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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The Hope of Spring

Navajo Family Near Fort Defiance, circa 1873

Navajo Family Near Fort Defiance, circa 1873

Cultures throughout the ages have celebrated the return of spring after a long, harsh winter by eating the first new greens they can find. Native Americans took advantage of fresh, wild plants to supplement their winter diets of dried foods; foraging in woodlands or near streams could bring in an entire meal in some cases.

Mushrooms often sprouted with the renewed moisture of spring; experts had to hunt for this very nutritious, but dangerous food. Women hunted dandelions, wild onions and leeks, ramps, chickweed, poke, and wild mustard (or a related plant called “creasy greens”) as soon as possible, since many of these plants get more bitter as they grow older. Even young, tender leaves and shoots can be bitter, but these wild plants are very nutritious and have long been considered a tonic to wake up the liver and kidneys after a long winter diet of dried starches (like beans and pumpkin) and meat.

Pueblo Indian Planting Maize

Pueblo Indian Planting Maize

Sugar-Making Among the Indians in the North, Nineteenth Century Illustration

Sugar-Making Among the Indians in the North, Nineteenth Century Illustration

Traditional (Algonquin) Green Salad: One part wild onions or leeks, chopped, and one and a half parts dandelion leaves, to four parts watercress. Add a small amount of sheep or wood sorrel, and then flavor to taste. (Add a bit of maple syrup for sweetness, or use other traditional flavorings like salt, along with enough oil to coat the leaves.)

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Cruel Through and Through

Cruelties Endured by a Patient in Brislington House Asylum, England, courtesy, The Lancet

Cruelties Endured by a Patient in Brislington House Asylum, England, courtesy, The Lancet

Insanity was a cruel condition, and its victims suffered doubly: their minds caused them unease or suffering, and then caretakers typically punished their bodies. Though physicians eventually discerned that mental illness was not an incurable disease, the treatments for it were sometimes stunning in their callousness.

In 1824, a young woman named Mary Sewall caused her father concern because she had wandered into the countryside with a confused intent to attend a religious meeting. He ordered a bunk “with a lid to shut down” to keep her confined, and kept her in it at night for over two months. He additionally kept his daughter sitting all day in a “confining chair” which prevented any physical movement. Her arms and legs were strapped down, and she was forced to remain all day on a seat with a hole in it and a bucket underneath to catch her bodily wastes. The misery she must have endured is hard to contemplate.

A Confining Chair

A Confining Chair

Circular Describing the Four Month Term at Yale Medical Institution

Circular Describing the Four Month Term at Yale Medical Institution

Modern readers might wonder how Mr. Sewall could possibly treat his own daughter this way.  Part of the reason might be that he could think of little else to do to keep her safe. And, doctors and other specialists often believed that people who had “lost their minds” had reverted to an animal state. Many people assumed that the mentally ill didn’t need the comforts that a human with an intact mind needed or wanted. Thus, it didn’t seem particularly cruel to keep a lunatic chained in a barn or outbuilding–just like one of a farm’s other animals. Unfortunately, it seemed that people often treated lunatics much worse than they would have treated any animal.

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Early Madness

A Typical Way to Treat Lunatics, circa 1848

A Typical Way to Treat Lunatics, circa 1848

Early treatments for madness were as crude as those for physical ailments (see last two posts) and seldom involved physicians. Restraint would be a primary means of control. Households often chained a violent member or confined him or her in a strong building. No one gave much thought to the victim’s comfort, and reformers found many sad cases of men and women housed outdoors in winter without heat, proper shelter, or adequate clothing.

Thomas G. Hazard wrote in 1844 about the treatment of a lunatic named Abram Simmons in Rhode Island: “His prison was from six to eight feet square, built entirely of stone. . . the internal surface of the walls was covered with a thick frost, adhering to the stone in some places to the thickness of half an inch.”

Utica Crib, Another Notorious Restraining Device

Utica Crib, Another Notorious Restraining Device

The man’s bed was cloth sacking stuffed with straw. The flimsy cloth covering it was frozen stiff from the wall drippings, and the straw bed beneath it was wet through and through. The writer said the man lay in utter darkness (since the two iron doors to this dungeon didn’t admit light), and: “encased on every side by walls of frost, his garments constantly more or less wet, with only wet straw to lie upon, and a sheet of ice for his covering, has this most dreadfully abused man existed through the past inclement winter.”

Peabody Poorfarm, Kansas

Peabody Poor Farm, Kansas

The writer noted that the poor man constantly chattered: “Poor Tom’s a-cold!”

Public facilities like poor farms or jails could also house lunatics. In these, lunatics might at least find shelter and food.

 

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A Layman’s Doctorin’

A Book Any Layperson Could Reference

A Book Any Layperson Could Reference

Early settlers did not necessarily trust doctors (see last post) and were often able to circumvent seeing one by simply “reading up” on medicine, themselves. In this, they didn’t always lag so far behind a university-trained doctor, who may have only listened to a course of lectures before venturing into his profession. Several popular books were available to laypersons who wanted a reference to guide them; Every Man his own Doctor  or The Poor Planter’s Physician by Dr. John Tennent (American edition, 1734) was extremely popular.

Tennent began by condemning doctors’ high fees (whether they cured or killed the patient) and spoke of his great love for mankind as the reason for his publication. He launched into some of the commonest problems faced in the New World, such as “cough,” which he said was the foundation for many other “distempers” and therefore should be dealt with as quickly as possible.

James Gillray's 1801 Satiric Print of a Colonial Quack

James Gillray’s 1801 Satiric Print of a Colonial Quack

“It may be cured in the Beginning by riding moderately on Horseback every Day,” Tennent wrote. Additionally, the patient could take a little ground ivy tea sweetened with syrup of horehound at night before bed. If that did not effect a cure, the next measures followed the harsh cures of the time: “It will be proper to bleed Eight Ounces and be constant in the use of other Remedies.”

Woman Having the Vapours

Woman Having the Vapours

The “vapours” or “hysteric fits” should start with a stomach cleanse accomplished by dosing the patient with “Indian Physic” (a perennial herb called Bowman’s root, which induced vomiting.) Next, the (usually) female patient should have her bowels purged. Among other remedies, she was urged to not let the disappointments of the world weigh upon her, and to “be cheerful in Spite of a churlish Husband, or cloudy Weather.”

Tennent’s suggestions may not have cured every illness, but they were no worse than what any physician would have recommended.

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