Tag Archives: abuse of patients in insane asylums

1906 Investigation

The Washington Herald, 1911

The Washington Herald, 1911

When the Medico-Legal Society leveled charges of abuse against St. Elizabeths’s staff in 1906 (see last post), the public was understandably outraged. However, when the Society would not assist in an investigation nor even let others review its supposed records of the abuse, it lost credibility.

The Washington Herald sent a reporter to St. Elizabeths to investigate one of the “horrors” the Medico-Legal Society had particularly mentioned, the needle bath. “Evidently the informant of the committee as to this particular instrument of torture, was one of those individuals who never take a bath unless it is forced,” wrote the Herald’s reporter. He then described the needle bath (a form of hydrotherapy) as a “scientific shower bath,” and said that a patient undergoing “this particular ‘torture’ seemed to enjoy it.”

Though it is likely that certain attendants were rougher than they needed to be, or disobeyed orders against restraining patients, a subsequent investigation showed that rampant abuse did not exist. A surviving letter from a patient to his sister asserted that “the reports you have seen in the papers in Boston are not so.”

The patient went on to give a practical example of the care he was receiving. “Well, take me for a sample, I weigh more at present than I ever did before, then this should be sufficient to show that we have plenty to eat, and it is good, too.”

My next two posts will conclude the investigation.

Even a Useful Therapy Could be Misused and Abused

Even a Useful Therapy Could be Misused and Abused

A Style of Needle Shower

A Style of Needle Shower

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Investigations Elsewhere

Government Hospital for the Insane Administration Building

Government Hospital for the Insane Administration Building

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians had its share of investigations, which often were a result of staff complaints. It was not unique in this respect–other asylums were also investigated with regularity, sometimes because of staff complaints, but often through outside intervention. In 1906, the Medico-Legal Society of the District of Columbia made a number of spectacular charges against the Government Hospital for the Insane (St. Elizabeths). The charges included allegations of brutal restraint through the use of “toweling” and the “saddle,” as well as “kicking and cuffing by attendants.”

Toweling involved placing dry towels around a patient’s neck and twisting from behind, to physically subdue a patient who was out of control. The allegations included a charge that the towels were twisted until the patient fell over semi-conscious. The saddle was a device which held patients in a reclining position, bound hand, foot, and neck, so that they couldn’t move at all; many were supposedly left for hours in this condition.

Patients were abused this way for their failure to obey orders or to do work properly, or for “taking an extra spoonful of beans” at table. Additionally, attendants were charged with using the feeding tube (which was pushed down through to nostril to feed patients who would not willingly eat on their own) as a punishment.

The charges were sensational, but were they true? St. Elizabeths’s board of visitors (its oversight group) asked the Medico-Legal society to help them investigate the charges they had made, but the group refused to appear before them or to submit its records concerning the abuse.

My next few posts will continue to discuss this investigation.

Utica Crib, Another Notorious Restraining Device

Utica Crib, Another Notorious Restraining Device

Force Feeding

Force Feeding

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Abuse Was Convenient

Locks Were Common at Insane Asylums

From accounts by former patients, it seems probable that many cases of cruelty and abuse were deliberate. Attendants were often uneducated, uncaring, or of a type who found it impossible to get a job anywhere but in an asylum. Those who enjoyed dominating weak or helpless patients often had  little oversight to prevent their doing what they liked; patients reported beatings and punishments which were clearly typical and sustained rather than lapses in judgment or reactions during a crisis. However, attendants often used restraints and other methods of control because they were convenient. Attendants in a short-staffed ward might reasonably believe that it was better to restrain a violent patient or lock him up, rather than let him hurt himself or other patients. Attendants might force feed a patient that they feared would starve because she wouldn’t eat of her own accord. Many attendants undoubtedly did these kinds of things with a perfectly clear conscience.

At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, both types of abuse occurred. A few patients complained of witnessing cruel teasing that would make the targets upset, or of seeing patients treated with unnecessary force or bullied. Attendants more frequently treated their patients badly out of convenience. The asylum was usually short of attendants, particularly under Dr. Harry Hummer. One attendant might have to take care of an entire ward, or at night, an entire building. It was vastly easier to lock patients in their rooms or put them in a restraint, than forgo a meal or get behind on chores for which they would be disciplined if they didn’t complete. Though restraints were supposed to be used only with the permission of the superintendent, the restraints at Canton Asylum were kept in the financial clerk’s office and given out to any attendant who asked for one.

A DeKalb Crib, circa 1905, Used for Patient Restraint, courtesy Maryland State Archives

Exhibit of Patient Restraints From Glore Psychiatric Museum

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