Penisson Family

The mystery of how Dr. Cowan came to die in an insane asylum

The New Orleans Insane Asylum where Dr. Cowan died.

The New Orleans Insane Asylum was supposed to be a temporary establishment for the indigent insane. It ended up lasting nearly 30 years.

When I saw that Dr. Leonidas Cowan – a member of my family tree – died at the insane asylum in 1877, I wondered if he’d been treating patients and died suddenly. Then I found his admission record.

Leonidas wasn’t a native of Louisiana. He grew up in North Carolina. Why he came to Louisiana, I can’t tell you. All I know is he married Eliza Brogden about 1860, which brought him into my family.

Eliza’s mother was Sedalie Penisson. The Penisson family in the U.S. started with a single Penisson who crossed an ocean to Louisiana, fathered 11 children and established roots that now stretch across the United States.

Like her mother, Eliza died young, making her story difficult to trace. The Penisson book that a cousin put together in the 1980s says she had two little girls before dying. That turned out to only be part of her story.

Eliza and her doctor husband seem to have established a country home in St. Mary Parish and a city home in New Orleans. Leonidas worked as a surgeon in the city, once tending to a drunk woman’s bullet wounds in the drug store where her husband shot her. Big city life, huh? No wonder they kept a place in the country.

The child called Isabella on the census record is a mystery to me, assuming she was a child. Mitty died in 1869 so this may have been yet another daughter who died young.

Life in the city must have been fairly comfortable. They had the means to have a live-in servant. How quickly everything would fall apart.

Far from having just two girls, Leonidas and Eliza had five children: Marie Charlotte Coraline, Rosalie Emma Agnes, Mitty Mary, Leona and James. Decades later, the family would only remember the two oldest girls. They completely forgot about Leona and James, which seems a bit odd, especially since Leona married into a St. Mary Parish family – and the Penissons were very much of St. Mary and the adjacent Assumption parishes. Little Mitty Mary died young.

Eliza herself – according to the family’s dusty memory – died in 1871, which would’ve been the same year James was born. Just a few years later, Leonidas died in the city’s insane asylum.

Why Leonidas was committed, I can’t tell you. I’ve been unable to find an interdiction record for him. One day, I’ll try to look up his hospital records. I did find a transcription of his admission notation, confirming that he was very much admitted and not just there treating patients. And that record itself is strange.

The next of kin is Eliza Cowan, who would’ve been dead several years at this point. Why would he list her as the family point of contact? Did he go off the rails when she died and left him with four little kids?

And what became of the children? Eliza’s brother was living in the city, working as the head bookkeeper for a company on Poydras and living in a nice part of town with his wife and daughter. Yet, he apparently didn’t take in the orphaned children. According to the 1880 census, Leona was living in an orphan asylum. The two eldest girls may have moved in with family in the country because they married within a few years of their father’s death. What became of little James until he was of age is unclear.

The girls, at least, had fulfilling lives. Charlotte married Emile Barras and had 12 children. She’s buried in Gibson. Emma married a tailor named Charles Maloz and had 10 children. Leona married John Templet and moved to Texas. She had eight children, including a son named for her father.

As for James, his story was a sad one. He became a cook, moved to Houston near his sister and died of tuberculosis. When she filled out his birth certificate, Leona couldn’t remember his birth day. It’s possible they never knew it because of the turmoil that must have punctuated James’ early years.

That death certificate is the only record proving James was a child of Leonidas and Emma. Born in 1871, no one filed a birth certificate if his birth happened in New Orleans. Both his parents were dead by the time the 1880 census rolled around. And the extended family just forgot he and Leona even existed.

None of that tells me how Dr. Cowan went from being a respected physician to dying in an insane asylum.

Growing up, I was always told that the Penissons were known for being a little crazy. Now I wonder if the inspiration for that story was Leonidas.

1 thought on “The mystery of how Dr. Cowan came to die in an insane asylum”

  1. My first thought was perhaps that Leonidas had developed early-onset Alzheimer’s — which would have accounted for his not remembering that his wife was dead. It sounds like he would have been young even for that, but who knows?

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