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A Life Lost to Mental Illness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month: Sharing Pauline’s Story

The only photo we have of Pauline and her family

Posted in ChicagoNow, May 26, 2014

My husband never knew his grandmother, Pauline Rose Levey. His father told him she had died, and since his father grew up in an orphanage, it seemed like a plausible explanation. But she didn’t really die until 1966. All those years my husband was growing up, she was buried alive in a mental institution, where she died alone.

We learned the truth about Pauline after my husband’s father died in 1972. At that point, my mother-in-law thought it was safe to share the family secret. Abandoned by her husband and left with four young children and no means to support them, she had what was called back then a “nervous breakdown.” Her children were disbursed among relatives, her husband disappeared, and she was institutionalized.

When we first heard this story, my husband and I were young and just starting our own family. So we stored this information in the back of our minds and went on with our lives. But my husband was always haunted by this puzzle on his family tree. As a psychiatrist, he wondered what had happened to her and why this shameful secret destroyed his father’s family. Ironically, 8 years ago, we found a picture labeled, “The whole darn family” –

On the back it said, “Indianapolis, Indiana.” Since our daughter and son-in-law had just moved to Indianapolis, it seemed possible that we might be able to unearth more information about Pauline and the mental illness that destroyed her life and separated her children from one another.

Here’s what we learned:

Pauline was born on September 1, 1884 in Russia and came to the United States in 1893 at the age of 9. She had some education in Russia and then attended school in Iowa from ages 10 to 16. She skipped a grade and was said to be a good student. She quit school because her father told her she had to go to work. Pauline was one of ten children. She had 3 brothers and 6 sisters.

In 1904 at the age of 20, Pauline moved from Iowa to Indianapolis, Indiana. About 1907, she married a tailor named Ira Levey, who was born in Russia and had come to the United States in 1900.

In 1908, Pauline had her first child, Alice (later known as Billie). By 1910, the family had moved to Chicago where the next child, Marie, was born. In 1913, Bertha (Bertie) came along, and in 1915, my husband’s father, Albert, was born. Ira’s business failed in Chicago, and by 1917 the family had moved back to Indianapolis. Pauline worked at Bloch’s, Quaker Oats factory, and in her husband’s tailor shop.

Near the end of 1920 when Pauline was 36 years old, she became mentally ill, and in December of 1920, she was admitted to Fletcher Sanitarium in Indianapolis. At the end of January of 1921, there was an insanity inquest with her husband as the primary witness. She was committed to Central State Hospital in Indianapolis on February 3, 1921 with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

At that time, she was described as having dark hair, grayish-brown eyes, standing 4 foot, 11 inches, and weighing 95 pounds. She told the admitting doctor that her husband kept her in rags. Her sister, Zell Bennett, said that Ira did not care for Pauline as he should have and that Pauline was too easygoing and too easily dominated. Another woman who knew Pauline when she was first married said she was a lovely woman, attractive and from a good family. She said that Pauline’s husband was very inconsiderate and extremely cruel to her, and that Pauline had become disturbed because of her difficult home situation and family pressures.

It is not clear what happened to Pauline’s family after her hospitalization. By April of 1921, Ira is listed at a different address in Indianapolis. What became of him after that is a mystery. Pauline’s three daughters were split up among relatives. We believe Bertie went to live with Pauline’s sister, Frances, and her husband, Harry Ellis. They had moved from Springfield, Ohio to University Park, Texas by 1930. Bertie went on to marry and lived in Dallas, Texas. It is not clear who took care of Marie and Alice (Billie). By 1930, both were living in Chicago. Billie lived alone in an apartment hotel, while Marie lived with cousins.

Pauline’s son and my husband’s father, Albert, apparently went to live with his uncle, Max Rose, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa at about age 6. One story is that his uncle was a professional gambler and a bachelor and therefore unable to care for Albert for very long. So, Albert was sent to Chicago to live with his Aunt Gerry and grandmother Lena Rose. When his grandmother became ill, Albert was sent to the Marx Nathan orphanage in Chicago around the age of 10, where he stayed until he graduated from high school.

As for Pauline, there were not many progress notes from the hospital until near the end of her life. Two of her sisters, Zell Bennett and Frances Ellis, were listed as her contacts. During her 45-year stay there, she had few if any visitors. She worked in the dining room at the hospital.

In 1965 at age 80, Pauline was placed in Borenstein Home for the Jewish Elderly because she was no longer able to climb the stairs to do her job in the dining room. Pauline’s sister-in-law, Becky Rose (her brother Paul’s wife) was a volunteer there. Neither Paul nor Becky had ever visited Pauline at the mental hospital, but Becky became friendly with her at the old age home. At the end of her life, Pauline was returned to Central State Hospital, as the home could not handle her delusions. She died on August 17, 1966 from bronchopneumonia and diabetes. Pauline was buried at Bnai Torah Cemetery in Indianapolis.

After learning her sad story from the hospital records, we decided to go with our daughter and son-in-law to visit her grave. There it was at the end of a long row next to a chain-link fence. I’m sure we were the first and only visitors:

In the Jewish tradition, we left stones on the grave. This is a Mitzvah called matzevah or setting a stone. It shows that you know the burial site exists and that the person is remembered with something solid.

We are looking for any descendants of Pauline or her siblings to help us learn something solid about this life destroyed by mental illness and institutionalization. We hope to set more stones for Pauline Rose Levey.


by Laurie Levy
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