Tag Archives: Dr. Isaac Ray

Many Asylums Have Stood the Test of Time

Dr. Isaac Ray, First Superintendent of Butler Hospital

Dr. Isaac Ray, First Superintendent of Butler Hospital

Though the medical era they represented is usually dismissed as inferior nowadays, the actual physical structures where treatment for the insane took place retain respect. Many asylums from the 1800s still stand, and represent a type of architecture which is impressive, interesting, and, for the most part, unlikely to be duplicated. Anyone who has enjoyed the grandeur of older public buildings like banks, capitol buildings, libraries, and the like, know that modern architecture is all too often merely utilitarian rather than beautiful or majestic.

Efforts to keep old asylums intact, or to restore them, are constant. A nomination form to place Butler Hospital on the National Register of Historic Places discusses the institution’s buildings in detail. The hospital had been expensive to build because its supporters wanted spacious, uncrowded rooms with good ventilation and heating–unlike the prison atmosphere so prevalent in facilities for the insane up to that point. One of the structures on the premises was the Richard  Brown house, built circa 1731, and one of the first brick homes in Providence, Rhode Island.

Butler Hospital, courtesy City of Providence

Butler Hospital, courtesy City of Providence

The hospital grew and added structures over the years, and some the architectural detail the writer discussed included: frontal gables with glazed carriage entrances, octagonal columns, and a “three-story crenelated stairtower.” Building styles included Tudor, Colonial Revival, and Gothic Revival, set within beautifully landscaped grounds.

Description of the Butler Hospital for the Insane, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Description of the Butler Hospital for the Insane, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Though few people would willingly go to an asylum, Butler Hospital’s original champions seemed to have made every effort to ensure the building was as beautiful and comfortable as its patient population would allow.

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A Case of Insanity

Dr. Isaac Ray, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Dr. Isaac Ray, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Alienists had many interesting theories about insanity and what caused it, and frequently had to explain their views to the public. Court cases involving an insanity defense could create heated debate on the topic, and an article in the October, 1866, issue of the American Journal of Insanity provided a platform for such a discussion.

The case involved Mary Harris, a citizen of the District of Columbia, who shot her former lover dead. She was acquitted and released because of her insanity at the time she committed the crime. Dr. Nichols, superintendent of the Government Hospital for the Insane (St. Elizabeths), testified to her insanity, but did not mean to imply that she was cured of it. There may have been no legal way to keep her confined, however, so she was “let loose upon the community” in the words of the article’s author, Dr. Isaac Ray.

A Gender-Based Cause of Insanity

A Gender-Based Cause of Insanity

Dr. Ray did not discuss the particulars of that case, but instead went on to discuss a “class” of similar cases, where women committed heinous crimes. Because of the “peculiar influence of those organs which play so large a part in the female economy,” said Ray, these criminal acts may have been prompted not so much by motive as by the woman’s physiology. Ray went on to say, “With woman it is but a step from extreme susceptibility to downright hysteria, and from that to overt insanity.” In his opinion, many women who committed crimes like murder (as revenge), had experienced “a strong moral shock and an irritable condition of the nervous system.” He asked, “Is it strange that a person thus situated, should become insane?” (In Harris’s case, he referenced her “uterine derangement.”)

Alice Mitchell Tried to Murder Freda Ward Due to the Exciting Cause of Thwarted Love and Jealousy; She Was Found Insane

Alice Mitchell Tried to Murder Freda Ward Due to the Exciting Cause of Thwarted Love and Jealousy; She Was Found Insane and Committed to the Tennessee State Insane Asylum

Though Ray’s views seem to be compassionate, they were bad news, indeed, for females accused of insanity who might come before him for assessment. Ray was too ready to believe that their gender made them susceptible to insanity, and that it took so little to push them over the edge.

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