How to find out medical history of a dead grandparent?
February 1, 2006 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Is there any way to find out my grandfather's medical / criminal history when a) I know almost nothing about him and b) He's been dead since 1994?

I'm researching my family's genealogy, which is proving difficult since there is so little known beyond my parents. My dad hardly knew his father and he either doesn't remember anything, doesn't know everything, or is reluctant to discuss it. I've never even seen a picture of him.

I've heard conflicting stories about what happened to my grandfather. Some involving criminal acts and some involving family feuds. One thing I do know is that he was institutionalized at some point in the late 50s - early 60s, was probably shuffled around a bit through the years, and ended up dying in the care of a nursing home. His grave is probably just a stone in some state plot with nothing but a number on it. There are no living relatives who can (or will) provide me with any information.

I've done some searches of local major newspapers which turned up nothing. The crime that may have been committed was probably not big enough to be a major news story back then. I don't believe he spent time in prison, though I'm not positive, I think he was committed instead.

One of the state hospitals I was told he spent time at (Medfield State) has since been closed. The nursing home he died at is also closed. I do not know the location of any other hospitals or homes he spent time at. There must have been a file on him at some point, listing the reasons why he was there. Any records, if they still exist, are probably in a basement somewhere.

So am I SOL? Is there someplace where these records might be archived? Who do I call? Would a private investigator be able to find these? What would such a service cost? Perhaps a sympathetic state employee, if I could find one, could help me out? There are those "instant background check" services, but I expect they're mostly a scam.

Relevant info: I'm in Massachusetts and I'm 99.99% sure everything that occurred happened within the state. The family settled here from Italy (my Great-Grandfather, but that will probably be next week's question) and never left. I have a few facts obtained from vital records (date of birth, death, SSN, etc), I know where he lived, but not much else.

For some reason I can't explain, this is very important to me. I was brought up with no sense of family history and I want to change that. There are also practical reasons for wanting to know about this, in case there's some mental illness I should be aware of.
posted by bondcliff to Human Relations (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
boncliff, first of all I'd like to say that I deeply feel for you. I never met any of my grand parents, and I can understand the deep-seated need to go into one's past. I would love to know more about my own roots, too.

Regarding your search - you might want to consult your state's medical archives and criminal files. Because of the various institutions that your grandfather has been in touch with over his years, there are records archived.

My course of action would be to use the services of a lawyer to unseal this information. And encourage your father to open up with more information, given just how serious your search is for you. Good luck to you.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:54 AM on February 1, 2006

Assuming you know your granfather's full name, and assuming he had a Social Security number, you can do a Social Security Death Index search, which is free via various genealogy sites and maybe the Social Security agency itself -- just Google "SSDI" and all the sources pop up. This will tell you when and where he died, AND, his social security number (once you die it's no secret anymore.)
Several of those genealogy sites for a fee may then give you other information that's linked to the SS#. At the very least a date and place of death will let you track him backward.
Medical records are routinely destroyed after seven years by many institutions, but you might luck out with a state hospital. Even if it's closed the records may have been transferred. Unlocking records of a deceased person should be relatively easy.
A Massachusetts CORI check should uncover any criminal record. CORI records are not purged at death, and any restrictions on their release are expressly lifted at death in the MA Public Records Law.
posted by beagle at 9:13 AM on February 1, 2006

Looking at my own father's SSDI record, it gives you a date of birth also. Among the paid information via the SSDI system are things like phone directory records. Also, you can request the original SS application from the Social Security Administration, which should have more info on it. Current applications require parents names, etc., but that may not have been the case way back when.
posted by beagle at 9:21 AM on February 1, 2006

Response by poster: FYI: I've scoured (I'm a member) and the SSDI. I have most of the information that can be obtained from vital records (birth, marriage, death) and I've looked through city directories, which at least gave me some idea of when and where he lived before "it" happened.

Thanks for the CORI link!
posted by bondcliff at 9:29 AM on February 1, 2006

I've been meaning to ask a similar question, bondcliff, so, good timing--I have been poking around the web looking for information about my Dad's family, with little luck. The holy grail would be a photograph of my Grandfather, who died when my Dad was just 11 years old. I have a feeling it's sitting in a museum or library somewhere in Northern California ...

Anyway, I take it from your comment, beagle, that you think the paid version of is worth the money?
posted by whatnot at 9:40 AM on February 1, 2006

I have not used any paid genealogical site, I just see what they offer on a paid basis. With a little sleuthing most of that is available free, though not necessarily online.
posted by beagle at 9:45 AM on February 1, 2006

Response by poster: Whatnot, if I can add advice to my own thread:

If you know where your grandfather lived when he was about 18, and if he graduated from public schools, see if the local library has yearbooks from back then.

I was at my grandfather's town's library yesterday trying to find any clues and I came across the yearbooks. My heart was pounding as I flipped through the pages, thinking I might finally see a photo of him. Unfortunately, I didn't find anything and when I got home I checked my notes and there was a quote from my dad about his father's "sixth grade education." Plus, I realized back then there's a good chance he would have gone to a Catholic school anyway. YMMV. is fascinating, but it's hit or miss. I've found very little about my grandfather, other than his and his family's names on a 1930s census, but I did find a copy of my GREAT-grandfather's WW1 draft registration card, which was pretty neat.

I've not found their names on any passenger lists, which surprises me.

If there's some specific info you're looking for that might be there, and you don't mind giving up personal information to a Random Internet Person, feel free to email me and I'll look him up for you.

Also, if you have a card to a half-way decent library, see if they have any on-line records. The Boston PL has some census stuff, which I only found out about after I joined

Good luck!
posted by bondcliff at 9:51 AM on February 1, 2006

Best answer: My sister works for the MA State Crime lab and this is her advice.
There is only a limited amount of time during which another person's CORI is available to the public. The window, in it's most general terms, is open between the time a person is convicted and remains open until a few years after release (it varies depending on the crime, the incarceration length, and parole terms). After that window is closed, the CORI is no longer viewable to the public.

So that's not going to be any help.

What I believe you can do, if you know details about the case, is go directly to the courthouse where the case was decided and request the records. You need to go in armed with as much information as possible, including the person's name, the year the case was decided, and the type of crime. I think you can find more details on this process (including what the public has a right to know) here:
If you want her email, drop me a line, I'm not sure if she knows more than that, but she's local which might help. I'd also suggest going to Boston Public just to see what types of information they have available, I'm always surprised at the crazy geniuses that work there.
posted by jessamyn at 10:24 AM on February 1, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks, jessamyn! Unfortunately I don't have enough details so I don't know where and when the crime (if any... ) took place. One of the stories I heard is that his family had him committed, so it may not have even gone through the courts.

I may email you for her contact info in the future, if it comes to that. Thank you again.

I regret not being interested in this back around 1992 or so. I grew up assuming he was dead (Obi Wan told me a young Jedi killed him) and only recently found out when he actually died.
posted by bondcliff at 10:39 AM on February 1, 2006

Regarding Jessamyn's sister's advice, that's correct but I do believe the restriction expires at death, and the records are never expunged. As stated here on the Massachusetts Archives page: "The C.O.R.I. protection is expressly lifted on information regarding deceased persons." The specific law is here.
posted by beagle at 1:33 PM on February 1, 2006

Best answer: I know you said you had SSDI info., but make sure you don't just grab the online data but actually order a copy of the Social Security application--the SS-5, not the NUMIDENT printout. It costs $27 and takes six weeks to arrive, and you will get a Xerox copy of the actual application he filled out to get an SS number assigned to him. This will include birthdate, birth town, parents' names, including his mother's maiden name, which is hard to get otherwise.

And my two cents is that is awesome and the best online genealogy site, by far. If you subscribe to only one site, that's the one to pick.
posted by Asparagirl at 2:47 PM on February 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

one more update, confirming what beagle already said, same source
"I just spoke[a staff member] who knows a lot about background checks, and asked him what he knew about how one could proceed with getting info on a deceased family member.

He said (as I thought) that once you are deceased there is no expectation of privacy for criminal records. Which means that you should be able to file under the Freedom of Information Act to get a copy of his criminal record from the state (I think this would have to be filed to the Criminal History Systems Board). Once you have that, it would have all the docket info on the case, and you could then go to the courts to get the full info."
posted by jessamyn at 10:29 AM on February 2, 2006

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