Tag Archives: Southwestern Lunatic Asylum

Food for Thought

Farm With Hospital Buildings on Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, circa 1886

Farm With Hospital Buildings at Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, circa 1886

A man suffering from acute melancholia and admitted to Stockton State Mental Asylum (likely in the late 1890s or early 1900s) mentioned  that his first noon dinner (lunch) consisted of soup, beans, and potatoes. His 6:00 p.m. supper was only tea and bread. This meager menu was a far cry from the original intentions of asylum founders, who strove to provide nourishing meals to patients as part of their treatment programs.

Weston Insane Asylum Farm, circa 1892, courtesy West Virginia and Regional History Collection

Weston Insane Asylum Farm, circa 1892, courtesy West Virginia and Regional History Collection

Farms were usually incorporated into asylum grounds, both to provide fresh produce for patients and staff, and to provide useful “occupational therapy” for able-bodies patients. Superintendents proudly reported the pounds of produce they had raised, as in Dr. Harvey Black’s report for Southwestern Lunatic Asylum (Virginia) at the end of fiscal year 1887. He noted that their gardens had produced 400 bushels of turnips valued at 25 cents/bushel, 12,000 heads of cabbage at 5 cents each, and 62 dozen squash at 15 cents/dozen. Altogether, the gardens produced nearly $2,000 worth of goods for the asylum’s kitchen.

Piggery at Athens Asylum

Piggery at Athens Asylum

Since the asylum had treated only 162 patients that year, the amount of food grown (Black mentions 16 different crops) probably allowed for a reasonably healthy diet–perhaps better than some patients were able to get at home. Though working on a farm sounds distasteful today, some patients undoubtedly enjoyed it: they got outside, the work was meaningful, and they could both see, share, and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr

A Delicate Balance

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, Marion, Virginia

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, Marion, Virginia

Superintendents at insane asylums had every incentive to cure patients, since high cure rates brought both prestige and validation to their institutions. This is one reason that they urged families to get their loved ones into an asylum quickly, before the mental illness became established and more difficult to alleviate or cure. Continue reading

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr

What Do You Learn?

Female Patient (West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum)

Female Patient (West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum)

Modern researchers sometimes pass judgment on whether or not a person should have been committed to an insane asylum–but It isn’t always an easy call. Reading patient notes can lead one to believe that disruptiveness rather than insanity caused a commitment (see last post), or that patients were committed for conditions that we realize today have nothing to do with insanity, such as epilepsy. Continue reading

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr

So Easy to Leave

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, Marion, Virginia

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, Marion, Virginia

Certain patients with mental illness were more difficult to manage than others, and families often grew tired of coping with a disruptive member who perhaps drained them physically and emotionally. An asylum offered a wonderful solution to the problem, and some families were quick to leave a relative at one and never look back. Continue reading

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr

Harvest at the Asylum

Western North Carolina Insane Asylum

Western North Carolina Insane Asylum

Non-urban communities had always held the harvest season in high esteem: good crops meant sufficient food for the winter; there was satisfaction in seeing hard work pay off; and perhaps not least, harvest meant an end to the constant labor involved with maintaining a healthy garden. Continue reading

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr

A Look at Asylum Food

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, early 1890s, courtesy East Tennessee State University Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Superintendents of asylums considered food to be very important, both for patient health and for their morale. Many patients came to facilities somewhat malnourished or with some degree of  sickness, and nourishing food was a primary means of restoring them to physical health. Even healthy patients enjoyed a good meal, and for many patients, meals afforded pleasant breaks in a long day. Superintendents liked to see patients working in asylum gardens: the work gave them exercise and fresh air, occupied their minds, and helped keep expenses down. Some asylum gardens produced surprising amounts of food, though not entirely (or even mostly) through patient labor. The Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, in 1887, produced the following:

— 400 bushels of turnips

— 4,524 ears of green corn

–12,000 heads of cabbage

— 1,102 dozen cucumbers

— 64.5 gallons of peas

These figures do not represent the total harvest from the garden, but do give an idea of its productivity. The superintendent making the report stated that ” . . . the [garden’s] yield is fair under the circumstances . . . . The crops were planted late, and the early part of the season was unfavorable. While the soil of the farm and garden are naturally good, it has been badly cultivated.” At the the end of  fiscal year 1887, the facility had a capacity of 250 but only housed 139 patients.

Animals at the Athens Asylum for the Insane

Patients' Dining Room, West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, 1912

______________________________________________________________________________________

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr

Dietary Considerations

Drying Corn at Laguna, New Mexico, circa 1916, courtesy Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture 1918

All asylums operated within budgets, and most had to make difficult choices about which services and personnel to provide and which to skimp on or delete. One reason (among several) that early asylums used patient labor was because it saved money that could then be used elsewhere. Asylum gardens were extremely important to some institutions; they often subsidized food allotments which would have often been inadequate. Dr. Harvey Black, superintendent of Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, wanted three things for his asylum: good food, comfortable clothing, and enough ward attendants. His facility and many others, raised corn, potatoes, and a variety of vegetables; some institutions were able to tend fruit orchards as well.

Patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians helped raise these same items, but wintertime presented a problem for them as it did for the general population. Potatoes, corn, and other starchy vegetables were easy enough to store, but fresh greens and fruits would have disappeared for the winter. Some dried fruits may have been available, but records do not seem to indicate much activity in the way of canning or drying at the asylum. A diet of meat and primarily starchy vegetables could have led to many different health issues, and patients at the Canton Asylum seem to have had a leaning toward sugar addiction. One inspector wrote in 1916: “The only suggestion that I would make, with reference to the ration allowance, is that the supply of sugar be increased. The patients, for some reason, consume more sugar than normal people . . . I have observed this abnormal craving for sugar by patients in other asylums.”

Sugar cravings can indicate thyroid problems, yeast infections,adrenal overload, depression, and a variety of other conditions.The inspector’s comments indicate that something physical was probably going on with the patients at Canton Asylum in addition to any mental issues they may have had.

Women's Sewing Room at Maryland Hospital for the Insane, 1910s, courtesy Spring Grove Hospital Center

Men's Industrial Shop at Maryland Hospital for the Insane, circa 1900, courtesy Spring Grove Hospital Center

______________________________________________________________________________________

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr

Meals at Asylums

Dr. Harvey Black

The quality of food at asylums ranged from the piece of bread and five prunes Nelly Bly received on Blackwell’s Island to the abundance of milk and eggs sickly patients received at St. Elizabeths. Many institutions made a point of offering enticing food to patients who had problems eating; one woman at Hilltop recounted the generous breakfast of oatmeal, bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, milk and juice, and the evening pot of chocolate brought to her by staff.

Physicians generally considered it positive when patients put on weight. Notes on a woman named Katie at the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum in Virginia said that she had “fattened up some.” Of another woman there, the physician wrote that she had “gained flesh and strength.” Of others, doctors noted that patients had “improved in flesh” or had “grown stout.” There never seemed to be any attempts to help patients lose weight, even if they were described as “quite stout.”

The superintendent at Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, Harvey Black, wrote in his first report that three things were necessary to help patients recover and go home: a sufficient quantity and variety of good food, neat, comfortable clothing, and a sufficient number of efficient ward attendants. He spoke of a planned orchard of 400 apple trees, peach and pear trees, grapes, and berries, and stated that even more than that was needed. If nourishing food did have curative powers, Black seemed to want to provide it.

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum

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

______________________________________________________________________________________

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr

Children at Asylums

An Epileptic Boy, from Criminal Man, 1911

Children lived at insane asylums. They were the children of  patients or children of staff, or sometimes they were the patients. Married staff who lived on the grounds of an asylum had no choice but to raise their children where they were placed. At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, Dr. Hummer’s two boys ran through the wards freely, often aggravating the attendants with their noisiness and mess. Presumably, children at other asylums did the same things, and enjoyed playing in the park-like settings and wide lawns that were such a feature of large asylums.

At Southwestern Lunatic Asylum in Virginia, one patient with a young baby refused to be separated from her child, and the baby was allowed to stay for awhile. Sometimes patients became pregnant at asylums, and their babies were allowed to stay until other arrangements could be made. One child born to a  patient at  the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians stayed until she was four years old.

Canton Asylum took in a few young children; the youngest actually entering as a patient was six years old. A 1958 newspaper article from the Nevada State Journal described how children lived at the Nevada State Hospital (former Nevada Insane Asylum). The paper said the children stayed in a small ward with older [insane or feeble-minded] women, who cared for them. They played outside in fair weather, and played inside otherwise. Children ranged in age from four to seventeen, and usually lived in wards with members of their own sex once they reached age twelve.

Nevada Hospital for Mental Disease, circa 1890, Dr. H. Bergstein with son and Staff, courtesy University of Nevada School of Medicine

Nevada Insane Asylum, circa 1980, courtesy University of Nevada School of Medicine

______________________________________________________________________________________

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr

Dying Insane

Bromide Advertisement

Many patients at insane asylums had physical, as well as mental, health problems. Epilepsy was a particular problem for doctors, who could not even control the condition until bromides were introduced to calm symptoms. Aside from the usual causes of death like heart failure or exhaustion, patients sometimes died from suicide, or after a violent episode with attendants or fellow patients in which rough treatment could have been a contributing factor. One patient at Southwestern Lunatic Asylum in Virginia died from “swallowing pins, needles, and buttons, to which she was much addicted.” Another unusual cause of death, at Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, was from “gangrene of external genitals.”

The minutes of an 1892 meeting of  Southwestern Asylum’s executive committee discussed the death of an inmate who had simply walked off the grounds one day in the middle of  December. Staff searched for him unsuccessfully, and his body was discovered two weeks later, some distance from the asylum. He had doubtless died of exposure. Though they deplored the man’s death, the committee decided that they would rather allow patients a degree of freedom and risk such an incident, as deprive all of freedom on the off chance that someone else might escape in the future.

 

Southwestern Lunatic Asylum

Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, circa 1886, courtesy Burke County Public Library

______________________________________________________________________________________

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr