Tag Archives: Danvers State Hospital

He Didn’t Even Try

Texas State Lunatic Asylum, circa 1861

Texas State Lunatic Asylum, circa 1861

By the end of what might be called the “asylum era,” most superintendents or administrators were buried under mountains of paperwork. Almost all public facilities were overcrowded and understaffed, which meant poor care and  more problems and incidents that needed the administrator’s attention than if they had been smaller and better manned. However, the situation at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was always somewhat different.

The asylum’s administrator, Dr. Harry Hummer, ran an extremely small facility. The organization of superintendents that developed standardized asylum care in the 1840s decided that 250 patients was the maximum that any good facility should contain. They later raised it to 500, which was still considered a manageable number. During the bulk of his time at the Canton Asylum, however, Dr. Hummer had well under 100 patients.

Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, courtesy Robert Bogdan Collection

Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, courtesy Robert Bogdan Collection

When Canton Asylum was inspected in 1933 by St. Elizabeths’ psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Silk, he noted that Dr. Hummer could give him next to no information about most of his patients: “the patients’ behavior or other events which led to their admission. . . . Apparently Dr. Hummer did not consider such information necessary and he took no steps to obtain it.

“In the cases of various patients who were alleged to have assaulted others, Dr. Hummer knew nothing about the circumstances of such assault . . . . Many such patients have been in the institution six, eight or more years and for a number of years they have showed no abnormal behavior justifying their detention.”

Danvers State Hospital, circa 1893, Was Huge in Comparison to Canton Asylum

Danvers State Hospital, circa 1893, Was Huge in Comparison to Canton Asylum

Many of Canton Asylum’s patients would have been better off with a jail sentence for their behavior, since a sentence for assault would have come with a limit. At the asylum, Dr. Hummer’s indifference generally led to a life sentence unless some sort of outside intervention occurred.

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Who Says You’re Crazy?

Dedicated Alienists Tried to Stay Informed

Dedicated Alienists Tried to Stay Informed

One of the major problems with the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was that commitment rules were so lax. Like most asylums, there were patients incarcerated because they were inconvenient to others or created problems for civil authorities, but there were also some patients who genuinely needed help. In either case, few patients admitted to the asylum had actually been evaluated by a physician of any kind, let alone one who specialized in mental illness. Instead, they were usually sent to the asylum on the assessment of only a layperson (Indian agent or reservation superintendent) which was terribly unfair. Abuses of power could, and did, take place, because even if these lay persons were actually trying to help someone, they weren’t necessarily right in their opinion of the person’s mental state.

Though abuses of power probably occurred everywhere at times, patients in other states and institutions often had stronger protections. Massachusetts had always been a progressive state when it came to helping its citizens facing mental health issues, and its commitment laws were fairly strict. In 1916, the editors of Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada wrote: “Commitment [in Massachusetts] may not be made unless there has been filed with the proper judge or justice a certificate of the insanity of the person by two physicians nor without an order signed by the proper judge that he finds the person insane.”

The judge could see and examine the person if he thought it needful, could also call in a third physician, and could summon a jury of six men to hear and judge whether the proposed patient was insane or not. Furthermore: “A physician making a certificate of insanity must be a graduate of a legally chartered medical school, in actual practice for three years and for the three years last preceding, and be registered. His standing, character and professional knowledge of insanity must be satisfactory to the judge.”

Though there could certainly be an “old boy” system that would allow a motivated complainant the opportunity to have a family member or enemy committed to an insane asylum, it was still much more difficult for two physicians and a judge to collude against a person than it was for one layperson to decide that an Indian was crazy.

Newpaper Story Argued Whether the Woman Was Insane From Booze or Religion

Newspaper Story Argued Whether Man Was Insane From Booze or Religion

Danvers State Hospital, circa 1893

Danvers State Hospital, circa 1893

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