March 9th, 2014
Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Ball, 1865
The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians had frequent visitors, who were welcome to tour the facility during visiting hours. (See last two posts about visitors.) When the editor of the Hudsonite showed up unannounced–and not on a visiting day–he was nonetheless welcomed and given a tour by the asylum’s financial clerk, Charles Seely. In turn, the editor wrote a glowing report for his readers in which he told them that the asylum “fairly shone” and that “from the basement throughout the wards, in the kitchen and dining rooms, everything was bright and cheery.” Most visitors were inclined to be pleased with the asylum, and it was not until the few years before the end of its existence that the asylum began to regularly receive less than positive reports.
Though the Canton Asylum did not put on public balls and other activities the way some asylums did, guests of the professional staff were welcomed. The financial clerk’s wife and Dr. Turner’s wife hosted their friends as they might in an ordinary household, and the Sioux Valley News reported that they once jointly entertained 40 guests at a party where everyone played card games and enjoyed refreshments. In a time when most asylum staffs resided at their places of employment, it is understandable that they entertained friends there. Many superintendents felt that doing so helped provide a family atmosphere that benefited the patients.
Nurses’ Sitting Room, circa 1903, Medfield Insane Asylum, courtesy Harvard Art Museum
Ready for a Badminton Game, circa 1875, These People May be Visitors, Patients, or Staff
March 2nd, 2014
Though Lunacy Commissions and other visitors who provided oversight to asylums could be misled (see last post), word of actual conditions in an asylum nonetheless leaked out. Sometimes attendants talked, but more often, former patients spoke out against any abusive or inhumane conditions they had endured during their stays. Though these accounts were often dismissed, the public did become curious about conditions in insane asylums and at times speculated wildly about what might actually be happening to patients. At times, newspapers provided on-the-spot reporting by sending someone into an asylum undercover.
In 1887, New York World reporter, Nellie Bly, famously entered the notorious Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island as a patient. After ten days, her editor obtained her release, and Bly wrote a scathing expose that shot her, the newspaper, and the asylum to fame. As a result, the asylum was investigated and conditions improved for a time. Perhaps in imitation, the San Francisco Examiner in 1888 sent a reporter to the Stockton State Mental Asylum to get its own local story. This reporter stayed several weeks in the asylum, but unlike Bly, found little amiss. He did not find the filth and degradation he expected, nor the brutality and mistreatment he anticipated. Though the reporter did witness “two acts of brutality,” he believed that they were in direct violation of the asylum’s rules and not a common occurrence.
Masonic Temple Band Visiting Stockton to Provide Music, courtesy Bank of Stockton Historical Photo Collection
Stockton State Hospital
February 27th, 2014
Photos Showed What Words Could Not
Though many patients felt they didn’t get enough visitors, and others didn’t like being treated as entertainment for the thrill-seeking public (see last blog), certain visitors were supposed to help asylum patients. Most states set up a Lunacy Commission whose job it was to visit and inspect the state’s insane asylums. These appointed personnel were supposed to go through the facilities and ensure that patients were being treated humanely. They were also charged with reviewing the superintendent’s management and suggesting changes for the benefit of the institution; this oversight could include reviewing the asylum’s financial records and expenditures. The Government Hospital for the Insane, later St. Elizabeths, was an exception in that it was overseen by a Board of Visitors who performed much the same function.
Most asylums were not at all afraid or ashamed to have their finances reviewed. Many superintendents were proud of their fiscal management and also grateful for numerous charitable contributions such as newspaper subscriptions, special entertainments, gifts of furniture, and the like. They enjoyed showing off the productivity of their patients in terms of food raised, garments sewed, etc. However, superintendents realized that all patients did not present well, and usually took pains to ensure that visiting officials saw their institutions at their best. Most asylums kept the calmer, better-behaved patients in wards closer to the administrative offices. Recovering patients often moved from ward to ward as they got better, and eventually ended up in one of these more public wards. When visitors saw such patients, who were often nearly recovered or had minor illnesses to begin with, they were reassured. Any cruel treatment, confinement, and restraint generally occurred on wards which were not shown to the public. This is one reason that patient abuse could thrive despite the oversight built into the asylum system.
Montevue Asylum, African-American Ward
Montevue Asylum in Maryland, 1909, Photographed by the State’s Lunacy Commission
February 23rd, 2014
A Trolley Helped Make Visiting Easy, 1907
Though few people wanted to be in an asylum–probably including its staff at times–many people did go to asylums either out of a sense of duty or of curiosity. Bands from a nearby town would often provide music for patients, while other people would offer lectures, magic lantern shows and other entertainments, or conduct religious services. Family members also visited, though not with as great a frequency as most patients would have liked. Asylums generally served a local population, but the “local” area could be geographically immense in an era without access to easy travel. Some families couldn’t afford to visit, others couldn’t take time off from other duties if they were far away, and others may have been glad to abandon a troublesome charge to the care of a state institution. Additionally, superintendents actively discouraged family visits or simply wouldn’t allow them at all, saying that these visits either upset the patients or made them want to go home before they were actually cured. Medical staff believed that patients could trick family members visiting for a few hours into thinking them well enough to return home when they really were not, thus ruining all the staff’s hard work and forcing a relapse.
Other people who came to asylums were simply curious. Some wanted to see patients because they were interested in mental health, while others looked at patients as entertainment on the order of a circus sideshow. Some authorities were appalled at the idea of curiosity-seekers, saying that patients in a hospital with physical ailments would never be subjected to such indignities. However, tourists and other visitors were often allowed in asylums, and there is no doubt that many patients resented their visits.
The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was no exception. People visiting Canton or simply passing through the area, school students, and newspaper reporters often stopped at the asylum for a tour or made arrangements to do so. A staff member showed visitors around, and Dr. Harry Hummer tried to be on hand whenever medical students were going through the facility. Visiting hours were from 1 – 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays.
The Public Outside Utica State Lunatic Asylum
Day Room for Male Patients
February 20th, 2014
Dr. Clouston’s Book
Though most patients in insane asylums could not escape physically (see last two posts), doctors may have inadvertently caused them to lose touch with reality by dosing them with opium and other narcotics. In The Actions of Neurotic Medicines in Insanity (1871), Dr. T. S., Clouston described experiments he conducted on patients using medicines like bromide of potassium, opium, cannabis Indica (a more sedative variety of the cannabis family), along with Scotch whiskey and beef tea as controls. He particularly wanted to see how these substances acted on patients who were in a “maniacal” or excited state. (Perhaps to his credit, Clouston performed the experiments on himself and his assistant, as well.)
Clouston found that none of the substances created a narcotic effect in excited subjects, though they did produce what he called a “natural sleep.” He later experimented on chronic patients, giving them increasing doses of opium over twelve weeks,. Higher dosages quieted their levels of excitement, though the effect did not last. Clouston took careful notes about his subjects, and eventually combined a tincture of cannabis and a dose of bromide, which worked very well in most of the patients. He had continued this treatment for eight months at the time he wrote.
Clouston seems to have been very careful with his patients, noting their temperature, pulse, weight gain or loss, and so on, and adjusting medicines accordingly. He tried to give patients enough medicine to calm their manic states, without unduly sedating them, and he stopped treatment whenever he saw that a patient could not tolerate it well. However, given the ease of administering these powerful drugs to patients, who can say how many doctors indiscriminately dosed patients for the convenience of their asylum’s staff? In a period when little was known about the background causes for psychological problems, keeping patients in a narcotic haze may have been the easiest–and most common–thing to do.
Opium Held High Interest in the 1800s
- Tincture of Cannabis
February 16th, 2014
Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Ball, 1865
It is likely that all insane asylums held patients who managed to escape (see last post). These attempts were met with a variety of responses from the community. Especially in the earlier days of asylum-building, the institution’s affiliated city actively worked to bring the asylum in, and the townspeople were quite proud of their magnificent new structure and the asylum’s important work. Generally, citizens were both curious and sympathetic toward patients, and asylums often hosted community events like dances to help abate any fears concerning patients that townspeople might harbor. Sometimes townspeople became quite familiar with patients and called asylum staff when they noticed someone at large whom they didn’t think had parole privileges. Newspapers do not generally denote any particular hysteria or fear on the part of the public when a patient escaped, IF the patient was believed to be nonviolent. Asylums which housed the criminally insane or held patients known to have been violent before committal were viewed with some dismay on the part of townspeople. Word of an escape could wreak panic in that instance.
An Escaped Lunatic
Relatives were notified when a patient escaped, and institutions were charged with making every effort to find and return these patients to the asylum. However, patients often had time on their side. In the second annual report of the New York State Commission in Lunacy, 1890, guidelines were set for the length of time the asylum could (or should) pursue a patient’s return. Any patient who managed to remain free for 30 days had to be discharged from the asylum’s books and could not be readmitted without a new medical certificate. This provision derived from the belief that an insane person was “liable to recover at any time.” The intent of the commission was to make sure that an escaped patient was not subsequently committed when he or she was no longer insane.
Newspaper Account of Escape
February 13th, 2014
Escape of Keosoht
Patients were often brought to insane asylums against their wills, and then stayed in them against their wills. Many were heartbroken to think that relatives or spouses would commit them to treatment in such places, and some patients discovered to their horror that there would be little chance of returning to their homes. Patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians faced even more trauma, because a stay at this asylum meant leaving their own culture to come into an unfamiliar one. Language barriers made even common problems worse. Patients sometimes acted on their desire to return home and left the asylum. Most were caught and returned, because the staff at the asylum and lawmen knew patients would generally head for their home reservations. Still, escapes were embarrassing for the asylum’s superintendents and had to be duly reported to Washington, D.C.
In a few instances, patients who made an escape were allowed to return to their reservations without pursuit–perhaps giving hope to others considering escape.
Escape of Alfred One Feather
February 9th, 2014
Crownsville Hospital for the Negro Insane
It seems incredible to think of very young children being committed to insane asylums, but this idea was accepted many years ago. Children with misunderstood conditions (autism, epilepsy, etc.) might exhibit symptoms which seemed to indicate insanity; their parents might then believe that an insane asylum could offer better care than they could. During hard times, parents sometimes sent their children to orphanages and insane asylums because they couldn’t care for them at home. Children living in insane asylums often died there as well, since their conditions seldom improved. Even more vulnerable than the rest of the patient population, children were at the mercy of doctors and staff at insane asylums.
A 1955 report by the Department of Mental Hygiene reported 35 patients in the nursery and 169 under 16 at the Crownsville Hospital in Maryland (see last post). The children’s areas were crowded; in the feeble-minded wards, their beds were 12 inches apart rather than the standard 36. Children had nothing to play with and often didn’t go to school. Baltimore Sun articles in the 1940s and 1950s describe epileptic children lying on bare floors, and small boys alone in a room, naked and spilling food over themselves as they ate. Conditions could–and did–get worse: children were injected with hepatitis as late as 1963, according to several newspaper sources.
Patients Making Baskets at Crownsville, courtesy Crownsville Hospital Collection
Patients Living in the Cottage for Colored Women, Maryland, 1906
February 6th, 2014
Crownsville State Hospital for the Negro Insane
The Native American patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians were at a disadvantage compared to their white counterparts at other asylums; Native Americans had few rights and little voice in what authorities might choose to do to “help” them. Another group with a similar disadvantage was America’s African-American population.
The Crownsville Hospital for the Negro Insane in Maryland was constructed in 1910, and used as a warehouse for the mentally ill, criminally insane, the feeble-minded, epileptics, children, and others who exhibited troublesome behaviors in society. Patient labor was used to help build the facility, and patients were later used in the institution’s workforce to help keep costs under control.
Like many asylums, the one at Crownsville began on a high note of modern conveniences and a commitment to provide psychiatric care for its patients. Overcrowding quickly became a problem. Children slept two to a bed, adults on mattresses on the floor, and some patients lived in a windowless basement. Medical care became equally appalling. Doctors tested drugs on patients without their consent, and patient cadavers were sent to Baltimore for medical research without the consent of families.
The facility closed in 2004, with its future use still under consideration. In my next post, I will discuss the asylum’s juvenile patients.
African-American Patients Sleeping in Hallway at Crownsville Insane Asylum
Patients Learning to Sew as Part of Their Treatment
February 2nd, 2014
Rockland State Hospital, courtesy asylumprojects.org
Not many patients looked back on their stay at an asylum with any fondness. Unfortunately, horrific experiences were not limited to adults or to the ancient past. One person wrote about his childhood confinement in the Rockland County (NY) Mental Institution:
I was institutionalized at Rockland County Mental Institution when I was 8 years old (1965-69)…I lived in a big dormitory with 50+ children. We were lined up at shower time and lined up to go to cafeteria. I remember spending most of the day in a “day room” – most of the other kids were severely disturbed / mentally retarded. If I didn’t do as told, they would put me in an isolation room (all day). Once they tied me to a bed with wet sheets layered with ice and opened the window in winter. There was an outside play area where one of the “minders” would hit kids with a wiffle ball bat. At meals I was forced to eat and finish everything on my plate even till I puked. It was HELL!*
This mental institution was built in 1927 and was considered one of the best facilities of its kind at the time. It seems to have followed the familiar pattern of beginning with high hopes and dedication before deteriorating into a human warehouse making little effort to treat its residents.
*Story posted on “Memories From an Insane Asylum: Stories From Rockland County Psychiatric Center” on blog maintained by Scout.
Primary School Work at the Rome State Custodial Asylum
Elsie Lacks, Committed to Crownsville State Hospital with Diagnosis of Idiocy