Tag Archives: investigation into St. Elizabeths

Inspection Details

In A Rake's Progress, Tom Rakewell Loses His Fortune to Drink, Gambling, and Women, and Ends Up in an Insane Asylum

In A Rake’s Progress, Tom Rakewell Loses His Fortune to Drink, Gambling, and Women, and Ends Up in an Insane Asylum

When insane asylums were inspected, nearly anything going on was fair game for examination. During St. Elizabeths’ 1906 investigation, Dr. Harry Hummer, who later became superintendent at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians gave testimony concerning gambling at the asylum.

Hummer was asked if he had heard of any case where “cards were played for money by the attendants and patients.” Hummer replied that he had heard of cases, though he did not believe attendants had been present. A police officer had informed Hummer that there was a game going on in the asylum’s smoke room under the bakery; Hummer called in the two patients and threatened to revoke their parole privileges (free time without attendants) if they did not stop. They said they would, but apparently shifted their game to an outdoor area. Hummer again threatened to revoke their parole privileges, but they swore they would not gamble again and he let them continue with their relative freedom.

Hummer was then asked if he had ever played cards at St. Elizabeths. Hummer said he had, generally about 3:00 p.m. with two of the night watchmen and perhaps a patient or two. They played a game called pedro. When asked if he ever played seven-up, Hummer replied, “I don’t believe so, sir–not as severe a game as that.”

Pedro (pronounced peedro) actually seems to be the more complicated game; it is difficult to understand why Dr. Hummer pronounced seven-up a “severe” game. The rules to both games can be found on the internet.

Men Playing All Fours, Also Known as Seven Up, Civil War Era

Men Playing All Fours, Also Known as Seven Up, Civil War Era

Men Playing Seven Up at a Boarding House

Men Playing Seven Up at a Boarding House

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Inspection Results

State Lunatic Asylum in Lincoln, Nebraska

State Lunatic Asylum in Lincoln, Nebraska

The two federal institutions for the insane (St. Elizabeths and the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians) were investigated several times. In 1926, the comptroller general of the United States listed his findings concerning the investigation into St. Elizabeths. They included the following:

— The laws under which persons …are committed to the hospital are not adequate or sufficiently definite.

— There are too many patients in some of the wards, resulting in a crowded and unhealthy condition.

— Dining rooms, sitting rooms, toilets, baths, and other facilities of some of the wards are quite inadequate and most unsatisfactory.

— The fire hazard in certain wards is too great, and there does not appear to be sufficient fire fighting equipment.

— Several findings concerned the proper accounting of patients’ monies and valuables, including the need for a place to safeguard them.

Some of these 1926 findings were similar to those at Canton Asylum (overcrowding, inadequate facilities, and fire hazards). However, St. Elizabeths had 4,340 patients in June 1926, well over 50 times the number of patients at the Canton Asylum. The facility was not perfect, but by no means did it have 50 times the problems of its sister asylum. Undoubtedly St. Elizabeths’ leadership had something to do with its better performance.

Asylums were frequently inspected and investigated, and most had similar problems. Appropriations were generally set for a certain time period and included set numbers of personnel positions. Because funding wasn’t based on actual patient populations or patient to staff ratios, overcrowding could set off a cascade of problems. Facilities became inadequate and attendants became overburdened. In turn, stressed attendants probably lost patience or reacted less professionally with difficult patients. A new (and possibly sufficient) cycle of funding may have given an institution a chance to catch its figurative breath, but a new cycle of overcrowding was almost certain to begin shortly thereafter. As the public became more comfortable using insane asylums, their demands on these institutions created perpetual overcrowding. Insane asylums were often victims of their own success.

Overcrowding at Byberry (Philadelphia State Hospital) from a 1946 Department of Welfare Report

Overcrowding at Byberry (Philadelphia State Hospital) from a 1946 Department of Welfare Report

Patients Had to Sleep in Chairs at the Camarillo Mental Hospital

Patients Had to Sleep in Chairs at the Camarillo Mental Hospital, courtesy Camarillo State Hospital Historical Society

 

 

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