Tag Archives: Life in an Insane Asylum

Still A Prisoner

Asylum Ward, New York, 1866, courtesy History of Disability in America

Asylum Ward, New York, 1866, courtesy History of Disability in America

One of the best reasons reformers gave for creating asylums was that the insane were often housed in jails despite having committed no crime. With this argument, reformers in the 1830s pleaded for more humane places (and ways) to treat people who were merely sick rather than criminal. For a period, patients likely reaped the benefit of this new stance; they were taken from prisons and punitive treatments and given the rest, wholesome food, and attention they needed to get well. Then, conditions changed.

Sometime in the 1870s, a female patient named Adeline Lunt gave her perspective on asylums. In discussing the so-called convalescent galleries, which had a pleasant appearance to visitors, Lunt said: “To-night that lady will be bound, chest, arms, hands, will be compressed, tied into a sleeved corset . . . ” When the miserable woman doesn’t sleep well as a result, Lunt said, her attendants report that she has had no sleep and the patient is consequently locked into the building the next day.

Types of Restraining Devices

Types of Restraining Devices

In Lunt’s opinion, patients were detained far too long, merely against the possibility that something negative could happen to them or that they might do something risky. However, the detention itself could bring apathy, hopelessness, or an inability to function. In her words, there should be a dictionary entry that said:

Restrained Female Patient, courtesy LIFE

Restrained Female Patient, courtesy LIFE

“Insane Asylum. A place where insanity is made.”

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Limitations of Inspections

Living Quarters in an Insane Asylum

Living Quarters in an Insane Asylum

Many researchers have wondered how inspectors failed to note the shortcomings of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, since it was inspected many times over the course of its existence. Most asylums were inspected regularly, yet like visitors to the Canton Asylum, most outsiders failed to uncover problems that made life miserable for patients.

Moses Swan, a patient at the Troy Marshall Infirmary and Lunatic Asylum (New York) from 1860-71, offers a partial explanation. “You know but little how patients are treated by attendants and others. I have seen gentlemen and ladies visit this main house . . . and remark how nice it looked, and so it did.”

Attendants Could Be Quite Cruel to Patients

Attendants Could Be Quite Cruel to Patients

Swan explained that a nicely dressed visitor looked in on him once, saw the “nice white spread” on Swan’s bed and the presumably soft mattress under it, and said that Swan’s accommodations looked very nice. However, what the visitor couldn’t see were Swan’s sleepless nights as he listened to the cries and wails of disturbed patients, how frightened he was when he was locked in a room with an uncontrollable patient, or how cruelly the attendants treated him when they desired. Swan was kept continually locked in a cell for many months after arriving at the institution, had no liberty to leave the building, and received only a few visitors over the years.

Doctors Visit Patients Who Are Kept in Restraints

Doctors Visit Patients Who Are Kept in Restraints

In his writings after recovery, Swan tried to warn the relatives of those who considered sending a loved one to an asylum: “O Fathers! O, Mothers! keep your unfortunate sons and daughters from these places until a reform has been brought about . . . . I would say to one and all, know you are right before you transport any to an earthly hell.”

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