Massachusetts Genealogical Council

Institutional Records

Background Information


As genealogists, we look not just for dates and locations, but for the stories that tell us about our ancestors. We know that a person lived from a birth year to a death year, for example 1815-1865, but we also say that the real story is in the dash. To inform ourselves, we read about sailing across the ocean in steerage class, about cooking in a fireplace, or about building log cabins. We figure out how our ancestors built up their lives in the U.S. to bring us to where we are today. It’s this story that has so much meaning when we share it with our family.

When we can’t trace family members beyond a particular point in time, one possibility is that the family member was institutionalized. Institutions could help the mentally ill, disabled, orphaned, old, bankrupt, people with tuberculosis, or those convicted of crimes. No matter what the reason, we want to find out what happened to them because all relatives have a part in our stories.

In Massachusetts, many institutional registers are accessible to genealogists. This page provides links directly to images of the records available for an institution, or to catalog entries when those records are still only in manuscript form.

Accessing these records means that we should understand two things: (1) the historical context of these illnesses, disabilities, and treatments because they differ so much from those of today, and (2) the laws and regulations pertaining to our ability to access these records. With a deeper understanding, we can tell a more complete story to our family.


Massachusetts has over 400 years of European settlement. The types of institutions developed over that period is staggering. As a society, Massachusetts has continually discussed the best approach to aid those in need. The state has been at the forefront of treatment options. It is also true that our ability to deliver treatment has never lived up to our ideals. The implementation of the best ideas falls short of the intentions.

In the colonial period, the destitute were sent to live with unrelated families while the town’s board of selectmen paid their room and board. Later, workhouses were developed in towns. Still later the state built large almshouses and workhouses. Today, we expect social services and public welfare to help families in need to stay in their own homes and lead normal lives.

The mentally ill in the early colonial period could be treated as witches or as felons or in the system developed for treating the destitute. Massachusetts led the national movement to provide more humane treatment in the 1800s, developing massive hospitals with what was then considered advanced treatment. In its implementation of massive hospitals, the state’s institutions moved quickly to conditions that were overcrowded, and staff that was untrained. With the advent of medications, patients became able to live within communities. Massive hospitals were dismantled or repurposed, often to house smaller programs for specific health issues such as opioid addition.

The treatment of people with intellectual or physical disability also changed over time. In the early period, people facing challenges often remained at home under the care of family members. The same movement that in the 1800s moved the mentally ill into what was then considered more humane institutionalized treatment moved those with disabilities into hospitals, schools, and later large institutions. Today people with these challenges live in their local communities, often with support services. The old state institutions have been dismantled or repurposed.

Many institutions have had more than one name over time. The first name sounds harsh to the modern ear and later names sound too generic to be meaningful to the researcher. For example, the Industrial School for Crippled and Deformed Children was later called the Massachusetts Hospital School. The Northampton Lunatic Asylum became the Northampton State Hospital.

In researching institutionalized family members, the researcher should recognize that treatment considered humane and at the forefront of good care in 1870 was by 1980 considered inhumane. There are several books that provide background on the evolving concepts of what was considered good care and on the poor conditions in these institutions. Here is a list of some helpful resources to use when communicating these historical contexts to our familes.

"'Bloom' was a four-day installation by Anna Schuleit Haber at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston, the former Boston Psychopathic Hospital, for which twenty-eight thousand potted flowers in bloom were brought together from all around the country, as well as 5,600 square feet of live sod. The project existed on all floors of the building, for four days, and was free and open to the public. A public forum of former patients and a symposium of former doctors accompanied the project."  

See her YouTube channel at:


Several bloggers have written about genealogical research focusing on institutional records. Some have looked particularly at Massachusetts records.


The records that we access are under the authority of the Massachusetts Secretary of State through the Massachusetts State Archives at Columbia Point in Boston. The policy there is to allow access after a period of time, generally 75 years, but this archives period is not set in the Massachusetts General Law (M.G.L.). In a few cases, these public records are stored in private or local public collections where access is restricted according to the best understanding of the librarians and archivists. The variety of records holders and their rules is one of the reasons MGC is gathering in one place available information about research access to the records of state institutions.

  • The original records of many hospitals and institutions are held in Massachusetts State Archives Record Group HS. For a detailed finding aid to these manuscripts, download the 208-page pdf here.


It is important to distinguish the many types of records kept by institutions. One type are medical records. In addition to U.S. HIPAA regulations, Massachusetts General Law (M.G.L.) includes language to limit access to the records of the modern human services departments.  The second type of record is registration information. This means the information placed in a register at the time of admittance, such as name, residence, age, next of kin, etc. These records were sometimes updated with discharge information or death dates. Genealogists can access older patient or institutional registers.

Large institutions had cemeteries. These cemeteries look unusual, as the graves are marked by stones listing only a number. Genealogists will want to find cemetery records linking these stones to the names and dates of the people interred there. These records are also open records. Some but possibly not all deaths in institutions were listed in the local town’s vital records, so those should also be considered by the researcher as all death records in Massachusetts are open records.

Business records and reports were also kept by the institutions. Business records tend to be more complete in the modern era, but the older printed annual reports are a great source of information about old institutions. An annual report often contains much of use to genealogists. It might contain a picture of the facility, the numbers of admissions and discharges and deaths, an overall description of the facility, and even a list of the treatments offered. There are also annual reports for the state boards which oversaw the institutions.

Many annual reports are available on Google Books ( Go to Google Books and form a query that includes “annual report” and a year and the name of the institution. For example, click on these queries to see the reports they return.


If you have difficulty accessing records that you feel should be open, please contact the MGC Massachusetts Records Director at


Several state agencies have web portals for modern records access. These are often used to locate public records under the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Act, although some provide for access to patient records. Massachusetts General Law often prohibits providing patient information for patients in the modern department system. For example, here are the two request portals for modern records from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health:


Finding Aid

The original records of many hospitals and institutions are held in Massachusetts State Archives Record Group HS. For a detailed finding aid to these manuscripts, download the 208-page pdf here.

Dates Institutions Were Formed

Format of each entry: Year Established, Town Where Originally Established, Name When Established, Subsequent Names


1800, Boston, Boston Female Asylum, later called Boston Society for the Care of Girls, the Boston Children’s Aid Society, Boston Children’s Services, and the Home for Little Wanderers.


1830, Worcester, Worcester State Lunatic Hospital, later called Worcester State Hospital, Worcester State Hospital and Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital. See also the Worcester Farm Colony in Grafton.


1835, Boston, Boston Asylum and Trade Farm School for Indigent Boys, A private charity, merged in 1835 with the Boston Asylum for Indigent Boys to become the Boston Asylum and Farm School, later the Boston Farm and Trades School. Located on Thompson’s Island.


1839, South Boston, Boston Lunatic Hospital, later called Boston Insane Hospital, Boston State Hospital. Its Psychopathic Department became the Boston Psychopathic Hospital later known as the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.


1848, Westborough, State Reform School for Boys, Renamed Lyman School for Boys when it relocated in 1884. Branch called the Nautical Reform School existed 1859-1872 based for periods in Salem, Boston, and New Bedford harbors.


1848, South Boston (Watertown; after 1887, later Waltham), Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feebleminded Youth, later called Walter E. Fernald State School, Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center. See also Templeton Colony of Fernald School.


1852, Taunton, State Lunatic Hospital at Taunton, later called Taunton State Hospital for the Insane, Taunton State Hospital.


1852, Bridgewater, State Almshouse at Bridgewater, later called Bridgewater State Workhouse, Bridgewater State Farm, Bridgewater State Farm Hospital, State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, the Treatment Center for Sexually Dangerous Persons, M.C.I. Bridgewater


1852, Monson, State Almshouse at Monson, In 1864 Almshouse children from Bridgewater and Tewksbury were moved here to create the Monson Primary School


1852, Tewskbury, State Almshouse at Tewksbury, later called Tewksbury State Hospital, Gravestones at the hospital (also known as The Pines Cemetery):


1854, Lancaster, Lancaster Industrial School for Girls,


1856, Northampton, Lunatic Hospital at Northampton,


1873, Danvers, State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers,


1876, Dedham, Temporary Asylum for Discharged Female Prisoners, later called Dedham Temporary Home for Women and Children by 1910.


1882, Baldwinsville, a neighbor­hood of Tem­ple­ton, Hospital Cottages for Children,


1884, Westborough, Westborough Insane Asylum, later called Westborough Lunatic Asylum, Westborough State Hospital, and the Massachusetts State Hospital.


1884, Concord, Massachusetts Reformatory, later called M.C.I. Concord, cemetery stones:


1889, Foxborough, Massachusetts Hospital for Dipsomaniacs and Inebriates, later called Addiction treatment functions moved in 1914 to Pondville State Hospital in Norfolk.


1892, Medfield, Medfield Insane Asylum,


1895, Rutland, Rutland State Sanatorium,


1899, Templeton, Templeton Colony of Fernald School,


1902, Grafton, Worcester Farm Colony (part of the Worcester Lunatic Asylum), later called Grafton State Hospital.


1902, Gardner, State Colony for the Insane, later called North Central Correctional Institution.


1902, Shirley, Boys Reform School at Shirley, See also Industrial School for Boys.


1904, Boston, Industrial School and Home for Crippled and Deformed Children, later called Massachusetts Hospital School; today the Cotting School in Lexington. See blog post at


1905, Penikese Island, Gosnold, Penikese Hospital. Operated 1905-1920, fire in 1910 destroyed records.


1906, Wrentham, Wrentham State School,


1907, Lakeville, Lakeville State Sanatorium, later called Lakeville Hospital.


1907, North Reading, North Reading State Sanatorium, later called Berry Rehab Center.


1907, Westfield, Westfield State Sanatorium, later called Western Massachusetts Hospital.


1908, Shirley, Industrial School for Boys, later called M.C.I. Shirley.


1914, Norfolk, Norfolk State Hospital, later called M.C.I. Norfolk.


1922, Belchertown, Belchertown State School,


1930, Waltham, Metropolitan State Hospital, In 1955, William C. Gaebler Children’s Unit opened, renamed the Gaebler Children’s Center in 1969.


Links to Records by Institution


"The child above was boarded out by the Boston Children's Aid Society because her mother was ill." Placing-out, The Adoption History Project, Department of History, University of Oregon, Eugene.

Boston Female Asylum

Also known as Boston Society for the Care of Girls, Boston Children’s Aid Society, Boston Children’s Services, and the Home for Little Wanderers.

For a contemporary account, see Reminiscences of the Boston Female Asylum. Boston: Eastburn’s Press, 1844.

The records of the institution have been deposited at UMass/Boston; the finding aid is here. It includes items that have been digitized as well as manuscript items. The finding aid has links to the digitized items.

Ann S. Lainhart transcribed and annotated the first two volumes of records for the period 1800-1864. UMass/Boston has made her full work available online here.  This is a boon to researchers.

Asylum for Female Orphans


  • Volumes 1 and 2 (1800-1864) original records, FHL DGS 7943178 (image may only be viewed at a Family History Center or Affiliate Library.

  • Volumes 1 and 2 transcribed by Ann S. Lainhart with notations, UMass/Boston ebook.

Boston Female Asylum

Proceedings, Annual Reports

  • Volume 6 (1867 – 1877), Internet Archive images

  • Volume 7 (1877 – 1888), Internet Archive images

  • Volume 8 (1889 – 1900), Internet Archive images

  • Volume 9 (1901 – 1910), Internet Archive images

Boston Society for the Care of Girls


  • Volume 1 (1910-1912), Internet Archive images


A. Prentice, “State Lunatic Hospital,” Annual Report of the Trustees of the State Lunatic Hospital at Worcester, October 1867 (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1867), frontispiece.

Worcester State Lunatic Asylum

Also known as Worcester Lunatic Hospital, Worcester State Hospital and Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Temporary Asylum for the Chronically Insane, Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital; affiliate Worcester Farm Colony also known as the Grafton State Hospital.

For a history of the state’s first hospital for the mentally ill, see Gerald Grob. The State and the Mentally Ill: A History of Worcester State Hospital in Massachu­setts, 1830–1920. Chapel Hill: UniVolume N. C. Press, 1966, pp. XV + 399. See the catalog entry from the Boston Public Library here.

The earliest Worcester hospital records — although they are Massachusetts state records — are held in a private library’s offsite storage. That library is the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University School of Medicine, 10 Shattuck Street, Boston, MA 02115. Countway has “the first eighty years of operation of the institution through patient registries, admission record books, reports, and case books split into male and female volumes.” The Harvard catalog entry for the Worcester Lunatic Asylum patient records is here. To request access to an item, use this Ask Countway Form, providing box and file information from the catalog entry.

Two cemeteries were used for the burials of Worcester hospital patients, Hillside West Cemetery and Hillside East Cemetery. Although most state hospital cemeteries have markers that list only numbers, these cemeteries are exceptions as they include names and dates. Find-A-Grave has Hillside West Cemetery here; and Hillside East Cemetery here. The affiliated Worcester Farm Colony (Grafton State Hospital) cemetery is here.

The following table contains links to Family History microfilms which have scanned images online. Each microfilm as one or more items on it. For example, the digital collection 8093555 has six different register books recorded on one microfilm and now a part of one digital image database. To make it easier for you to find the exact register you need to study, click on the link to that register as an item in the digital database for the microfilm.

Worcester Insane Hospital


  • Volume 18 (1877-1906), FHL DGS 8093555, item 3

  • Volume 19 (1843-1876), FHL DGS 8093555, item 4

  • Volume 20 (1840-1892), FHL DGS 8093555, item 5

  • Volume 21 (1849-1902), first part, FHL DGS 8093555, item 6

  • Volume 21 (1849-1902), last part, FHL DGS 7833946, item 1

  • Volume 22 (1902-1907), FHL DGS 7833946, item 2

Worcester State Hospital


  • Research studies, 1910-1944, Massachusetts State Archives, Record Group HS7.11/1955X


General View, State Hospital, Westborough, Mass., from

Westborough Insane Asylum

Also known as the State Lunatic Hospital, Westborough State Hospital, and the Massachusetts State Hospital.

It was built on the former grounds of a state reformatory (when the Lyman School was moved to another site). It provided homeopathic treatment and took in patients from other hospitals who wanted this type of treatment. When it began using physicians from regular medical schools in 1939, it became like other hospitals.

For information on its closure in 2010, see Lee Hamel, “Westborough State Hospital Set to Close,” Telegram and Gazette, Worcester, Mass., Sunday, 11 April 2010.

The following table contains links to Family History microfilms which have scanned images online. Each microfilm as one or more items on it. For example, the digital collection 8093555 has six different register books recorded on one microfilm and now a part of one digital image database. To make it easier for you to find the exact register you need to study, click on the link to that register as an item in the digital database for the microfilm.

Westborough Insane Asylum

Impatient Registers

  • Volume 1 (1886-1891), FHL DGS 8093554, item 3

  • Volume 2 (1891-1898), FHL DGS 8093554, item 4

  • Volume 3 (1898-1905), first part, FHL DGS 8093554, item 5

  • Volume 3 (1905), second part, FHL DGS 8073427, item 1

  • Volume 4 (1905-1910) is missing

  • Volume 5 (1910-1915), FHL DGS 8073427, item 2

  • Volume 6 (1915-1918), FHL DGS 8073427, item 3

  • Volume 7 (1918), FHL DGS 8073427, item 4

Westborough Insane Hospital

Institutional Registers

  • Volume 16 (1886-1891), first part, FHL DGS 7833945, item 8

  • Volume 16 (1891-1902), last part, FHL DGS 8093555, item 1

  • Volume 17 (1902-1907), FHL DGS 8093555, item 2

Westborough State Hospital

Registers and Case Files

  • Inpatient commitment registers, 1886-1926, Massachusetts State Archives, record group HS7.04/1115X*

  • Inpatient case files, 1886-1960, 1970-1977, Massachusetts State Archives, record group HS7.04/173X*

  • Inpatient histories, 1886-1892, Massachusetts State Archives, record group HS7.04/278X

*Deemed restricted. Call the Massachusetts State Archives for access guidelines, 617-727-2816.

Post Office Box 5393, Cochituate, MA 01778

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