Family secret: Missouri woman thought to have died in the 1940s actually lived until 2002

It’s been a family secret for decades, but now the secret is out.Seventy-five-year-old Fern Franco was one of nine people who died 20 years ago at a Chillicothe, Missouri, hospital. Former respiratory therapist Jennifer Hall was charged last month with Franco’s murder. She’s pleaded not guilty.However, there’s more to the story. Franco’s family thought she died in the late 1940s. They didn’t know she was still alive until long after she actually died in 2002.One decades-old photo is all Franco’s granddaughter has of her today.”It’s pretty precious,” Aprille Franco said of the over 60-year-old photo.Aprille Franco knows her grandmother was the victim of a crime, but that’s all she knows.”We always knew there was a family secret. We just didn’t know what it was,” Aprille Franco said. Fern Franco died in 2002. She was one of nine patients at a Chillicothe hospital given a deadly dose of a drug that caused suffocation. It wasn’t until years after lawsuits were filed over the hospital deaths that Aprille Franco discovered the circumstances surrounding her grandmother’s death.”We’ve been lied to our whole lives. Someone’s not telling us the truth,” Franco said. Most family members, like Aprille Franco, were told Fern Franco died in the late ’40s after Aprille’s father was born.The lawsuits revealed to the family that this wasn’t true. In fact, she spent most of her adult life at a state hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri. There she was treated for paranoid schizophrenia. Her husband sent her there after she tried to harm their newborn son. That state hospital is now the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph. For over a century, the hospital was a dumping ground for those with mental illness.”If the doctors deemed that there really was something that was wrong with that person. They could be they’re here the rest of their lives,” Glore Psychiatric Museum Communications and Tour Director Kami Jones said. “It was not uncommon for husbands to drop off their wives or brothers, their sisters — however the case may be — that woman would live the rest of her life here.”It’s hard to know what life was like for Fern Franco at the hospital. It was a place that used electroshock therapy, lobotomies and drugs like Thorazine to treat patients.Back in the ’40s, it didn’t take much for a husband to have their spouse committed.”Worrying too much about your kids, not doing your housework, not minding what you were told, reading too many books. There is a laundry list of reasons that you could be brought into the asylum as a woman. That’s all it took. That’s all it took,” Jones said.Today though, Aprille Franco is looking for answers.”She died alone. She was alone. No family. I mean, that kind of hurts. Even to this day. Yeah, to know that, you know, we were here the whole time,” Aprille Franco said. As for why the real story was kept from family members, Aprille Franco says she doesn’t know.That St. Joseph hospital closed in the ’90s. It’s thought that Fern Franco was moved to a facility in the Chillicothe area, where she likely lived the rest of her life. Aprille Franco is now looking into finding her grandmother’s state records, which may answer some of her questions.

It’s been a family secret for decades, but now the secret is out.

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Seventy-five-year-old Fern Franco was one of nine people who died 20 years ago at a Chillicothe, Missouri, hospital. Former respiratory therapist Jennifer Hall was charged last month with Franco’s murder. She’s pleaded not guilty.

However, there’s more to the story. Franco’s family thought she died in the late 1940s. They didn’t know she was still alive until long after she actually died in 2002.

One decades-old photo is all Franco’s granddaughter has of her today.

“It’s pretty precious,” Aprille Franco said of the over 60-year-old photo.

Aprille Franco knows her grandmother was the victim of a crime, but that’s all she knows.

“We always knew there was a family secret. We just didn’t know what it was,” Aprille Franco said.

Fern Franco died in 2002. She was one of nine patients at a Chillicothe hospital given a deadly dose of a drug that caused suffocation. It wasn’t until years after lawsuits were filed over the hospital deaths that Aprille Franco discovered the circumstances surrounding her grandmother’s death.

“We’ve been lied to our whole lives. Someone’s not telling us the truth,” Franco said.

Most family members, like Aprille Franco, were told Fern Franco died in the late ’40s after Aprille’s father was born.

The lawsuits revealed to the family that this wasn’t true.

In fact, she spent most of her adult life at a state hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri. There she was treated for paranoid schizophrenia. Her husband sent her there after she tried to harm their newborn son.

Decades-old photo of Fern Franco

KMBC

Decades-old photo of Fern Franco.

That state hospital is now the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph. For over a century, the hospital was a dumping ground for those with mental illness.

“If the doctors deemed that there really was something that was wrong with that person. They could be they’re here the rest of their lives,” Glore Psychiatric Museum Communications and Tour Director Kami Jones said. “It was not uncommon for husbands to drop off their wives or brothers, their sisters — however the case may be — that woman would live the rest of her life here.”

It’s hard to know what life was like for Fern Franco at the hospital. It was a place that used electroshock therapy, lobotomies and drugs like Thorazine to treat patients.

Back in the ’40s, it didn’t take much for a husband to have their spouse committed.

“Worrying too much about your kids, not doing your housework, not minding what you were told, reading too many books. There is a laundry list of reasons that you could be brought into the asylum as a woman. That’s all it took. That’s all it took,” Jones said.

Today though, Aprille Franco is looking for answers.

“She died alone. She was alone. No family. I mean, that kind of hurts. Even to this day. Yeah, to know that, you know, we were here the whole time,” Aprille Franco said.

As for why the real story was kept from family members, Aprille Franco says she doesn’t know.

That St. Joseph hospital closed in the ’90s. It’s thought that Fern Franco was moved to a facility in the Chillicothe area, where she likely lived the rest of her life. Aprille Franco is now looking into finding her grandmother’s state records, which may answer some of her questions.

Contributed by local news sources

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