Madness in a Modern World Part Two

Crowded Train Platform in Victorian Era

Crowded Train Platform in Victorian Era

Life has always been stressful, so what was it about the nineteenth-century world that increased stress so much that alienists thought it contributed to a rising rate of madness (see last post)? Change itself brings stress, of course, and nineteenth-century humans were experiencing a great deal of change.

As telegraphs, telephones, locomotives, trolleys, and the like infiltrated daily living, it meant that the pace of life picked up for most people. Additionally, the noise level of society rose considerably as machines became more prevalent (even simple changes like clattering typewriters replacing writing by hand in offices). Studies show that constant noise increases levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which then have their own negative consequences on the body.

Interior of Magnolia Cotton Mills Spinning Room, Mississippi, circa 1912

Interior of Magnolia Cotton Mills Spinning Room, Mississippi, circa 1912, courtesy NARA

Not everyone embraced and trusted all the new inventions, either. Doctors diagnosed “elevator sickness” and “railway neurosis” brought on when people experienced the physical novelty and/or stress of using these new technologies. “Dyspepsia,” a term used to describe intestinal troubles of various kinds, was rampant in the nineteenth century–probably as a reaction to stress. Nervousness with life in general sometimes led to “neurasthenia,” a term encompassing feelings of anxiety, depression, irritability, and other symptoms of mental distress.

Noisy, Crowded Life in a New York Tenement, circa1890

Noisy, Crowded Life in a New York Tenement, circa1890

One of the positive beliefs alienists embraced was that insanity was not an inevitable hereditary condition, as had been previously believed. Instead, they began to believe that certain people were perhaps disposed toward insanity, but that it would only manifest if conditions were right. In the nineteenth century, it appeared that conditions were right for troubling symptoms to appear in many people.

 

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Madness in a Modern World

Edison and Light Bulb

Edison and Light Bulb

Politicians who supported an asylum exclusively for Indians often justified the need by parroting the claims of alienists. These specialists in mental illness maintained that the pressures of the modern world led to an increase in insanity. The fact that reservation agents couldn’t even find a hundred “insane Indians” at the end of the nineteenth century did little to support that notion. However, the rate of insanity was increasing among the rest of the population. And, alienists may not have been completely off-track in their thinking.

From the earliest times, people had lived in much the same way: they walked or used animals and boats for transportation, wrote messages to one another by hand, and planned their daily activities by the rising and setting of the sun. Suddenly, around 1830, tremendous changes occurred.

The Tom Thumb, courtesy Bureau of Public Roads, Department of Commerce

The Tom Thumb, courtesy Bureau of Public Roads, Department of Commerce

In 1827, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began transporting people and goods mechanically with a little steam engine called the Tom Thumb. In 1869, workers completed the first transcontinental railroad, which reduced a difficult wagon or stagecoach ride of several weeks or months to one week. Samuel Morse patented the telegraph in 1840, Bell patented the telephone in 1876, and Edison introduced the light bulb in 1879. These changes absolutely revolutionized daily living, especially in cities.

Horse-drawn Ambulance in Front of Fire Station on Race Street in Philadelphia, 1865

Horse-drawn Ambulance in Front of Fire Station on Race Street in Philadelphia, 1865

Even though these new inventions were embraced by the public, they also created distrust, stress, and fear as people began to accommodate and use them. An “Age of Anxiety” began in which there were new dangers everywhere–and the stress did indeed lead to mental breakdowns. (The prevalence of these inventions in cities is probably why alienists considered rural areas better for asylums.) My next post will examine this modern phenomenon further.

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You Get What You Pay For

Female Patients Farming in the early 1900s

Female Patients Farming in the early 1900s

The superintendents at most asylums had the best of intentions when it came to patient care. They understood (for that era) what kind of help patients needed and what kind of attendants could best provide it. Most asylums had rules of conduct for staff and lists of optimal behaviors they expected to see in them; if these desires had been met, most asylums would have been better places. However, superintendents were at the mercy of legislatures, which often underfunded public asylums. Except for the wealthiest private institutions, attendant staffing was never high enough to provide good–or sometimes even adequate–care.

Tennessee Central Hospital for the Insane

Tennessee Central Hospital for the Insane

Staffing issues were especially tough during WWI, when many doctors and nurses left private employment for military service. In 1918 the superintendent of Tennessee’s Central Hospital wrote about the problem he (and all asylums had) in attracting good workers: “We have from forty to sixty beds soiled each night, and the patients who soil the beds at night soil themselves often during the day and have to be dressed and attended to…and the great State of Tennessee says to our attendants, ‘We will allow you from twenty to thirty-five dollars a month for this.'”

Laundry Room at Fulton State Hospital, 1910

Laundry Room at Fulton State Hospital, 1910

This was not much money for what was typically a 14-hour workday full of exhausting physical (and sometimes dangerous) labor. Workers in manufacturing earned around $48 weekly in 1914, unionized bricklayers in New York earned nearly $31 a week in 1913, and even notoriously underpaid female mill workers earned between $5 and $7 a week. The typical asylum attendant’s poor pay almost guaranteed that good workers would go elsewhere. Asylums were often left with attendants who for one reason or another could find work nowhere else.

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Off to the Poorhouse

Bradyville and Readyville Poorhouse Residents, circa 1903, courtesy http://cannonccp.weebly.com

Bradyville and Readyville Poorhouse Residents, circa 1903, courtesy http://cannonccp.weebly.com

Though early American society embraced self-sufficiency, people in authority did recognize that some people could not provide for themselves (widows/orphans/disabled) and that a person could fall upon hard times despite their best efforts. Churches and municipalities usually provided short-term relief in a person’s home, but a long-term situation was another matter.

Early on, the poor were simply auctioned off to the lowest bidder. The auction’s winner provided food, shelter, clothing, etc. to the pauper (and perhaps to his family) in exchange for the pauper’s labor. The arrangement was more like being an indentured servant than a slave, but it was definitely not anyone’s preferred way of life. As can be imagined, this system led to many abuses, and some auctioned paupers were badly treated, overworked, and nearly starved.

Peabody Poorfarm, Kansas

Peabody Poor Farm, Kansas

Poorhouses were set up (usually by counties) to be more efficient than this auctioning system. Authorities also hoped that the poor who resided in them could learn discipline and good habits so that they could get out and become useful citizens. They were not meant to be pleasant, but rather, to discourage residence by anyone who was at all capable of working. Children would be separated from parents, and wives from husbands. Many poorhouse inmates had to wear a dreary uniform that further shamed them. Residents were required to work, if able, often at the accompanying “poor farm.”

Fulton Country, Illinois, Poor Farm Residents

Fulton Country, Illinois, Poor Farm Residents

Going to the poorhouse was so dreadful that mournful poems and songs were written about the experience. One such effort by Will Carleton was called “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse” and ended with this stanza:

Over the hill to the poorhouse—my child’rn dear, goodbye!
Many a night I’ve watched you when only God was nigh:
And God’ll judge between us; but I will always pray
That you shall never suffer the half I do today. (1882)

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A Rational Solution

Almshouse Occupants at Meal Time, circa 1911

Almshouse Occupants at Meal Time, circa 1911

Wealthy families with an insane member could usually afford to pay someone to care for their unfortunate relative; they also had accommodations for him or her. It was an entirely different matter for the poor or even the middle class, whose homes were often small and cramped by today’s standards. A working family found it almost impossible to spare an able-bodied member to care full-time for someone who was sick, whether physically or mentally. Consequently, illness of any kind sometimes drove a family into poverty, or into the dreaded poorhouse.

Residents of an Almshouse Making Shoes, courtesy Library of Congress

Residents of an Almshouse Making Shoes, courtesy Library of Congress

Poorhouses were set up to care for people who had no one else to support them. Mentally ill people with no support also wound up in poorhouses, and nobody benefited when that happened. The insane person disrupted the routine of the poorhouse and very likely frightened the other people in it. That person could get no real help, either, because a poorhouse wasn’t set up to help people with mental illness. Consequently, no one benefited from the arrangement, and the victim of insanity often suffered terribly when the poorhouse caretaker simply confined him or her to a room or an outbuilding (see last post).

Kings County Almshouse, Brooklyn, NY, circa 1900, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Kings County Almshouse, Brooklyn, NY, circa 1900, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

One of the arguments for asylums was that jailers and poorhouse managers didn’t have the accommodations to adequately care for the insane, or the expertise to do it even if they had the space. Asylums, where trained personnel in buildings constructed specifically for keeping the insane comfortable, were supposed to be an enlightened solution to an age-old problem.

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Undefended and Alone

Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix

Compassion for the insane has been in short supply through most of history, particularly since the general public (until fairly recently) felt that somehow madness was the victim’s own fault. Accommodations for the insane have never been more than merely comfortable, and even that was not often the case until the mid-1800s. When reformer Dorothea Dix began her survey of the insane in Massachusetts, she saw victims of mental illness in horrific conditions. In her Memorial to the Massachusetts legislature, she wrote that in Groton:

“A few rods removed from the poorhouse is a wooden building upon the roadside…it contains one room, unfurnished, except so far as a bundle of straw constitutes furnishing.” The room had no window except for a small slit covered with a board shutter. A young man was confined inside.

Worcester County Almshouse, 1908, African-American Building, courtesy Maryland State Archives

Worcester County Almshouse, 1908, African-American Building, courtesy Maryland State Archives

“He can move a measured distance in his prison; that is, so far as a strong, heavy chain, depending from an iron collar which invests his neck permits.” Dix mentioned that on the particular day she saw him, the weather was pleasant and the door open so the man could see outside. However, she pointed out that in New England, “the portion of the year which allows of open doors is not the chiefest part.” She asked her audience what it must be like for that young man to sit in a dark room, chained and alone for months, with nothing to do and no one to talk to.

Dix Discussed Her Findings in This Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts

Dix Discussed Her Findings in This Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts

Dix witnessed similar situations wherever she went. Reformers often stressed how unfair it was that victims of insanity–who had committed no crime–often wound up in jails, punished for life.

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Social Interests

Railroad Depot in Canton, South Dakota

Railroad Depot in Canton, South Dakota

Throughout history, social ties have been important. Citizens in small towns certainly kept tabs on their neighbors, but even in large cities, prominent people were reported on in the “society pages.” Many small-town newspapers kept tabs on the comings and goings of the locals, and reported on visits from their relatives and friends. On September 30, 1910, the Sioux Valley News reported that:

— Ed L. Wendt took a trip up to Lake Preston Tuesday to attend to some business matters

— Col. Arthur Linn went to Hot Springs last Saturday to attend a meeting of the Soldiers’ Home board

Soldiers' Home in Hot Springs, South Dakota

Soldiers’ Home in Hot Springs, South Dakota

— Mrs. C. F. Neighbors came up from Sioux City Monday to spend a few days with her friend Miss Grace Hanson

— Miss Ethel McClanahan arrived in Canton a few days ago and has been a guest of Dr. Hummer and family at the Indian Asylum. Miss McClanahan was for a number of years chief nurse in St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington, D. C. . . .

Unidentified Asylum Nurses

Unidentified Asylum Nurses

McClanahan was working on a special case in the west at the time, and presumably stopped in to see Dr. Hummer on her way to  “visit friends further east” as the paper reported. Still, despite Dr. Hummer’s reputation for temper and haughtiness at the asylum, he could evidently be quite cordial to those he felt were his social or professional equals.

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Honoring Ceremony for Canton Asylum Patients

This is an out-of-cycle post.

Below is information about this year’s honoring ceremony for the Native patients buried in the Canton Asylum cemetery. (You will need to double-click on the link “honoring.”) I hope that we can all remember them that day.

honoring

 

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High Society

East Side of Main Street, Canton, SD circa 1912

East Side of Main Street, Canton, SD circa 1912

“Out West” was a remote place in the public imagination, and Canton, South Dakota was a small town compared to the population centers of the East. However, Canton was a lively place, with many shops and amusements for the public. People also enjoyed visiting each other and providing their own entertainment in the form of card games and music. In December, 1912, the Sioux Valley News reported on a social event that would have been typical for the people involved.

Parlor Entertainment

Parlor Entertainment

“On Tuesday evening of last week, in the pretty parlors of Judge and Mrs. Gifford were gathered about twenty friends for an evening at cards,” the item began. The minutes passed into hours, and at midnight, Mrs. Gifford provided a “delicious luncheon” for her guests. After eating, the guests lingered and talked, or smoked cigars. The paper mentioned that one of the guests gave a piano solo, and probably other guests sang or played a song as well. “At a late hour, all departed for their several homes,” the item noted, “bearing with them the happiest of memories.”

Parlor in the Chester Wickwire House in Cortland, New York, circa 1890 to 1900, courtesy the 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art in Cortland, New York

Parlor in the Chester Wickwire House in Cortland, New York, circa 1890 to 1900, courtesy the 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art in Cortland, New York

Such an evening would be enjoyable for many people even in modern times, and these events likely bonded the social ties of the town’s leading citizens. They certainly did not lead the bored, dreary lives that many “back East” probably thought they did.

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Natural Medicine

Woman Digging Roots

Woman Digging Roots

Before modern pharmaceuticals, people looked to nature for their cures. The Chippewa, for instance, used numerous plants to treat ailments, often in conjunction with special songs and music. Red baneberry treated the “diseases of women,” giant hyssop treated cough and pain in the chest, and jack-in-the-pulpit was useful for sore eyes. Other plants, like wild sarsaparilla and white mugwort, could be used for both medicine and as charms.

Medicine Man Preparing Medicine, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Medicine Man Preparing Medicine, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Isabelle Thing, a Kumeyaay Indian Traditional Healer

Isabelle Thing, a Kumeyaay Indian Traditional Healer

Chippewa plant names often indicated the appearance of the plant, the place where it grew, one of its properties, or its use. Blue cohosh was called becigodjibiguk; becig meant “one” and djibiguk meant “root,” thus “the plant having a tap root.” Often, one plant had several names, and individual gatherers often gave a plant a name, as well. Sometimes when a medicine man taught someone about a plant, he would show the person the plant without telling its name, in order to keep it secret.

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