Tag Archives: Athens Insane Asylum

Food for Thought

Farm With Hospital Buildings on Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, circa 1886

Farm With Hospital Buildings at Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, circa 1886

A man suffering from acute melancholia and admitted to Stockton State Mental Asylum (likely in the late 1890s or early 1900s) mentioned  that his first noon dinner (lunch) consisted of soup, beans, and potatoes. His 6:00 p.m. supper was only tea and bread. This meager menu was a far cry from the original intentions of asylum founders, who strove to provide nourishing meals to patients as part of their treatment programs.

Weston Insane Asylum Farm, circa 1892, courtesy West Virginia and Regional History Collection

Weston Insane Asylum Farm, circa 1892, courtesy West Virginia and Regional History Collection

Farms were usually incorporated into asylum grounds, both to provide fresh produce for patients and staff, and to provide useful “occupational therapy” for able-bodies patients. Superintendents proudly reported the pounds of produce they had raised, as in Dr. Harvey Black’s report for Southwestern Lunatic Asylum (Virginia) at the end of fiscal year 1887. He noted that their gardens had produced 400 bushels of turnips valued at 25 cents/bushel, 12,000 heads of cabbage at 5 cents each, and 62 dozen squash at 15 cents/dozen. Altogether, the gardens produced nearly $2,000 worth of goods for the asylum’s kitchen.

Piggery at Athens Asylum

Piggery at Athens Asylum

Since the asylum had treated only 162 patients that year, the amount of food grown (Black mentions 16 different crops) probably allowed for a reasonably healthy diet–perhaps better than some patients were able to get at home. Though working on a farm sounds distasteful today, some patients undoubtedly enjoyed it: they got outside, the work was meaningful, and they could both see, share, and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

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Festivities

Ward Decorated for Christmas, Fulton State Hospital, 1910

Ward Decorated for Christmas, Fulton State Hospital, 1910

Some asylum superintendents wanted to think of their facilities as nice places to be, and as comfortable as possible for patients. They often tried to provide amusements and celebrate holidays.

Other superintendents, like Dr. E.H. Williams, the assistant physician at Matteawan State Hospital (1897), felt that holidays interfered with routine and would harm patients. He was very much against anything that would lead to a deviation in the asylum’s schedule. Besides, Williams said, insane minds couldn’t even appreciate the diversion of a holiday .

Matteawan State Hospital, NY, 1896

Matteawan State Hospital, NY, 1896

Ballroom at Athens Insane Asylum

Ballroom at Athens Insane Asylum

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What’s Really on the Menu?

Athens Insane Asylum Kitchen, circa 1930

Athens Insane Asylum Kitchen, circa 1930

Most insane asylums of the period put patients to work in gardens, considering their labor useful as occupational therapy as well as a way to defray operating costs. At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, patients tended gardens, picked berries, and fished if they were able. The bulk of their food (especially meat) would have been issued as government commodity rations–usually a lower quality grade than what appeared at a butcher shop or good grocery store.

By the end of 1909, both patients and staff (who received rations as part of their salary) were going hungry. Ward attendant Jesse Watkins told an investigator: “At breakfast, as a rule, the patients have only syrup and a little butter, with plenty of bread, and coffee. When there is milk, they have oatmeal and sometimes oatmeal without milk.”

Dr. Hummer

Dr. Hummer

Superintendent and chief physician, Dr. Harry R. Hummer, did not know how to use the ration tables supplied by the government. He distributed what he thought were the correct amounts of rations to his staff and patients, while allowing his wife to draw extra rations for himself and his family. An investigator uncovered his mistake and showed him how to use the tables properly.

Gladesville Mental Hospital Menu, 1929

Gladesville Mental Hospital Menu, 1929

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