Tag Archives: Western North Carolina Insane 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.

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Lucid Lunatics

 

Life In An Insane Asylum Was Dangerous

Life In An Insane Asylum Was Dangerous

One of the most heartbreaking–and frightening–aspects of treatment in an insane asylum was that so many patients probably were not insane. Native American patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians were rarely evaluated by any competent medical person before they were committed. Powerless and misunderstood, they were often railroaded into the asylum for convenience or spite.

Many white patients undoubtedly suffered the same fate. Women were also politically and financially powerless, and many inconvenient women may have been committed to asylums at the pleasure of their spouses, fathers, or other legal guardians. Diaries and letters that women wrote spoke passionately about how terrible asylums were, and how the rigid routines, loss of freedom, and frightening environment, were enough to make any sane person lose her mind. A woman who had little experience of the world, or who perhaps had never left her home without an escort, would be terrified in an asylum. One can only imagine the stress levels these wronged patients endured.

Patient at Surrey County Asylum, circa 1855, courtesy the Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Patient at Surrey County Asylum, circa 1855, courtesy the Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Diagnoses were also at fault. Medical conditions like epilepsy were considered a part of insanity, and patients who could be effectively treated today, would have spent their lives in insane asylums. Other reasons for commitment were just as tragic. Commitment papers for patients admitted to the Western North Carolina Insane Asylum in Morganton, North Carolina during the two years ending November 30, 1908 included reasons like:

— cigarette smoking

— desire to marry

— cocaine habit

— hard work and nose bleed

Western North Carolina Insane Asylum

Western North Carolina Insane Asylum

Though these diagnoses cannot tell the whole story, modern researchers have to wonder how much mental illness actually accompanied the patients’ conditions.

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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

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Ideas About Mental Health Evolved

Emil Kraepelin, circa 1920, a Modern Alienist Who Identified Schizophrenia

Emil Kraepelin, circa 1920, a Modern Alienist Who Identified Schizophrenia

The notion of insanity  has been around almost since early cultures recognized that a spectrum of human behavior existed. Ideas about insanity have fluctuated throughout time, however. What was considered aberrant behavior in one era wasn’t considered so abnormal in another, just as so-called “normal” behaviors have changed over time. Continue reading

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Insanity on the Rise

Government Statistics About Insanity

Because it was more cost-effective to house many patients rather than a few, insane asylums tended to grow larger and house more patients over time. Dr. Harry Hummer of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians felt his disadvantage in numbers very keenly. He strove continually to find ways to cut costs, and to increase his number of patients. The latter required an increased capacity for his institution, which Congress did not necessarily support. Hummer repeatedly made a case for more buildings, more farmland, and more patient beds.

Though no one ever conclusively settled the question of whether or not Indians had as much, more, or less insanity than whites, statistics about the growing number of insane were on Hummer’s side. The various states had compiled statistics on the number of insane for many years, and the rate per 100,000 rose steadily each decade of the census. In 1840, 50.7/100,000 of the population were reported as mentally ill, while 169.7/100,000 were reported so by 1890.

The number of insane in hospitals (all races) had risen to 252.8/100,000 by 1920, though the census also shows that Indian hospitalization was only 104.5/100,000. The figures for Native Americans may have been skewed due to a lack of access to mental health care, or lack of room at state mental institutions or at the Canton Asylum. The Native American population stood at 244,437 in 1920. Even with their remarkably low rate of hospitalization for insanity (it was 259.8 for whites) Hummer could have conservatively estimated the number of insane Indians to be around 250. In 1920, Hummer had only 86 patients.

Patient Beds in Hallway Due to Overcrowding, Colorado Insane Asylum

Patients Working in Fields at Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, courtesy Western Piedmont Community College

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Stable Jobs

Dr. John Gray, Superintendent of the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica

Every insane asylum superintendent faced challenges that made the job more difficult. Lack of funds and overcrowding were two perennial problems, along with shallow labor pools and constant administrative tasks. Most superintendents had to take an active role in overseeing new construction, as well as drumming up support for it in the first place. Still, for many alienists, superintendent was still the plum job.

After taking time out for the Civil War, Dr. Patrick Livingston Murphy graduated as a physician from the University of Maryland at the age of 23. He settled in his home state of North Carolina, in Wilmington, and began his practice. He found “the routine of practice irksome” for some reason–he may have been bored by the types of cases he treated, or his practice may have been too small to support him. When he heard that there would be a new asylum in Broughton (the Western North Carolina Insane Asylum), Murphy immediately applied for a position at the Western Virginia Asylum to obtain experience. As soon as the Western North Carolina asylum opened, he applied for the superintendent’s position. He got it, and remained the asylum’s superintendent for the next 25 years.

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

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Slow to Change

Western North Carolina Insane Asylum

Early alienists knew little about why a person became insane, but they were always willing to guess. The superintendent of Western North Carolina Insane Asylum reported on the causes for admission to the facility in 1888. They included: the Civil War, disappointment, jealousy, menstrual irregularity, nostalgia, and political excitement. In 1908, the same asylum listed these causes for admission: brooding over sin, cigarette smoking, climacteric worry, desire to marry, ear disease, fear of child-birth, fear of pregnancy, fright, and hard work and nose bleed.

We seem to be living in more enlightened times, but today’s psychiatric profession has its own absurdities. The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists “caffeine-induced sleep disorder” and “mathematics disorder” as valid mental illnesses. Their list has risen from 265 recognized disorders in 1980 to 365 today.

Insane Asylum, Phoenix, Arizona

Patient in an Insane Asylum, photographed by Dr. Hugh Welch (Britain)

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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

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