Tag Archives: Government Hospital for the Insane

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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Canton Asylum Given Much Thought

Richard F. Pettigrew

Richard F. Pettigrew

Though the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians had many problems throughout its operation, the facility itself had been the subject of much consideration before its construction. When Senator Richard F. Pettigrew, Chairman of of the Committee on Indian Affairs, first proposed Senate Bill 2042 (for the purchase of land and construction thereon of an asylum for insane Indians) in 1897, he asked for “not less than one hundred acres of tillable land” and that the building should be constructed of stone or brick with a metal roof, and “shall be as nearly fire-proof as conditions will permit.”

At the time, a few Indians deemed insane had been admitted to the Government Hospital for the Insane (known as St. Elizabeths) at the rate of $91 per quarter. Payment was through the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The hospital’s superintendent, William W. Godding, noted that he was presently treating five Indians, and that “this number has never been exceeded at any previous date.”

Center Building, St. Elizabeths, 1900

Center Building, St. Elizabeths, 1900

Godding felt that there would be only a small number of Indians who might need psychiatric care, and that to spend $150,000 to purchase land and erect an asylum (Pettigrew’s proposed figure) was unnecessary. He pointed out that even after the asylum’s construction, the government would need to add “an annual expenditure of not less than $25,000 for the equipment and maintenance of the asylum.” Currently the Government Hospital cared for insane Indians at an annual cost of $2,267.

Dr. William W. Godding, courtesy Library of Congress

Dr. William W. Godding, courtesy Library of Congress

Like many other whites of the era, Godding believed that insanity was actually rare among Indians. He continued, “the additional expenditure [that Pettigrew proposed] might be advisable if there was a prospect . . . the number of insane Indians would be very much increased.” But, Godding stated, “the records of the race do not justify any such expectation, rather the opposite.”

Obviously, Godding’s commonsense objections were ignored.

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Beyond Reason

Rosebud Indian Agency, courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society

Rosebud Indian Agency, courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society

Many patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians did not receive a formal hearing or doctor’s examination before being sent to the asylum. Authorities at least went through the motions with Peter Thompson Good Boy.

He was accused of stealing a horse on the Rosebud Reservation, and spent some time in the Deadwood, SD jail while awaiting trial. Continue reading

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Useful Visitors

Photos Showed What Words Could Not

Photos Showed What Words Could Not

Though many patients felt they didn’t get enough visitors, and others didn’t like being treated as entertainment for the thrill-seeking public (see last blog), certain visitors were supposed to help asylum patients. Most states set up a Lunacy Commission whose job it was to visit and inspect the state’s insane asylums. These appointed personnel were supposed to go through the facilities and ensure that patients were being treated humanely. They were also charged with reviewing the superintendent’s management and suggesting changes for the benefit of the institution; this oversight could include reviewing the asylum’s financial records and expenditures. The Government Hospital for the Insane, later St. Elizabeths, was an exception in that it was overseen by a Board of Visitors who performed much the same function.

Most asylums were not at all afraid or ashamed to have their finances reviewed. Many superintendents were proud of their fiscal management and also grateful for numerous charitable contributions such as newspaper subscriptions, special entertainments, gifts of furniture, and the like. They enjoyed showing off the productivity of their patients in terms of food raised, garments sewed, etc. However, superintendents realized that all patients did not present well, and usually took pains to ensure that visiting officials saw their institutions at their best. Most asylums kept the calmer, better-behaved patients in wards closer to the administrative offices. Recovering patients often moved from ward to ward as they got better, and eventually ended up in one of these more public wards. When visitors saw such patients, who were often nearly recovered or had minor illnesses to begin with, they were reassured. Any cruel treatment, confinement, and restraint generally occurred on wards which were not shown to the public. This is one reason that patient abuse could thrive despite the oversight built into the asylum system.

Montevue Asylum, African-American Ward

Montevue Asylum, African-American Ward

Montevue Asylum in Maryland, 1909, Photographed by the State's Lunacy Commission

Montevue Asylum in Maryland, 1909, Photographed by the State’s Lunacy Commission

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Insane Asylum Graveyards

Poughkeepsie, NY Lunatic Asylum

Large public insane asylums were built primarily for people who could not afford private care. Many families, relieved at finding a place for a difficult member, left him or her at an asylum for life. And death. Asylums had to set up cemeteries for patients whose bodies weren’t claimed by families, or who had entered as paupers.

St. Elizabeths in Washington, DC was unusual in that its patients were also military veterans. The institution served as a military hospital during the Civil War, and the grounds contain a separate Civil War cemetery for military patients who died while they were hospitalized. (This time period is when St. Elizabeths got its current name. Civil War soldiers were embarrassed to write home that they were staying at the Government Hospital for the Insane, so they referred to it as St. Elizabeths, the colonial name of the land on which the hospital was located.)

Philadelphia Insane Asylum, circa 1861, where "eighteen raving maniacs were burned to death" in February, 1885

St. Elizabeths Hospital Military Cemeteries

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Canton Asylum’s Second Superintendent

Dr. Harry R. Hummer

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was unusual in that it was a short-lived institution with only two superintendents. Unlike Oscar Gifford (see last post), Canton Asylum’s second superintendent was well qualified to run an insane asylum. Born in Washington, DC and educated at Georgetown University, Dr. Harry R. Hummer was an ambitious young man who desired prominence and prestige.

He worked at the Government Hospital for the Insane ( St. Elizabeths) for nine years before applying for the position of superintendent at Canton Asylum. Married with two children when he moved to Canton, South Dakota, Hummer badly wanted to run his own institution.

It must have been a difficult move for the whole family, since they had no ties whatsoever to the West. Norena Guest Hummer, cousin to the poet Edgar Guest, was used to the nice dinners and servants available as a doctor’s wife at St. Elizabeths. Hummer was used to having his orders obeyed without question, common at authoritarian eastern asylums, and certainly common at the military-style government asylum. It was a shock to both Hummers to arrive in South Dakota among a much more independent type of employee.

Poet Edgar Guest

Georgetown Medical School, circa 1900, courtesy National Library of Medicine

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Eggzact Details

Athens Insane Asylum Kitchen, circa 1930

Athens Insane Asylum Kitchen, circa 1930

Insane asylums were subject to a great deal of scrutiny and interest, and no detail was too small to catalog. Inquiry by the surgeon general into the number of eggs served at the Government Hospital for the Insane (St. Elizabeths) during 1904 revealed the following:

January – 3463 and 1/2 dozen

February- 3148 dozen

March – 3569 dozen

April – 3972 and 1/2 dozen (the high number was due to Easter falling within the month)

Vintage Easter Card

Vintage Easter Card

Dr. William A. White, St. Elizabeths’s superintendent, said that eggs were served in “considerable quantities” in the wards with acute cases of insanity. He stated that “from one diet kitchen 122 patients are served with 152 dozen eggs per week.”

Though White did not attribute a specific therapeutic value to eggs, it was generally believed that eggs and milk were exceptionally nutritious fare for insane patients.

Egg Carton

Egg Carton

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Drowning In Data–Not

St. Elizabeths, N-building, courtesy Library of Congress

St. Elizabeths, N-building, courtesy Library of Congress

Senator Richard Pettigrew’s suggestion for an insane asylum just for Indians created a flurry of activity within the Indian Office. The acting commissioner of Indian Affairs, Thomas P. Smith, was certainly open to the idea. He wrote to the secretary of the interior in favor of it, saying in a (July 2, 1897) letter that the establishment of an insane asylum would materially advance the Indian service.

Furthermore, he said such an asylum would relieve the overcrowding at the Government Hospital for the Insane (St. Elizabeths). He finished his letter by saying: “Without having very much data on the subject, easy of access, to regulate its judgment, the opinion of this Office is that an asylum that would accommodate fifty patients would be ample.”

As it turned out, the Indian Service could only discover seven insane Indians, and only five of them were at St. Elizabeths.

St. Elizabeths, 1909, courtesy Library of Congress

St. Elizabeths, 1909, courtesy Library of Congress

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Insane Affiliations

Eastern Asylum for the Colored Insane, Goldsboro, NC

Eastern Asylum for the Colored Insane, Goldsboro, NC

Alienists liked to study groups of insane people like immigrants, men, women, ethnic groups, and it seems especially Indians and Negroes.

South Carolina was one of the first states to recognize insanity in people of African descent, and passed an act in 1751 “providing for the subsistence of slaves who may become lunaticks while belonging to persons too poor to care for them.” Otherwise, owners were expected to care for any of their slaves who became insane.

Free blacks were accepted at some insane asylums. The first institution in the U.S. to care for the “colored insane” was the Hospital for the Insane at Williamsburg, VA, which accepted black patients as early as 1744.

The Western State Hospital for the Insane at Staunton, VA accepted impoverished insane people with “no distinction of race.” The Government Hospital for the Insane (St. Elizabeths) treated insane Negroes in a separate building. Most institutions, if they accepted Negroes, segregated them from whites.

Western State Hospital for the Insane

Western State Hospital for the Insane

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Pale Faces and Insanity

A Klickitat Brave, 1899, couresty Library of Congress

A Klickitat Brave, 1899, courtesy Library of Congress

In 1906, Major Charles E. Woodruff, of the Army Medical Corps, wrote an article about nervous disorders and complexion. He believed that excessive exposure to light was responsible for much “nervous damage” to blonds, who didn’t have enough pigmentation to protect themselves in a sunny climate. Proof of this lay in the fact that neurasthenia was more prevalent in the South than in the North.

According to Woodruff, insanity probably followed the same rule. He asserted that “in every part of the world statistics show that the greatest number of cases occur in or near our lightest months–May, June, and July.”

Well-pigmented people, however, were much safer, and didn’t suffer from insanity to the same degree as the “less protected types.” He said that people with dark hair, brown eyes, and olive or brown skin, could “evidently stand mental and nervous strains which blonds cannot endure….”

Woodruff’s beliefs were in direct opposition to those who believed Indians had a high prevalence of insanity because of their exposure to civilization.

Hospital for the Insane of the Army and Navy and the District of Columbia, courtesy Library of Congress

Hospital for the Insane of the Army and Navy and the District of Columbia, courtesy Library of Congress

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