The inheritance and the asylum

Posted 9/17/21

By KELLY SULLIVAN When Thomas Greene of Glocester died in June of 1885, his 53-year-old widow, Mary (Burlingame), inherited his real estate and personal property, which was considerable. Upon her death, it would be dispersed to their children according

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The inheritance and the asylum


When Thomas Greene of Glocester died in June of 1885, his 53-year-old widow, Mary (Burlingame), inherited his real estate and personal property, which was considerable. Upon her death, it would be dispersed to their children according to his wishes. Their 16-year-old daughter, Emma Louise, was to receive four woodlots in Glocester and $100 in cash. According to Emma, it was her request to inherit the legacy rather than wait for it that led her mother to place her in the Rhode Island State Mental Asylum in Cranston on June 12, 1888.

Emma remained a patient at the asylum until Oct. 10, 1889, during which time doctors witnessed no signs of insanity, delusions or instability. Once she was released, she decided not to return home but to relocate to Massachusetts where she obtained work as a housekeeper.

In January of 1892, she returned to her family home and eventually brought up the subject of her future inheritance again, asking if she could have it before her mother’s death. According to her later court testimony, her mother warned her that if she spoke of it anymore, she would have her returned to the asylum.

Emma decided to visit with an attorney concerning the legacy. The attorney advised her to return home and refrain from the subject, allowing him to handle the matter. He then sent a letter to Mary, asking her to meet with him at his office.

Upon receiving the letter, on the morning of Jan. 18, 1892, Mary sent for the police. She claimed that Emma had thrown a teapot at the cellar door in a fit of rage and was suffering from insanity.

The police arrested Emma and transported her to the police station. She was first taken to Butler Hospital where she was examined and diagnosed as being “incurably insane” and then transferred back to the state asylum.

Once again, the doctors at the state institution could find nothing abnormal about Emma, who was attractive and well educated. One of the physicians at the asylum later testified that she seemed to be perfectly sane and rational.

Emma’s attorney appeared before the court two days after her arrest to secure her release from the asylum. Emma testified on her own behalf on Jan. 23. She stated that her mother had always treated her as a disobedient child despite the fact she had never caused any trouble, and had threatened many times during her childhood to have her committed to the reform school.

The cellar door and the tea kettle Emma had allegedly thrown were examined and there was no evidence of any type of collision upon the 25-pound kettle nor the door. Still, Mary testified that she did not want Emma at her home for fear of bodily harm. She threatened that if she ever returned, she would have her arrested again.

Mary’s brother took Mary’s side and testified that he believed Emma suffered from “religious excitement.” He explained that they had first noticed signs of insanity in his niece back in early 1888 but had kept it a “secret.”

Emma was released from the asylum just days later per order of the Supreme Court. She was provided with housing at the YWCA House for Young Ladies in Providence. As employment was being sought for her, she explained that she would prefer not to go back to housekeeping but would enjoy working in some capacity at a store.

As some people believed that Mary was simply trying to keep Emma’s inheritance, she announced that Emma could have her share any time she wanted it.

In June 1892, Emma was again arrested for acting in an insane manner. While at the police station, she pounded on the cell door, rattling the bars violently, talking to herself, laughing and refusing to answer questions. On the night of the 26th, she allegedly informed one of the guards that she was having a conversation in her cell with Samuel Slater.

The following morning, she was taken back to court and charged once more with being insane. Her conduct that day, along with supporting testimony from others, brought another diagnosis of hopeless insanity and she was transported back to the asylum in Cranston.

Emma Greene died two years later, on July 16, 1894, at the age of 26. Her gravestone, erected by her siblings, is engraved with the word “sister.” At the bottom are the words “At rest.” Two months after her death, her mother became the administrator of her estate.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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