Tag Archives: Board of Visitors

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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Overlooked

A Typical Report from an Asylum's Board of Directors

McLean Asylum for the Insane and St. Elizabeths were two very different, yet for the most part, well-regulated insane asylums (see last two posts). And though they differed from each other in terms of funding and client base, they contrasted even more sharply with the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. The Canton asylum was a government-funded asylum like St. Elizabeths, and both of these institutions focused on either indigent patients or those of moderate income. What really set the Canton asylum apart from McLean and St. Elizabeths, though, was the difference in oversight.

At McLean, trustees watched over the management of the asylum and a Visiting Committee “made it a point to see personally each patient in the asylum once a week, checking his name off a prepared list,” according to the editors of The Institutional Care of the Insane in the U.S.A. and Canada, published in 1916. This extraordinary degree of oversight took place well before 1900, when the facility had one nurse for every four patients. As the asylum grew, trustees could not keep to the same schedule, but they were still intensely involved with the asylum. Even at the turn of the twentieth century, trustees hired eminent architects for additional buildings, and doctors knew their patients and kept detailed histories on them.

The government hospital, St. Elizabeths, first fell under the scrutiny of a five-member board of charities, appointed by the President of the United States for terms of three years. Additionally, the President appointed a nine-member Board of Visitors. This board included representatives of the military and clergy, and many times included an acting or retired surgeon-general. In 1914, Brigadier General George M. Sternberg, a pioneer in battlefield wound treatment during the Civil War, was President of the Board, and the surgeon generals of the Navy and Army were also represented. The latter surgeon-general was William C. Gorgas, who had been responsible for wiping out yellow fever in Havana after Walter Reed’s discovery of the mosquito vector for it. Though St. Elizabeths had its share of detractors and investigations, that asylum and McLean were typically watched over by prominent locals who took their duties seriously and felt responsible for providing area patients with quality care.

In my next post, I will discuss oversight for the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians.

William C. Gorgas at the Time of the Panama Canal Construction, courtesy National Library of Medicine

General George M. Sternberg

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