Posts Tagged ‘insane asylums’

Two Causes of Insanity

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Hippocrates

In ancient times, insanity was seen as a result of spiritual forces working against an individual. A god or demon could either inhabit a body and manifest in some way, or merely cause problems for the victim via spiritual power. Sometimes manifestations were considered benign or even holy, and the person who acted oddly was left alone. If the manifestations went against society’s expectations, then the spirit was deemed evil and attempts were made to get rid of it through ceremonies and incantations. Around 460 BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates argued that the brain was the actual organ of the mind and reasoning. Therefore, insanity could be treated just like any other physical problem. His ideas were generally accepted until the Middle Ages, when once again, authorities began to believe that the spiritual realm controlled the mind. During that time, ideas of witchcraft and demonic possession flourished.

Eventually, Europe once again caught up to ancient Greek thought and began to look at physical causes for mental illness. Because of their evolving beliefs about insanity, European healers stopped dismissing the insane as hopeless cases who should be locked away for life. Instead, they looked for ways to help alleviate what might be just a temporary condition. The insane began to live in asylums rather than prisons and poorhouses, and physicians tried to discover methods of caring for them that would lead to a return of sanity. The early nineteenth century became a very hopeful time in which many doctors believed almost all cases of insanity could be cured.

Demon Leaving the Body of an Epileptic Through His Mouth

Patients With Various Mental Disorders

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Other Families

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Interior Staircase, New York City Lunatic Asylum

Early superintendents of insane asylums asked for large, beautiful facilities amid a park-like setting, because they thought the environment within imposing structures would help cure their patients. Asylums were built to serve the poor and middle class, rather than the rich, and these lovely “homes” were deliberately built to be as unlike a patient’s typical home as possible.

Alienists (early mental health experts) believed that insanity was often caused by something in the patient’s home environment. By leaving that unhealthy environment, patients could renew their minds and get well. Family visits were actively discouraged, and it wasn’t until late in the century that superintendents began to consider trial visits home, or furloughs, as beneficial.

Dr. Hummer, the superintendent of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians for the majority of its existence, did not seem to move with the times. He always discouraged visits by family members, and only once or twice allowed a patient to go home on a trial basis.

Social Room at Arizona Insane Asylum

Visitors Arriving at Missouri State Hospital for the Insane

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Happy Families

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Western Lunatic Asylum Medical Staff, 1896

Asylum superintendents went to great lengths to present their institutions as surrogate homes for patients. They spoke of the nice rooms, pleasant activities, pretty landscaping, and structured schedules that would restore disordered minds. Superintendents saw themselves as father figures, head of a large “family” of patients and attendants who worked together cheerfully and obediently. Reality was generally a far cry from such visions, but there was at least some substance to this “family” view.

Superintendents and staff lived at the asylum, often ate meals with patients, and joined in their recreational activities. Like most families of the period, patients and attendants in insane asylums began their day early. After bathing and breakfast, they made beds and swept hallways, cleaned rooms, washed dishes, and performed all the various chores necessary to keep the family fed, clothed, cleaned, and rested.

Just like parents, doctors and attendants had little time to themselves. The needs of their patients could be overwhelming, and both worked long hours–12 to 16 hours a day. Attendants spent the most time with patients, burdened with the relentless tasks associated with caring for helpless, uncooperative, or physically ill adults. When they were on the grounds, they were  on call to help patients, day or night. For most of the 19th century, attendants received a half day off a month, a couple of evenings off a week, and an entire Sunday off once a month or so.

Laundry at the Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane

Western Lunatic Asylum, Virginia

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Amazing Space

Sunday, November 7th, 2010
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Bloomingdale Insane Asylum

Bloomingdale Insane Asylum

Society has always had to (somehow) accommodate the needs of the insane. In colonial America, families usually supervised members with mental problems, and the community helped as they were able, or tolerated their odd behavior. As people moved into cities and the insane mixed more closely with strangers, authorities began to house the mentally ill in poorhouses or prisons. These spaces were usually dismal and abusive, and  many people languished in them for years.

Gonzales County Jail

Gonzales County Jail

By the 1830s, society began to believe that insanity was something that could be cured, and they sought to decriminalize insanity. Doctors felt that if a person became insane in a home environment, removing that person from home and into a different environment with different routines would be very helpful. Consequently, large institutions became popular by the 1840s.

The public was grateful to have a place to send unmanageable family members, and asylums quickly filled. Eventually, they became overcrowded, and doctors realized that many patients simply could not be cured in that kind of environment.

Some critics of asylums argued that patients who were on the way to recovery were surely aggravated, or even set back, by having to associate with patients who were seriously ill. They suggested small cottages with a home-like atmosphere, as a better solution. Huge asylums remained as the only option for many people, though the quality of care declined rapidly. Today, large institutions are no longer popular.

Men's Cottages at Springfield Hospital for the Insane

Men's Cottages at Springfield Hospital for the Insane

Cottages at Iona State Hospital

Cottages at Iona State Hospital

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Living the Life

Thursday, September 30th, 2010
Example of Electric Light Lamps, courtesy Early Office Museum

Example of Electric Light Lamps, courtesy Early Office Museum

Many insane asylums were huge institutions filled with hundreds of patients. This was never true of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, which seldom housed more than 90 patients at its most crowded.

Though the facility couldn’t boast too much about its size, its superintendents usually pointed with pride to its physical features. In 1910, inspector James McLaughlin noted that Canton Asylum had eighteen buildings, including its barns, sheds, corn cribs, and graneries.

The main building was two stories tall, with a jasper granite stone foundation. A basement ran underneath the entire building; it had a cement floor and  brick partition walls. The asylum also had a large attic, which had been divided into compartments but was not finished. These rooms were used for storage and for drying clothes during bad weather.

The two stories were each 11 feet high, which probably helped give it a spacious feeling. There were 120 electric-light lamps, a wonderful amenity for that time and place. To most visitors, the asylum looked both beautiful and well-functioning.

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And Why Not Shackles?

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010
Mentally Ill Man in Jail

Mentally Ill Man in Jail

Though most insane patients were restrained in earlier times, by the late 1800s/early 1900s, restraints were much more prevalent in the U.S. than in England. This was partially due to a real philosophical difference as to what was best for the patient.

U.S. asylum superintendents believed (generally) that Americans’ free spirits made them more violent patients than Europeans. They considered it a sounder practice to restrain patients so they couldn’t harm themselves or others. They also felt that attendants who had to subdue an unrestrained patient who suddenly became violent, were likelier to hurt the person in their efforts to restrain him.

In 1875 Dr. (Lord) John Bucknill, a British asylum superintendent, visited nearly a dozen U.S. insane asylums. He wrote that Americans overused restraints “despite their highest motives of humanity” in his Notes on Asylums for the Insane in America, published in 1876.

A study in 1885 showed that in 26 U. S. asylums housing nearly 14,000 patients, restraints were used on patients over 5,000 times in one month. The study also showed that (typically) one U.S. asylum used more restraints than all of Britain’s asylums put together.

Leg Irons

Leg Irons

Straitjacket

Straitjacket

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Lunatic Balls

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

As part of their treatment, patients in insane asylums were sometimes allowed recreational opportunities. The New York Times (1874) described an annual ball at the New-Haven, Connecticut lunatic asylum with typical 19th century  indifference to patients’ feelings:

“Twenty couples entered the hall, ranged in two lines facing each other, and stood still in profound silence, waiting the music. In this party the strangeness of the performers was most apparent. […]The music burst forth and a simultaneous movement followed; all sorts of movements, some cultivated steps, but for the most part a mere violent shuffling exercise. Directly they all seemed to have forgotten that they had partners, and settled down into dancing. There was some peculiarity about every individual, but in every one was observable a sort of ecstacy [sic].”

A description of a fire at Blackwell’s Island City Lunatic Asylum in 1879 also referenced lunatic dancing. When an alarm sounded and patients were released from their cells:

“To allay their fears, and to quiet the excitement which many of them began to exhibit owing to their being disturbed at an unusual time, the lunatics were told were told that there was to be a dance in the Amusement Hall. […]A merry air was played on the piano, and in a few minutes the lunatics were dancing and capering about in high glee.”

Dance at a Madhouse, 1907 by George Wesley Bellows

Dance at a Madhouse, 1907 by George Wesley Bellows

Lunatic Ball

Lunatic Ball

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Come and See Crazy People

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010
Tourist Plate

Tourist Plate

In the 1800s and early 1900s, many insane asylums  (as well as prisons and orphanages) were treated as tourist attractions. This practice had started long ago, when visitors to Bedlam in London, paid a penny to see the lunatics there. They were allowed to bring in sticks to poke the inmates with, to stir them up.

The situation was not so bad in America by the 19th century, but many people were curious about insane asylums and wanted to see inside. Some visitors were  curious gawkers–the same kind of people who enjoyed freak shows at the circus–but many others were sincerely interested in seeing how patients were treated.

The pictures below are  tourist items created for the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians.

Souvenir Spoon

Souvenir Spoon

Close-up of Spoon

Close-up of Spoon

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Crazy People in Custody

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

Places to confine insane people had existed in the U.S. for many years, but superintendents of insane asylums usually acted independently of each other. A casual meeting between two superintendents in Philadelphia led to the creation of an Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane in 1844.

The group immediately began sharing information on such topics as:

1.  “The Treatment of Incurables”

2. The Relation Between Phrenology and Insanity”

3. “The Utility of Night Attendants and the Propriety of Not Locking Doors of Patients’ Rooms During the Night”

Phrenology was an early attempt to explain brain function. Practitioners  attempted to read a person’s character from the shape of the skull, particularly from its bumps, peaks, and valleys. This pseudo-science was developed by Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and was popular into the latter part of the 19th century.

Phrenology Chart

Phrenology Chart

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