Friday, May 27, 2016

The Asylum Chronicles, Part Three: Case studies

It would not be an exaggeration to say that insanity reached epidemic proportions during the nineteenth century.  Evidence in New York includes municipal reports that document ever overcrowded conditions for the insane in state institutions, expenditures to enlarge existing institutions and legislation implemented to move the indigent insane out of county poorhouses and into state asylums.  Currently, the term insanity is a legal definition rather than a medical one, so a look at a few of the patients diagnosed with a disease of the brain or disease of the mind is necessary to understand the term as it was used during the nineteenth century.

These cases come from the Erie County Poorhouse hospital records, with the exception of Antoinette Matteson, who was lucky enough to avoid the asylum.  Some of them will be familiar, having been subjects of former blogs, others may cause outrage, and some will make you sad.  It is important to remember that each of the individuals reported on here were real people who were considered to be different from the rest.  Still, perhaps you might find some similarities to many of the "sane" people you know.  I know I did.

From the Buffalo Evening Courier and Republic, December 21, 1875 

You may recall Alanson Palmer, former millionaire turned pauper, who made his fortune in Buffalo in the early nineteenth century only to lose it during a financial panic in 1837.  Palmer tried for more than a decade to rebuild his fortune, but was never able to regain his wealth or his status in the community.  It appears that he went into an irreversible decline after he was no longer able to maintain his offices in 1857.  Newspaper reports and poorhouse records show that he spent months at a time as a resident of the poorhouse, where he was classified as a pauper, a vagrant and an intemperate.  Sadly he entered the Erie County Poorhouse for the last time in 1870.  Records indicate that he was transferred to the Willard Asylum, the facility for the chronic insane, in 1872.  He died there in 1875.

Was Alanson Palmer insane or just heartbroken and defeated?  Evidence suggests the latter.  At some point he was separated from his wife and children, whether it was immediately after he lost his fortune or as he continued on his downward spiral is unknown.  The reasons they departed are also a mystery.  Did his wife leave him because of his misfortune or did he send her away because he could no longer support her in the manner in which she had grown accustom?  He went from the man everyone said hello to on the street to the man people threw snowballs at.  Certainly his appearance, described in in the Buffalo Courier in 1868 as old and disheveled , indicates that Palmer, then in his seventies, had given up all hope.

Antoinette Matteson.  From The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Healing
available at the Marion H. Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York.

Another wealthy resident of Buffalo may likely have been declared insane had it not been for her own whits and, perhaps, a little help from her friends.  Antoinette Matteson was a clairvoyant healer who lived in Buffalo during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  She claimed to be able to go into a trance where she received guidance from her Native American spirit guide, who provided her with insight into the diagnoses and botanical cures for her ailing clients.  Interestingly, this was not the reason Matteson was thought to be insane.  She was actually a well respected healer and had quite a lucrative practice in the city of Buffalo.  It was her fortune that was at the source of the accusation.  Matteson had two daughters.  Martha Caul had graduated from the Medical Department at the University of Buffalo, while Nellie Whitcomb had followed her mother into the clairvoyant healing practice.  It was Martha who wanted her mother declared insane in 1911 because she thought that sister Nellie was squandering her mother's fortune.  Martha and other family members claimed that Matteson, then in her late sixties, would talk strangely and that her language was incoherent and hard to understand.

As it turns out, Matteson was unable to be located and could not be served with papers to appear in court and rumors circulated that she had fled to Lily Dale, an established safe haven for Spiritualists in Chautauqua County, New York.  Friends suggested that her ability as a clairvoyant enabled her to know when the process servers were coming and thus to be able to avoid being found.  Eventually Dr. Caul dropped the charges.  Not surprisingly, there is other evidence of friction between mother and daughter.  Martha had her mother arrested for practicing medicine without a license, according to the period newspapers.  Upon her death in 1913, Matteson was owed a substantial sum of money from Caul and deducted the amount from her daughter's inheritance.  Martha's attempt to gain control over her mother's fortune using a claim of insanity failed and in the end, her mother had the last word.

The case of Marietta Blanchard suggests potential abuse, or at the very least negligence on the part of the asylum staff.  At the age of 26 she was admitted to the poorhouse asylum with a diagnosis of insanity.  Three years later, still at the asylum, she gave birth to a son.  The attending physician made mention of the fact that she had been an inmate for a number of years, adding "This woman is an inmate of the insane house and is insane at this time..."  Unfortunately there were no other details explaining the rationale for her diagnosis.

There are several interesting details about this case that suggest something nefarious was going on.  First of all, the woman gave birth in the asylum, not the poorhouse hospital, although the birth was recorded in the hospital records.  Also, there was no record of the infant's admission into the poorhouse and no record of his death.  Further scrutiny of the poorhouse records for that period show that there were records of admission for the live infants of other inmates who had given birth in the institution.  Notation was consistent in these cases and read as such: 'Infant son of Molly O' Reily, born at the poorhouse', yet there was no record of the infant son of Marietta Blanchard.  Also, the physician made a point of documenting that the woman was insane and had been an inmate of the asylum for several years.

 It seems reasonable that the physician was trying to draw attention to the circumstances surrounding Marietta's pregnancy.  Supervision at the asylum was often lax, according to inspection reports.  It is possible that she had a relationship with another inmate, or perhaps a member of the staff.  It is also possible that her liaison was not consensual.  Either scenario suggests a critical level of negligence on the part of the asylum administration.  Sadly, the records do not indicate the fate of Miss Blanchard or her son and we are left wondering if one or both of them were doomed to spend the rest of their lives in the institution.

Margaret Bauman, poorhouse inmate.  Image from The Buffalo(NY) Courier, December 5, 1900
Margaret Bauman's story, to the extent that I have been able to piece it together, is perhaps the saddest of the case studies presented here.  Although newspaper reports claim she came to the poorhouse at the age of twelve, the inmate records report her earliest admission to the institution in 1854 at age 24.  Her diagnosis was insanity with no indication of how or why she was considered as such.  She died fifty-six years later, at the age of 80 in 1910.

Margaret spent more than half of her life in the poorhouse, having never been transferred to the State Asylum in Utica for further treatment or the Willard Asylum for the chronic insane.  She lived well past 1893, when the Erie County Poorhouse asylum closed and the last insane inmate was transferred to the Willard Asylum.  Was she truly insane?  We will never know for sure.  Her initial diagnosis was made when the understanding of insanity as a physical disease which could be cured with treatment was just being considered.  During that time a variety of ailments from stomach distress to seizures could be diagnosed as insanity.  Newspaper reports refer to her as an inmate of the poorhouse, not the asylum and describe her as quiet.  It is a reasonable assumption that if she could have cared for herself, she would not have spent more than half of her life in an institution.   It might have been more accurate to describe Margaret as feeble minded. Perhaps she was simply lacking the mental acuity to survive in real world.

Sadly, Margaret Bauman's circumstances did not improve upon her death in 1910.  According to the hospital records her body was not claimed for burial by a friend or relative and as such it was legal to transfer her earthly remains to the medical school for cadaver dissection.  Having examined all of the hospital cases for the period available that were transferred to medical schools for dissection, there seemed to be no pattern, no rationale as to why one person was chosen over another.  It seems odd that someone who was so well known around the institution would have been selected for what was likely considered a fate worse than death.  There was no record of Margaret's remains having been transferred back to the poorhouse for burial, so her final resting place remains unknown.

A final interesting case is that of Mary McGuire.  Mary was transferred to the poorhouse asylum on May 10, 1858 from Sisters of Charity Hospital, where she had been "under treatment for three months & more without the least good."  She was declared insane because she would howl at night and also because she had severe ankylosis (stiffness) of her knee joints and was forced to crawl around.  She remained in the institution for nearly four months, however there were no details regarding any treatment she may have received.

Mary, who was seventeen at the time of her admission was discharged on August 31, 1858 completely recovered mentally and physically.  It is likely that she suffered from a physical ailment which was causing her severe pain.  Rheumatic fever is a possible candidate given her age and the stiffness in her joints.  There are no details about her specific treatment, but is possible that the disease ran its course and her symptoms disappeared.  The physician noted in her record "...she was discharged perfectly sane and also had perfect use of her limbs, could walk or run as fast as the most sound person in the house."

There were too many cases of "insanity" in the Erie County Poorhouse hospital records to mention here.  These few indicate that there were a variety of circumstances under which a person might be considered insane.  Inmates like Mary McGuire recovered from the condition that was causing her duress.  Others, like Margaret Bauman and Alanson Palmer, whether sane or not, spent the remainder of their lives in an institution.  Through her own efforts, Antoinette Matteson managed to avoid the asylum all together, but Marietta Blanchard was not so lucky and her life may have been forever changed by her experiences there.  Each of these people provide inspiration for characters that will help tell my stories and at the same time allow me to tell a little bit of theirs in return.



  1. Hi, Rosanne

    I was riveted while reading these stories. Thanks for all your work! Your stories give credence to the well-known saying: "The more things change, the more they remain the same." Today, we still have institutional corruption, negligence, and so forth. We might have jumped light years ahead, technology-wise, but that hasn't guaranteed an improvement in our ethics. Sad.

    1. Thanks! Yes, this research has been very eye opening. It has been interesting to discuss it with mental health professionals today. We still have so much to learn about mental illness.

  2. You must be either working too much or or enjoying the summer - pretty quiet around here. :-)

    1. A bit of both I suppose! My 4th book is in the hands of my editor, so I'm trying to catch up on all the things I neglected while writing it! Hope the summer is going well for you.