Before I left Alaska after my mother’s funeral, my step-dad gave me the wedding ring that my mother had given him. On the inside of the simple gold band is engraved the short message “BK to EW”.

There was some debate around the dining room table as to what the initials stood for…neither my cousin nor I could remember the exact names at the time. But I am a huge genealogy buff and have spent countless hours on, so I looked them up when I got back to Iceland.

BK and EW were my mother’s paternal grandparents. EW was born and raised in California. There’s not much info on her in, but I also have a family genealogy book that I will have to dig out as I know she’s in it. But there was an impressive amount of information on BK from census records and passenger manifests.

BK, it seems, was born in Germany in the late 1800s. In June of 1890, when he was 11, he immigrated to the US from his home in Berlin with his parents, his older brother and his younger sister.

They sailed during the Golden Age of Transatlantic Crossings on the Columbia, which was one of the Hamburg-Amerika Line’s new luxury passenger ships, similar to the Titanic, with amazing Art Nouveau interiors. After about a week at sea, they arrived in New York. The passenger manifest for the ship is all in German and documented in beautifully handwritten script.

Transatlantic passenger ship "Columbia."

Transatlantic passenger ship “Columbia.”

The "musiksalon" or music room.

The “musiksalon” or music room.

Fast forward 10 years to the 1900 census, and the family has made it across the US and settled in California, probably by rail. One thing caught my attention with the census…there was a ridiculous amount of people in it. Usually it’s just a family or two per household. But there were over 50 people on this one…all with different last names. So I looked for the address…and realized it was a head count for the Napa State Hospital for the Insane.

I knew that my grandmother had been a nurse at a mental hospital in Napa when she was younger but had never really thought much about it. Imagine if her father was an inmate?! I’d have to update my State Dept medical records and let them know that insanity actually does run in my family. I’ve always been a bit suspicious anyway. 😉

But happily, both he and his brother were listed as “employees” and not “boarders.” But what a place to work! This particular mental hospital was a giant Gothic monstrosity built in 1872 and is one of California’s five state hospitals.

Old postcard of Napa State Hospital for the Insane.

Old postcard of Napa State Hospital for the Insane. Source:

Photo of hospital nurses, 1948. Source: Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine.

Photo of hospital nurses, 1948. Source: Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine.

Originally a traditional psychiatric hospital, it is now the second largest forensic hospital in the US, which means it is filled with violent criminals…basically this is where all the felons go when they’re deemed Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. Think Hannibal Lecter. A current writer and psychiatrist there just came out with a book in 2014 called Behind the Gates of Gomorrah, if that tells you anything.

In researching the hospital for this blog post, I came across a 2007 historical article in a Napa Valley community magazine about the life of nurses in the hospital in 1948. I would swear on her grave that my grandmother is in that photo…back row…third in from the left. I have a portrait of her from that time, and it looks identical…but it’s just a little too blurry to be 100% sure.

In a 1940 census my 29-year-old grandmother was listed as a hospital nurse. In 1948 my mother would’ve been two years old. I would be born 23 years later in the nearby St. Helena Sanitarium.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Old postcard of St. Helena Sanitarium. Source:

Old postcard of St. Helena Sanitarium. Source: