Tag Archives: Michigan Asylum for the Insane

Focus Of Inspections

Interior, First Floor, Staircase and Gallery, Welfare Island, Insane Asylum, New York, New York County, courtesy Library of Congress

Interior, First Floor, Staircase and Gallery, Welfare Island, Insane Asylum, New York, New York County, courtesy Library of Congress

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was inspected many times throughout its life. However, inspectors tended to focus on “things” rather than people. In a January, 1912 report that discussed some sewer problems at the asylum (see last post), Inspector Jacob Breid also discussed–in detail–the physical condition of the building. Continue reading


Wealth Has Its Privileges

Room in a Cottage for Women at Michigan Asylum for the Insane, circa 1891, courtesy kalamazoo public library

The great majority of insane asylum superintendents did not set out to be deliberately cruel to patients. They understood that newcomers to the institution would be frightened and/or confused, and made an effort to meet new patients as soon as as possible so they could welcome and reassure them. Even when asylums grew too large to permit this, superintendents and staff looked at ways to make their asylum more homey and comforting. Some set up cottages or separate buildings where the number of patients could be kept small, or moved patients to wards where similar patients stayed. Quiet or reserved patients would therefore stay with others like themselves (no matter what brought on their condition) versus mixing with loud and/or violent patients who perhaps had the same complaint as theirs.

As always, money made a difference. Wealthy families could often keep their family members at home, cared for by a private nurse or attendant. However, if the patient grew too violent or uncontrollable, even wealthy families might find it better to take their loved one to an asylum. The majority of asylums were state-run, and took patients at low-income levels; however, a few asylums catered to paying clientele. The McLean Asylum for the Insane was such an asylum, and its lush accommodations began with its exterior. Rain gutters were copper, views were spectacular, and the golf course was ready for play.

My next post will describe McLean further.

Portrait of John McLean, courtesy harvard.edu

Frederic Packard, a Member of McLean's Staff and Later Superintendent, circa 1920, courtesy harvard.edu



Women’s Lives in Asylums

Athens Female Ward, 1893, courtesy Athens County Historical Society and Museum

Going to an asylum was psychologically difficult at the best of times, but women could be expected to suffer a bit more . . . after all, many asylum patients had been homemakers unused to much interaction outside their own houses. Ironically, the paternalistic society in which women lived, with all its “protections” gave them few skills to cope with sudden changes to their routines and environments. Of course, women have responded heroically to all sorts of negative situations, but it seems reasonable to assume that between the two genders, women would have been less exposed to communal living and interactions with strangers during the 19th century. In general, women had been taught to seek protection and rely on others, and to find their satisfaction in home, family, and close friends. Their feelings of abandonment and friendlessness upon entering an asylum would be dependent upon how strongly they had adhered to this “womanly” ethic.

A letter from Mary Page to her sister (in 1871) speaks to the anguish many forgotten women felt:

“It has been a long and trying time since I saw or heard from you or any of the rest of your family or any of my relations. . . . Almost four years have this band of enemies been at work on me with foul play . . . . You all can pity my condition and picture to yourselves my sad fate all too unjustly committed. I have never given anyone in this whole world the first cause for themselves to fight poor me . . . ”

The letter is written from Williamsburg Hospital in Virginia, probably referencing Eastern Lunatic Asylum. Though the letter is somewhat rambling and makes a series of bitter comments and accusations against “unjust enemies” (which may have been the result of hallucinations/paranoia and the reason for her commitment), the woman’s pain is evident. Undoubtedly men were sent to asylums and forgotten, too, but given their social conditioning, women would have felt it more keenly.

Eastern Lunatic Asylum

Female Department, Michigan Asylum for the Insane, 1892, courtesy Kalamazoo Public Library