuts”.

Alice was ready to move on with her life, but she truly loved James Fielden. They’d always had a special bond. However, there was no way that she was going to be responsible for both of her parents. The plan was hatched, most certainly by Alice. James and Rose needed to return to Hamilton and Rose needed to be placed in the Asylum.  And that’s exactly what they did. The story always ended sadly. It was told that Rose must have been very sick, as she died just a few years after.

We sure got that part wrong.

Chapter Seven – Patient #4151

By 1902, James and Rose had indeed returned to Hamilton. They moved into a boarding house at 52 Catharine St N. The boarding house sat next door to Temple’s Livery and was owned and operated by the widow Catherine Murphy. It is unclear when the couple moved there, but there is no doubt about when Rose left.

By 1892, the Asylum had become more accessible to the Lower City with the opening of the James Street Incline Railway. On September 26, 1902, Rosetta and James Fielding of Hamilton, Ontario, rode that same Railway to the top of the escarpment. I cannot imagine what was going through Rose’s mind as the railcar inched closer and closer to the top of the Mountain.

Postcard – James Street Incline Railway, Hamilton, Ontario

Was she afraid? She’d raised her family in the shadow of the Asylum. She’d likely been a “sightseer” over the years. The place had played at least a peripheral role in her entire life in Hamilton. But, still, I imagine there was fear.

Was she heartbroken? Undoubtedly. Her role as wife and mother was coming to an end. Rose was no longer of any use to her family. She had somehow become a burden.

I wonder if Rose thought that her stay would be temporary? It was common that people “recovered” from their woes and were released from the Asylum. Did she think that James, or certainly Alice would come for her once she was feeling a bit better? Did she know that she would never see any of them again? This is the hardest thing for me to consider. Did she believe that she’d rejoin her family and was left waiting for a visit that never happened? When did she accept that they were NEVER coming for her? Or, did she already know, as the railcar climbed the side of the escarpment, that she would never come down again?

What we do know, is that later that same September day, James Fielden returned to his last known home in Hamilton – alone. For Rose, this day was the beginning of the final chapter of a remarkable life. She was now patient number 4151 at the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane.

Barton Building at the Hamilton Asylum (etching from 1879 Report from the Inspector of Asylums and Prisons)

The Archives of Ontario in Toronto holds the patient records for the Hamilton Asylum. When I visited the Archives in 2010, they informed me that the individual patient logs held at the Archives only went to Patient #3976. Rose was #4151. I have as yet been unable to locate her log sheet.  I did view some of the other logs, and frankly, they were notably lacking of much information. Hospital record keeping in those years was nothing like what we have today.

Admission Register, Vol. I, Asylum for the Insane, Hamilton (Held at the Archives of Ontario)

I was, however, able to view the Admission Register which holds the record of Rose’s admission to the Asylum. The column headings and Rose’s notes are as follows:

Transcription of Rose’s entry in the Admission Register for the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane.

These notations reveal so much about Rose’s condition upon her commitment.  There is no indication that Rose suffered from any sort of (what we would consider today) “serious” mental illness. This was Rose’s first admission to the Asylum. She was “temperate” – Rose did not drink. Her current “form of mental disorder” was “melancholia”, a condition that had been ongoing for only one week. The “apparent cause of the disorder” was the fact that her family was moving and she was “separated from her children who live in the States”. On the surface, it seems that Rose was suffering with what we now call “Empty Nest Syndrome”.

“Apparent Cause of Disorder”

One column in the admission record leaves me with the most questions. Under the heading of “Particular Propensities and Hallucinations”, it is noted that Rose “said that people next door had an electric battery attached to her ear and were playing tunes on it”. It’s a sadly amusing story, but really doesn’t fit with what was called “melancholia” at the time. Did Rose truly have voices in her head? Was she on a downward spiral into madness? Or, did James need a better reason to abandon his wife than a one-week bout of “melancholia”?

“Particular Propensities and Hallucinations”

It was not uncommon at the time for a woman to be committed to insane asylums solely on the word of her husband. It typically required two “examining physicians” to sign off on the admission, and this seems to be the case at Hamilton. Dr. James White (the doctor who had attended Retta and Henry’s birth) and Dr. R. W. White signed off on Rose’s commitment. The good doctors were not practicing at the asylum. In fact, the asylum at the time, actually had very few doctors on staff. The likely scenario is that James first took Rose to her doctor in town, who in turned made a recommendation for a little rest up on “the Mountain”. It turned out that Rose’s “little rest” lasted for 32 years.


There are 13 other patients listed on the same page of the Asylum Register as Rose. Each register entry paints a little picture of these poor souls. I found it instructive for comparison purposes to take a look at their stories. It seems that many of these folks had far bigger problems than Rose.

On September 8, 1902, 54-year-old Mary Dusseau from Canada was committed to the Asylum by her husband, Henry Dusseau for the second time. She was a Roman Catholic mother of seven children, worked at “house duties”, had a “good” degree of education and was “temperate and industrious”. She was 49 years old when she had her first “attack” of “melancholia”. Apparently, her first admission didn’t do the trick. It is reported that Mary attempted suicide, so she found herself back at Hamilton. There is nothing in particular listed as an apparent cause of her sadness. In May of 1905, after 2 years, 8 months, and 1 day, Mary was “recovered” and discharged from the Asylum. Mary’s care was paid for by the Province.

On September 9, 1902, 18-year-old Violet Dies from Canada was committed by a Daniel Dies. She was a Methodist, not married and had no children. Violet worked at “house duties”, had a “fair” degree of education and was “temperate”. She was diagnosed with “mania” brought on by “worry and family trouble” and her present “attack” had lasted for 18 months. It was thought that there may have been a hereditary influence to her condition. Violet was “restless, noisy, immodest” and she reportedly “swears”. As if that weren’t enough, Violet suffered from “menstrual troubles”. In March 1903, after 6 months and 9 days, Violet was “recovered” and discharged. Her care was paid for by “friends”.

Also, on September 9, 1902, 34-year old Nelson Abrams from Canada was committed by Jacob H. Abrams. Nelson was married with no children, a potter by trade, had a “fair” education, and was an Episcopalian. He was also “intemperate”. His troubles began 19 years prior when he fell in the shop. His diagnosis was “imbecile”. Nelson was “incoherent, restless and not very clean” He died of “pulmonary tuberculosis” at the Asylum in October 1920, after more than 18 years and 1 month. His care was paid for by the Province.

On September 10, 1902, 24-year-old Grace Mainwaring from Canada was committed by Gus Mainwaring. Grace was a single, Methodist hairdresser with a “fair” education. Grace suffered from “melancholia” and had used “opium since childhood”.  Her present attack had lasted for 9 months, although this was Grace’s second time in the Asylum. It is noted that this may be a hereditary condition. Grace was “suicidal, had swallowed a pin and had violent impulses. In April 1903, Grace was “improved” and discharged after 6 months and 30 days. Her care was paid for by the Province.

On September 11, 1902, 39-year-old John Dickens Cook from Canada was committed by his wife, Mrs. J. D. Cook.  He and his wife had 2 children. John was a farmer with “very little” education. He was “temperate and industrious” and Presbyterian by faith. John had suffered from “mania” for 2 years prior to his commitment, a problem that he may have inherited from his mother. His latest attack was brought on by “hard work”. John thought “spirits would not let him work” and he “does not sleep well”. John recovered and was discharged in August 1904 after 1 year and 11 months in the Asylum. His care was paid for by the Province.

Also, on September 11, 1902, 23-year-old Mary McConnell from Canada was committed by Robert McConnell. Mary was single with no children. She was Methodist, of “good” education and work at “house duties”. Mary was “temperate and industrious”. She suffered from “mania” possibly inherited from her mother. The present attack had lasted for 3 months and it came on at a “camp meeting”.  Her symptoms are described as “destructive, heavy worries, suicidal, religious delusions. Mary died in the Asylum of “exhaustion of mania” in March 1903 after 6 months and 26 days. Her care was paid for by the Province.

On September 17, 1902, 60-year-old (Mr.) Bechtel from Canada was committed by his wife. The couple had 6 children and were of the Mennonite faith. Mr. Bechtel had attended law school and earned his living as a contractor. He was “temperate”. He also had suffered from a “loss of hearing” and “dementia” for 18 months. He was “restless, filthy” and had a “loss of memory”. Mr. Bechtel died in the Asylum 2 days later. The cause of death is illegible. His care was paid for by friends.

On September 22, 1902, 74-year-old Margaret Patton from Ireland was committed by her brother, James Patton. Margaret was a single Presbyterian woman of “good” education. She worked at “house duties” and was temperate. She was considered “feeble” and diagnosed with “senile melancholia” that had started about 2 weeks prior. She was “irritable, violent, sleepless, restless, and refuses food”. Margaret died 2 months and 18 days later in the Asylum. The cause of death is illegible. Her care was paid for by friends.

Also, on September 22, 1902, 30-year-old William Cummings of Canada was committed by his father. William was a single man of the Roman Catholic faith. He was a “laborer” of “fair” education, and temperate. This was the 4th time that William had been committed to the Asylum. His first attack of “mania” occurred when he was 21 years old. This present attack came on one month prior and was triggered by “overwork”. William was “suicidal” and “talked at random”. It was thought that the attack was brought on by “the severe heat of the work”. After 11 months and 27 days, William was “recovered” and discharged. His care was paid for by the Province.

On September 25, 1902, 44-year-old Bella Little of Canada was committed by her mother, Mrs. Jane Little. Bella was a single woman of the Presbyterian faith and had a “fair” education. She worked at “house duties” and was temperate. Although this was Bella’s first time at Hamilton, it was her 2nd attack of “melancholia”, the first having lasted about 6 months. The supposed cause of the present attack is illegible. It is noted that Bella was “suicidal and had tried to hang herself and to get knives”. She also thought “herself wicked for trivial causes”. After 4 years, 3 months and 21 days in the Asylum, Bella was “recovered” and discharged. Her care was paid for by friends.

On September 26, 1902, 50-year-old Rosetta Fielding of England was committed by her husband, James Fielding of 52 Catherine St., Hamilton. Rosetta and James had 4 children. She worked at “house duties”, had a “fair” level of education and was temperate. She was of the Methodist faith. This was Rosetta’s first commitment. Her “melancholia” came on “1 week” prior, triggered by her “family worries”. It is noted that she was “separated from her children who live in the states”. It is also noted that she “said that people next door had an electric battery attached to her ear and were playing tunes on it”. Her care was paid for by the Province. (Note: Rose is the only patient on this page of the Register who does not have an entry in the “Date of Discharge” or “Time in the Asylum” columns. It appears that Rose outlived this system of record-keeping.)

On September 30, 1902, 40-year-old Mary Jane Morrow of Canada was committed by her husband, Robert Morrow. She worked at “house duties”, had a “common” level of education, was Methodist and temperate. Mary Jane had been suffering from “mania” that had lasted for 3 years prior to her commitment. She was “restless, hysterical, and has an idea that she can talk with invisible beings”. Mary Jane also suffered from “uterine disease”. On September 21, 1920, after almost 18 years, she was transferred to “Coburg”. Her care was paid for by the Province.

On October 4, 1902, 18-year-old Mary Nixon of Canada was committed by her brother, William Nixon. Mary was single, Methodist, and worked as a “factory hand”. She had a “common” level of education and was temperate. Mary suffered from “mania” that came on 2 weeks prior, brought on by a “love affair”. She was “hysterical, noisy, delusional” and was “afraid of being killed”. After 9 months and 2 days, Mary was “recovered” and discharged. Her care was paid for by the Province.

On October 5, 1902, 32-year-old Jacob Cohen of the United States was committed by his wife, Eva Cohen. The couple had 1 child. Mr. Cohen was a Jew of “good” education, temperate, and worked as a “mfg. optician”. This was the 1st time that he had been committed, though it is noted that he had 3 prior attacks. He suffered from “mania” thought to be hereditary. He thought he was “Pierpont Morgan” and “talks incessantly”. One year later, Jacob Cohen was transferred to an asylum in Toronto. His care was paid for by friends.

Chapter Eight – Utica

In 1902, while Rose was adjusting to her new reality of life at the Asylum, James Fielden returned to Utica NY. The girls were all working at the mill. His son, Will, was off “seeing the world”, but it was good to be near his daughters. James was certain that Alice, in particular, would help him out. And she did. Alice got James a job at the Hotel Utica, where he worked to maintain the boilers. His pay included a room at the hotel, solving the problem of where to put him. He was still drinking, but managed to hold it together for a time. The three sisters lived together for the first few years. Alice (26) and Jen (27) started looking for husbands.

Alice Violet Fielding

By late 1905, Alice Fielding met George Merry. George worked as a machinist and came to the mill on occasion to fix the looms. George was a smart and handsome guy. More than one young woman was after him. Alice immediately set her sights on George, and, well, Alice usually got what she wanted. They began a courtship. Unlike her sister Jen, who wanted no part of life in the mills, Alice was not looking for someone to take care of her. She never meant to quit working, whether in the mills or elsewhere. In fact, she spent her entire life working very hard at whatever she set her sights on, right alongside George Merry. They really were terrific partners. George and Alice married on June 30, 1906

George Harold Merry

Later that year, James Fielden became ill and died on October 2, 1906. He was 57 years old. His obituary, certainly arranged for by Alice, appeared on October 4th in The Utica Observer. It reads, “In a local hospital (illegible) the death of James Fielding who had resided in the city and New York Mills for the past 2 years. He was taken ill about two weeks ago and had been at the hospital for the past week. The deceased was born in Lancashire, England about 57 years ago. He was the son of William and Susan Fielding. He came to this country and to Canada when about twelve years old. He had resided in Hamilton, Canada nearly all his life, moving to this city about two years ago. He was a stationary engineer by trade. He was a member of the Methodist Church. Mr. Fielding was married in Canada. His wife died a number of years ago. He is survived by one son, William Fielding of Portland, Maine and three daughters, Mrs. Alice Merry, Miss Jennie Fielding and Miss Rosetta Fielding of this city.”

Forest Hill Cemetery, Utica, New York

James was buried twice in the Forest Hill Cemetery in Utica. The first time, he found himself in Potter’s Field, in Tier 7, Grave #12, Plot 27 – in an unmarked grave. Apparently, Alice could not afford a proper burial. The records from the cemetery list his cause of death as “cholicystitis”. He was reinterred 15 years later, on September 20, 1921, from his original grave in Potter’s Field onto the Merry plot, Lot 4782, Plot 58. It seems that Alice wanted to be close to him, even in death.

James Fielding’s Gravestone in the Merry Plot – Forest Hill Cemetery, Utica, NY

By the time I’d located James’ obituary in 2010, I had already learned that Rose lived for 32 years at the Asylum. I knew that the lie had been told and I had pretty much figured out that Alice was the source of the lie. The obituary was the first documentary proof that the lie started as early as 1906. But there it was. One line kept jumping out at me. His wife died a number of years ago.” “His wife died a number of years ago.” “His wife died a number of years ago.” It breaks my heart that Alice didn’t even have the decency to call Rose by name.

There was no way that the family could think Rose had died. They were all in on the plan to have Rose committed. The Asylum would have not notified them of her death, as she had not died. I thought for a while that perhaps James was responsible. Maybe he told the children that Rose had died. But that doesn’t make sense either.

When I started this project in 2010, I spent hours talking with my uncle, who spent many childhood summers with his grandparents, George and Alice Merry. During one of the earlier chats, he said “There are two things you should know about Alice. First, she loved Queen Victoria and always had a portrait of her hanging in the home. Second, she was terrified of J. Edgar Hoover.” Forgetting to find out why she loved the Queen so much, I pressed him for more information about Hoover. He explained that Alice was scared to death that the FBI would come after her for the cost of Rose’s care. Uncle Jim had always assumed that Alice meant the cost of care for the “few years” that Rose spent at the Asylum. Now that we know the truth, that cost may have been significant. She may have been right to be concerned. The family never did pay anything for Rose’s care. That was left to the Province of Ontario. Rose’s children never did visit her – not once in 32 years. Rosetta Silverstein Fielding was one of many people abandoned by their families to a Lunatic Asylum.

I’ve struggled to forgive these people and will never excuse them. But I’ve spent years trying to come up with an explanation. This is my theory. I think that as Alice was getting to know George and the rest of the Merry family, she (and by extension, her sisters) made the decision to tell the story that way. It was probably very innocent at first. She was just getting to know the man she would marry. It’s a tough thing to admit that your mother was in a nuthouse in Canada, where “she recently died”. It’s another thing to admit that your mother is in a nuthouse in Canada, but “we’ve pretty much decided that we will not be supporting her or visiting her. How do you like me now!?”

Yes, most likely innocent at first. When George first asked about her mother, they probably didn’t even know each other very well. Rather than get into a part of her life that was likely painful to Alice, it was easier to tell the story that Rose was dead. As she and George became more serious, Alice very well may have asked her sisters to not reveal that Rose was alive. Jen and Retta would not have put up too much of a fuss about keeping the secret – they weren’t supporting or visiting Rose either. So, if my theory is correct, the story started being told the way we learned it as early as 1905. By the time I started hearing it in the early 1970s, seven decades had passed with them telling the story the same way. It had become our truth. It took nearly another fifty years to uncover and share Rose’s truth. Finally.

Chapter Nine – Asylum Life

Rose spent 32 years at the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane – 3-4 times the average stay in the early 20th century. It’s safe to say that she saw more than the average lunatic. Rose was committed in 1902, the year after electrical lighting was added to the hallways and common areas of the Asylum. Rose was still at the Asylum in 1909, when the final 176 acres were added to the property, bringing its total land holdings to 529 acres. She was there for the 1909 opening of the Nursing School and saw that same school graduate its first 15 nurses three years later. She was there for the 1911 fire in the Barton building that killed 8 patients. She was there in 1919, when the patient population grew larger than the number of available beds, and witnessed the impact that overcrowding had on the Asylum and its patients. She was even there – still – when Grove Hall was built in 1931.

Early postcard depicting the Hamilton Asylum

I suppose the best way to understand Rose’s last chapter is to take a look at the Hamilton Asylum over the years she lived there – the philosophy held by the Medical Superintendents, and activities at the Asylum, and the treatments available over time.


By the mid-1800s, asylums around the world began adopting the Quaker philosophy of “moral treatment” of the insane. The Quakers recommended the use of education and occupation in asylums, rather than the use of restraints, whips and chains employed in the past. In 1876, the first Medical Superintendent at Hamilton, Dr. Richard Bucke was a proponent of this method. He wrote, “The object of treatment in the case of insanity is, to my mind, not so much the cure of the disease, as it is the re-humanization of the patient…. The agents I think we shall have ultimately to depend on are kindness, management, hygienic measures, such as fresh air, good food, exercise, rest, sleep, etc., regular work, amusement, properly ordered mental exercise and other similar means calculated to restore by invigorating and regulating the healthy action of the impaired nerve centres.”

For all his “benevolence”, the good Dr. Bucke was also a leading advocate for systematic hysterectomies of female patients, believing that, somehow, the uterus was the cause of their insanity. This practice was in place for at least the first ten years.

In 1877, Dr. Bucke moved on to the London Asylum in London, Ontario, and was replaced by Dr. James Wallace, another advocate of moral treatment. (Dr. Bucke would eventually become the Medical Superintendent for the entire Province. Everyone ultimately reported to him. His vision of how to treat the insane was apparent in all of Ontario’s asylums.) During these early years, the use of restraints was still fairly common, though it started to diminish by the late 1880s. There is little evidence that the Hamilton Asylum relied much on the dreadful Utica Crib. However, there is one on display at the Asylum Museum. Perhaps it was used for the most difficult patients. This “crib” was a coffin like, slatted wooden box, sometimes lined with a straw mattress. Patients would be locked in this box until they had “recovered” from their “episode”.

Another improvement for the patients occurred when the “airing courts” were eliminated in the mid-1880s. These courts were outdoor areas surrounded by tall jail-like fences – and the only place for patients to enjoy the outdoors. Once removed, patients were allowed more access to the grounds for fresh air and recreation.

Dr. James Russell was appointed Medical Superintendent in 1887. Russell added his own twist to the practice of moral treatment. He favored “healthful and invigorating sports”. During the good weather, the patients engaged in croquet, baseball, tennis, cricket and lawn bowling. Skating and curling were popular in the winter.

In 1893, Russell tried an “experiment” and formed the Asylum Curling Club.  The Club was a huge success, travelling for matches as far away as Toronto. Russell reported that, “In every rink there were at least two patients, and it was not easy to distinguish who was who on the ice. Our club won the Walker Trophy one year, which was open to all clubs in the Hamilton district.” (By 1904, a proper skating rink was constructed on Hamilton’s grounds. In 1905, the Asylum Lawn Bowling Club was formed, another success under the leadership of Dr. Russell.)

Luckily for the “insane” women of Hamilton, Dr. Russell was one of the most vociferous critics of Dr. Bucke’s use of gynecological surgeries on insane women. In an 1898 edition of the “Canadian Practitioner”, he rejected the surgery, noting “There is no room for such a fad” and “that uterine disease is not any more common among the insane than among the sane.” (Yea Dr. Russelll!!)


When Rose arrived at the Asylum in 1902, Dr. Russell was still the Medical Superintendent. The Asylum had grown a lot since the Barton building first appeared on the Mountain brow in 1876, when Rose was still a young mother. By now, the property had expanded to 350 acres as additional land was purchased over the years to allow for more buildings and more farming. East House (now Century Manor) opened in 1884 and Orchard House was added in 1888. The patient population was about 1000 when Rose arrived.

Patients at Hamilton Asylum for the Insane (courtesy of Hamilton Museum of Mental Health Care)

Rose likely lived in the Barton building’s west wing which housed female patients. (Barton, East House and Orchard House all kept female patients in one wing, males in the other.) Her “space” consisted of a single bed in a ward shared by dozens of other women. Her ward was one of many located in the west wing. Each wing of the Barton building included its own dining hall. Women and men dined separately.

Hamilton Asylum Ward (courtesy of Hamilton Museum of Mental Health Care)

Rose’s typical day was well ordered. A consistent routine, hard work, recreation and social time were all part of the “treatment plan”. She would rise early in the morning and head to the dining hall. After breakfast, the patients went to work. Hamilton was a self-sufficient asylum – everyone was expected to pitch in. In a 1901 report, it is noted that the male patients worked in the carpenter shop, tailor shop, shoe shop, engineer’s shop, mason shop, wood yard and coal shed, bakery, laundry, dairy, butcher shop, slaughterhouse, painting, farm, garden, stable, kitchen, dining rooms, storeroom. The female patients tended to work in the tailor shop, laundry, kitchen, dining rooms, officer’s quarters, sewing rooms, knitting, mending. It’s likely that Rose worked as a tailoress, a trade that she’d learned a lifetime ago in London.

Farming at the Hamilton Asylum (courtesy of Hamilton Museum of Mental Health Care)

After the day’s work was done, patients were encouraged to participate in recreational physical activity. I like to picture Rose as a top-notch croquet player. She looked forward to the monthly staff-patient dances, often held in conjunction with the major holidays. Occasionally, members of the community would travel to the Asylum for a concert performed by patients. For years, the annual Asylum Ball brought Hamilton’s finest citizens to the Mountain. On Saturdays, the activity often centered around the Curling or Lawn Bowling Clubs. There were still “sightseers” flocking from the Lower City. Now, however, instead of coming to see the lunatics pacing about their airing courts, the sightseers were treated to watching the lunatics play games on the lawns.

Lawn Bowling at the Asylum (courtesy of Hamilton Museum of Mental Health Care)

The entire staff lived on the grounds of the Asylum and interacted with the patients 24 hours a day. A look at some of the staff rules from 1908 gives some interesting insight into that interaction:

“No nurse, attendant or servant shall convey a letter to or from a patient without the sanction of the Superintendent or Medical Officer.

Whenever a physician enters the ward, all nurses and attendants shall rise, and the senior nurse or attendant shall accompany him through the ward and be prepared to give all necessary information concerning the patients in his/her charge.

They must endeavor to correct all bad habits such as untidiness, destructiveness, use of bad language or disgusting tendencies.

While it’s the duty of all nurses and attendants to encourage patients to employ themselves, every nurse and attendant is also expected to work. And in that work to set a good and industrious example, bearing in mind that they are not attendants in the sense of keepers only, but companions and nurses. It is a most important part of the treatment of the insane, to direct their thoughts from their delusions into healthier channels and encourage them to take an interest in life and their surroundings.

They shall keep the patients thoroughly clean, cut their hair in a proper manner and examine their bodies for the detection of marks, sores, injuries or evidence of illness.

The meals must not be hurried over and the patients must be taught to sit down in an orderly manner, without their hats, the food being equally and fairly divided amongst all. Patients must not be allowed to eat their meat with their fingers, but if they are unfit from weakness or violence or unwilling to use knives and forks, the meat must be cut up and spoons used.”

Many of these rules were still in effect in the 1950s and 60s. (courtesy of Hamilton Museum of Mental Health Care)

Hamilton Asylum Staff (courtesy of Hamilton Museum of Mental Health Care)


At the turn of the 20th century, there were few drugs to treat mental illness. Alcohol therapy had been discontinued in most of Ontario’s asylums by the 1880s, though morphine and heroin were commonly used as sedatives for patients.

During Rose’s stay, hydrotherapy was the main form of treatment and was used for several decades before asylum overcrowding became a serious problem. Hydrotherapy was thought to be an effective form of treatment for a variety of mental disorders, including anxiety, insomnia, depression and aggression. Hot or warm water was used to calm and relax patients, while cold water was used on hyperactive patients as it slowed the blood flow to the brain and decreased activity.

I think it safe to assume that Rose suffered from depression. Her “condition” upon commitment was listed as “melancholia”. If she was initially sad because she was “separated from her children who live in the States”, I can only imagine that her depression lingered for quite some time. I’m quite certain that Rose was subjected to “treatment” for her woes. She experienced one or more of the three forms of hydrotherapy.

A continuous bath consisted of a bath tub covered by a thick canvas to maintain the temperature of the water. There was room for the head to stick out. Patients would not typically be allowed to have their arms outside it at meal times. Attendants would monitor the water before and during the patient’s session, ensuring the prescribed temperature was held at all times. The length of the session depended on the mental condition of the patients, ranging from a few hours to several days. Many patients found the baths particularly cruel, especially when cold water was applied.

Continuous Bath Treatment (courtesy of Hamilton Museum of Mental Health Care)

Cold sprays or “needle showers” were also used on patients. Patients would be sprayed with high powered water jets to decrease their motor activity and subdue them.

Needle Shower (courtesy of Hamilton Museum of Mental Health Care)

Packs or wraps were used as well. This treatment consisted of blankets or sheets being submerged in hot or cold water and then wrapped around the patients for as long as prescribed. These wraps would tighten around the patient as they dried, creating a mummy like restraint.

Wrap Treatment (courtesy of Hamilton Museum of Mental Health Care)

As overcrowding took hold of the asylums, hydrotherapy was gradually phased out. It consumed far too much time and resources to remain a viable option.  Besides, cheaper and quicker methods had been developed for the treatment of the insane.


The end of World War I in 1918 played a significant role in the life of insane asylums around the world. Soldiers, returning home with head and brain injuries, were often placed in the asylums. This led to the era of severe overcrowding in asylums all over North America. Hamilton Asylum was not immune.

From 1919 until 1936, the patient population at Hamilton swelled from 1300 to 1800 in a hospital designed for 1200. At the same time, the number of staff was dwindling. In 1936, there were only 84 staff members to tend to 1800 patients. The beginning of World War II in 1939 made it even more difficult to find people to work in the Asylum, as men and women joined the War effort. The hospital wards could no longer contain all of the beds, which spilled out into the hallways.

Moral treatment was no longer an option for the overcrowded asylums. Quicker, more effective means of patient control were needed.

Rose died in 1934, before overcrowding saw its very worst days at the Asylum. I find a lot of comfort in that. I’m glad she was gone before the “good doctors” decided that causing seizures in their patients would “cure” their madness, even if it might destroy their mind. They had found a way to control the patients without all the effort it took at the baths. Beginning in 1937, Metrazol shock therapy, using chemicals to cause the seizures, was employed at Hamilton. Metrazol was replaced by Electro Convulsive Therapy in 1943.

By 1952, science had “advanced”.  Gone were the days of seizure therapy at Hamilton. They had discovered the perfect solution. Thorazine. That was the beginning of the use of anti-psychotic drugs to control patients in asylums in the mid-20th century, and another dark chapter in our history of mental health treatment.

Chapter Ten – Relief

Rosetta Silverstein Fielding’s remarkable life and her certain suffering came to an end in 1934. Her death certificate indicates that she died on March 12, just shy of her 80th birthday. Her cause of death was arteriosclerosis. The Asylum was now known as the Ontario Hospital. The box reserved for “Informant” or next of kin is marked “none”. There was no family contact information for the Asylum to use in the case of her death. She was buried on March 15 at the Woodland Cemetery in Hamilton in section 26C, row 21, grave 11A. The email from the cemetery confirmed that row 21 was an area saved for low-cost, single grave burials – the perfect place for the Province’s indigent. Her place of rest is unmarked and overlooks a deep ravine that drops off into Lake Ontario.

Woodland Cemetery, Hamilton, Ontario

There were no mourners in the cemetery that day. There was no service. There were no children expressing grief over their loss or recalling fond memories of their mother. Rose was buried the same way she had faced the last 32 years of her life. Alone.

Rose’s Unmarked Gravesite at Woodland Cemetery, Hamilton, Ontario

I like to think that during the more than three decades Rose spent at the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane, she made a friend or two who might have mourned her passing or missed her presence.  Maybe another mother who had been abandoned by her children. Maybe a woman who’d worked alongside her in the tailor shop or one who tried for years to beat her on the croquet lawn. Maybe she’d found a friend in a kind nurse or a gentle attendant. Maybe there were people who remembered how kind Rose was to them when they first entered that terrifying, soul-sucking place. Maybe someone was grateful to have known her. I know I am.


I started dabbling in genealogy in late 2009. Of course, one of the first people I wanted to add to my family tree was Rose, having remembered that story I’d heard as a child. When I discovered that Rose had spent 32 years at Hamilton, I became obsessed with finding out what happened to this family.

Most of the research for this story took place between 2010 and 2015. I travelled once to Toronto and three times to Hamilton. I spent days in archives, libraries, museums and cemeteries, getting to know my Canadian roots. I even completed a first draft of this story, though it was in need of major editing. My plan was to perhaps self-publish a small book for my family – and to finally set the record straight for Rose. The editing job seemed daunting at the time. In late 2015, I put the story away with the intent of finishing it when I retire in a few years.

Rose lived in my attic for more than three years, in two boxes of research, a binder full of documents and a partly finished manuscript. She also held a spot on my family tree on (You can see her timeline and some of her documents there.)

In early April 2019, a Facebook friend expressed interest in sharing Rose’s story, so I brought Rose’s boxes down from the attic and started editing. This is the result – a finished first draft.

I plan to return to Hamilton for another visit this summer. I have some more to add to the story and hope to have a second draft finished later this year. Then, who knows? Maybe I’ll find more and better ways to share Rose with the world.


I needed a lot of help to recreate a picture of Rose’s life. Luckily, there were some fantastic resources available to me in Canada. I offer many thanks to the following people and organizations who were essential to my research.

The Archives in Toronto hold most of the Asylum’s records. I thank them for keeping these records safe and accessible to researchers and for their help in locating records that might pertain to Rose.

The volunteers at the Hamilton Museum of Mental Health Care have done a wonderful job of curating artifacts and information about the Asylum. Betty Laird, in particular, was more than generous with her time and resources. She spent hours with me, helping me to understand Rose’s life at Hamilton Asylum. Many of the Asylum photos used in this story are from the Museum’s collection.

The volunteers of the Educational Archives and Heritage Centre of Hamilton-Wentworth have done a great job of preserving the history and records of the Hamilton school system. They were essential to locating records and helping me understand the children’s schooling.

The Hamilton Public Library has extensive holdings of historic city directories, tax assessment rolls, and old newspapers – all necessary to trace the Fielden’s life in Hamilton.

Through my research, I located two “cousins” who shared their recollections and photos of this family and helped answer my questions. Debby H. in Maine and Jackie N. in England – thank you so much.

My Uncle Jim’s stories were crucial in understanding what happened to Rose. He knew Rose’s daughters well, particularly Alice. Jim would be the first to admit that he talks incessantly. In this case, that was a blessing. Over the past years, we’ve spent hundreds of hours talking about our family history. He was also generous enough to write down many of his recollections. Those writings are a true gift and will become part of our family history to be passed to future generations.

My greatest thanks go to my wife, Sally B. She has been unwavering in her support for this project since I first started 9 years ago. She never once complained when most of the household responsibilities fell to her as I spent days and weeks on end working at nothing but Rose’s story. She always knew that this story should be told, even when I doubted that anyone would care to know it. And she never let me forget that Rose was sitting in a box in our attic and I needed to finish my work. Sally, ILYVM.

April 23, 2019


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