In the late 1940s friends of Wilhelmina Franklin, then about 50, noticed that she was acting peculiarly and called her only son, Willie, who was living in Washington, to come to South Carolina and get her.

When it became impossible to care for her at home, Mrs. Franklin was placed in St. Elizabeths mental hospital and began what would be nearly four decades in government-run institutions in the District.

Yesterday, at 4 a.m., the 86-year-old Franklin was found frozen to death on the grounds of D.C. Village. She was still in the care of that city-run nursing home in far Southwest. Her wheelchair was tipped over next to her, and she was wearing only a red cotton dress, a sweater and socks.

Franklin was last seen alive by a staff member at 8:40 p.m. Tuesday, and she was not in her room for the hourly bed checks at 9 p.m., 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., but no one started looking for her until 11 p.m., according to persons involved in a city investigation of her death.

"The staff was telling me this morning how much she hated the cold weather," said Katherine B. Carroll, D.C. Village director of nursing. "We had no idea she went outside" and could not guess why she had done so, Carroll said.

No one worried about Franklin until the 11 p.m. check, because she usually did not go to bed until then, Carroll said.

"It was negligent on somebody's part to let her get out like that . . . . She had a habit of wandering," said her son, Willie M. Franklin, 71, who now is retired and lives with his wife Annie in Southeast Washington.

Carroll described Franklin as a vivacious, outgoing woman who loved to smoke cigarettes and wheel around the corridors talking with everyone. "This incident has upset the staff terribly" because they were particularly fond of her, Carroll said.

Wilhelmina Cunningham Franklin spent more than 20 years at St. Elizabeths after she was diagnosed in the 1940s as needing psychiatric care, her son said. She was transferred in 1969 to D.C. Village, the city's nursing facility that primarily serves low-income persons, according to city records.

Her death could have implications beyond the concerns of the Franklin family. The District government hopes to transfer hundreds of patients now at St. Elizabeths to a special facility at D.C. Village, as part of its plan for taking over management of the federally operated mental institution.

St. Elizabeths is under court order to deinstitutionalize as many patients as possible to the least restrictive living environment, and has been in the process of doing so for years. But the city has been trying to speed up the process recently as part of an agreement with the federal government to reduce costs at the massive institution, which serves mainly District residents.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said D.C. Village is up for recertification at the end of this month for purposes of receiving Medicaid and Medicare funds. There have been no major problems cited there so far, although a patient activities program was found to have deficiencies and there have been complaints about food, he said.

Franklin's death probably would not jeopardize certification if it were an isolated incident and not indicative of a larger problem, such as staffing, an official familiar with the certification process said. But investigators are concerned that a search for her did not begin sooner.

"The first time you notice someone is missing, you go look for them," the official said.

Persons active in the deinstitutionalization effort were reluctant yesterday to criticize the city or D.C. Village staff. Norman Rosenberg, director of the Mental Health Law Project, said only that his group is "going to have to take a good, hard look at it the death ."

Franklin was born in Greenwood, S.C., and lived in that rural area most of her life. To support the family, she would "do like people do in South Carolina. We go to white people's houses and we clean up," her son recalled.

Willie Franklin moved to the Washington area in 1941. He and his wife worked as a chauffeur and maid to a wealthy family in Maryland. When he brought his mother here, his father Charles had been dead for years, as had his mother's only sister.

When he and his wife realized that his mother could not be left alone because of her emotional problems, they took her to D.C. General Hospital for observation.

She was transferred to St. Elizabeths when she was found to need psychiatric care, Willie Franklin said.