Tracking Martha Johnson

I was contacted through this blog by the great-great-grandson of Martha. He was looking for information on her birth and death details.

Birth

We knew from her marriage record to Donald Sutherland on 23 Jan 1840 that her maiden name is Martha Johnson, and that she lived in Ungersta. Interestingly, on her son James’s marriage record she is recorded as Martha Jamieson. Being a little less specific about her surname and searching for Martha J* soon reveals the following record in the Old Parish Records of Births and Baptisms in Unst.

Day of the
Childs Birth
Day of the
Childs Baptism
Baptisms 1816
1816
April 1
1816
April 3
John Jameson in Ungersta a Daur Martha

Seeing this record explains the discrepancy and also the difficulty in finding it. This is a common problem with patronymic surnames, since that record is indexed as Martha Jameson, not Johnson as she was actually known.

Death

Finding her death record was a little more difficult however. From census returns we know she died between 1861 and 1871 since in 1861 she is in Unst with her family, but in 1871 she is nowhere to be found and her husband, who is still living in Skaw, is recorded as Widowed. She didn’t die in Unst though as there is no sign of her in the Unst death records.

So, since I was in Edinburgh at the ScotlandsPeople Centre I had a thorough look at all the Martha’s who died anywhere in Shetland between 1861 and 1871, still no sign. Expanding my search for Martha Sutherland’s in the whole of Scotland I found one possibility, a married woman called Martha Sutherland who died in The Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum in Montrose – a long way from Unst!

No. Name and Surname.
Rank or Profession, and whether
Single, Married, or Widowed.
When and Where Died. Sex. Age. Name, Surname, & Rank or Profession
of Father.
Name, and Maiden Surname of Mother.
Cause of Death, Duration of
Disease, and Medical Attendant
by whom certified.
77 Martha
Sutherland

Married

1867
March
Thirteenth

Lunatic Asylum
Sunnyside
Parish of Montrose

F 50
Years
Phthisis

Six Months

as certified by
J.C.Howden
M.D.

The informant didn’t know enough about her, or didn’t bother to find out enough, to fill in her husband’s name, which is usually recorded below the word Married, nor her parents names. So, this could be her, but equally it could be anyone.

Upstairs in Register House, above the ScotlandsPeople search rooms, is the Historical Records search room, so I looked for admission records for the Sunnyside hospital in their catalog index. I found them, but they are not digitised, and they are stored in the University of Dundee Archives. I was ready to pop over to Dundee the following day to get a look at them, only to discover that Thursday (the last day of my visit to Scotland this time) was the day their archives are closed! I definitely had a “so near, and yet so far” feeling then.

Sunnyside Hospital

Sunnyside Hospital. Photo courtesy of the Memories of Sunnyside webpage.

So, I emailed the Dundee Archives in the hope that they could look up the Admission records and find the Martha Sutherland who died in the Hospital and see if there was any additional information recorded that would refute or prove that she was the one we were looking for. I wasn’t sure how well indexed such records were, whether looking one person up, even with such a narrow date window (1861 – 1867), would mean literally turning every page.

Well, I was very pleasantly surprised. It was an easy look up for the archivist to do, and by the time I left Register House on Thursday aftenoon (where there is no internet access) and could read my email for the day, I had a response from them with the details from the Hospital Records. It was a woman from Unst, with a husband Donald Sutherland who lived in Skaw. It was our girl! She checked into the Hospital on 9 January 1865, at age 48. It was recorded as her third attack, the first being when she was 36 years of age.

The record also shed some light on why she was there. It records the Supposed Cause as “Death of an infant from being overlaid and death of a child thereafter from burning.”

It just shows that it really is worth following every possible lead, even if you don’t think it’s likely that someone would be so far from home when they died, Unst to Montrose is quite a long way from home.

I’d like to try and find the children who died but that will be the subject of a future blog post.

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8 thoughts on “Tracking Martha Johnson

  1. One of my great granddads died in Sunnyside in 1919. Apparently Sunnyside was chosen as the destination for Shetland people with mental problems because a civil servant looked at a map of Scotland and saw Shetland in in a box due east of Montrose.

    • Hi John,

      Doesn’t sound so far fetched given the problems we still have with getting Shetland in the right place on the map even now!

      Cheers
      Morag

  2. Just when you think the story is completed there is so much more to uncover. Those poor babies! I am definitely interested in what drove Martha to the point where she did such things. Great detective work!

    • It is tough to lose one baby, no wonder losing two had her in the asylum. A very sad story. I hope to find the babies, but I suspect they may be pre-1855 and so before statutory records.

  3. Hi Morag,
    Just to record again my thanks for your excellent investigative work. From a limited amount of further research, it appears that “death from being overlaid” was a very commonly attributed cause of death when no other cause could be established. And, just as in many cases where Sudden Infant Death Syndrome has been seen as the mother’s fault in recent years regardless of any culpability, “death from being overlaid” was assumed to be a failing of the mother (or nurse, as applicable) in the 19th century. I can’t help but suspect that an incorrect blaming of Martha for the death of her child would have excerbated the pain and grief of the loss, and a further child dying would easily have been too much to bear (or perhaps too much for her husband to accept her innocence regarding?).

    Thanks again,
    Derek

  4. Thank you for this Morag, her husband Donald was a 1st cousin 4x removed to me and I wondered why I could not find her after 1861. There are big gaps between some of her children: 7 yrs, 6yrs and 5yrs.. I also think it noteworthy that three of her children and her mother all left the Shetlands, perhaps they felt the need to get away from any bad feelings. I notice though that her son James named a daughter Martha so he still loved her.

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