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Accusations of Abuse

"Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane" -- 1872

Picture of the Bloomingdale main building from Sights and Sounds of the Great City (1872).  The idyllic picture presented here, already being questioned in some quarters, was about to be challenged by a wave of public outrage in the press.

Julius Chambers

Portrait of Julius Chambers, reporter of the New York Tribune, who feigned insanity on order to be admitted to the Bloomingdale Asylum and then wrote published a series of articles about his experience, denouncing abuses  in the treatment of patients.  He later published a book, A Mad World and Its People (Detroit, MI: Bedford Bros, 1876) based on the experience. 

"Among the Maniacs"

An article in the series published by Julius Chambers about his stay in the Bloomingdale Asylum.  Its account of the grim and brutal conditions in the Men's Lodge helped fuel public outage about the treatment of patients at the asylum.

"Habeas Corpus" in American book literature (from the Google NGram Viewer)

Graph of references to "habeas corpus" in American Book literature found in the Google Books databases, suggesting a peculiar sensitivity to this concept in the 1860s and 1870s.

During its first decades, the Bloomingdale enjoyed an overwhelmingly favorable image as a humane and pioneering institution. By the 1850s, however, once many other hospitals had followed in its footsteps, once most of the asylum’s impoverished patients had been moved to Blackwell’s Island, and once the the operations of the Bloomingdale itself had begun to lapse into a routine, some of that initial glow began to fade. Dr. Brown noted wistfully in communications with the governors in 1856 and 1858 that “ours is no longer a monument of local and laudable pride,” and that the Asylum “is no longer named with those of modern construction, as a model establishment ingeniously adapted in all its parts to the most efficient fulfillment of its designs…”[1] That waning of reputation would soon be reflected in a wave of public alarm about possible abuses in the admission and care of patients here.

While treatment of the insane frequently involved confinement against a patient’s will at the behest of friends, relatives or others, making illegitimate imprisonment a real possibility, no legal proceedings to have a prisoner released from the Bloomingdale are known prior to 1844, and it was not really until the 1850s that such cases began attracting much public attention. One of the first to gain serious press coverage involved a female patient, Maria (nee Berrien?) in 1857, which featured a physical struggle for her control between her brothers and husband at the courthouse and heated debates about her sanity.[2] The next couple of decades saw a rising number of such disputes and scandals, and an increase in the number of lawyers specializing in procuring releases with a writ of habeas corpus. Among of the most widely publicized of these was that of Louisa Wolfsohn, held at the Bloomingdale for 14 months before being being transferred to the Kings County Asylum. An attendant from the latter asylum testified at the hearing the Miss Wolfsohn was completely sane and that a doctor had informed the attendant confidentially that she was actually being held for the purpose of “subduing her pride. [3] Another representative case was that of Caroline Underhill, who complained in court that she had been forcibly incarcerated in the Bloomingdale by her sister and nephew in order to evict her from the home that had been left to her by her father as a residence for as long as she required it.[4] Another typical story was that of Commodore Richard W. Meade, brother of Gettysburg hero Gen. George Meade, who claimed in a widely reported affair that he had been forcibly and inappropriately institutionalized at the behest of his daughter and her suitor after he refused to consent to their marriage.[5]

The wave crested in the summer of 1872, in hubbub around the cases of two individuals. One, a banker by the name of J. T. Van Vleck, asserted that he had been kidnapped and forcibly detained in the institution on false charges of endangerment to his family and held at the Bloomingdale for a long period against his will, but that when he was finally able to obtain the services of a habeas corpus lawyer, John Townsend, the administration of the asylum hastily evicted him before the case came to court. The other individual, Mary McCabe, one of three ladies that the New York Tribune charged were being wrongfully kept in the asylum, was a nun who had reportedly been placed in the Bloomingdale by her convent after she accused a priest of having made unwanted advances. Townsend was also representing her, as well as another patient, a Miss Teresa Drew.

Townsend reported to the Tribune that he had represented a number of patients at the asylum in cases like these, and complained that, in more than one instance, the patients in question had been hastily expelled or transferred as the threat of a habeas corpus process had arisen, seemingly to prevent any closer scrutiny. He based a good part of his 1872 case on affidavits from two former attendants, George and Emily Irwin, who also alleged in their depositions that living conditions inside the Bloomingdale were substandard and dangerous, particularly for the most disturbed patients, that brutality and abuse were regularly visited upon patients by the attendants, that some patients had died as a result of mistreatment, that Dr. Brown was frequently absent and was inattentive when present, and that his assistants, Dr. Porter and Dr. Burrill, were really the ones in charge and were not infrequently absent themselves.

These matters were reported in vivid detail by the Tribune. In reponse, Dr Brown invited critics to visit the institution and see for themselves that conditions there were in order. The response of the Tribune to this invitation was unexpected and rather underhanded. On August 14, 1872, it managed to get an undercover reporter, Julius Chambers, admitted to the asylum on the request of a “friend” and a “relative” after he had behaved in a seemingly insane and possibly violent and suicidal manner while a guest at a downtown hotel. He was kept for the first few days in the Men’s Lodge, after which he was moved to the main building, and then ultimately got himself released in a habeas corpus process. He reported on his experience there in a series of articles. The most dramatic of these, “Among the Maniacs,” described his time in the Lodge, which emerges from his report as a grim and shabby place, with lax and often cruel attendants, where inmates had little to do but pace or lounge about, where less harmful eccentrics were subject to real menace from truly violent individuals, and where genuine acts of brutality took place before his eyes. He also pointed to the almost total absence of Brown and the overwhelming influence of Burrill. While the described conditions have a ring of truth to them, Chambers’ portrayal of himself as unfairly incarcerated and unfairly placed in the Lodge is somewhat harder to swallow: after all, he had taken great pains to behave in erratic, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous ways in the hotel. Given the imprecise nature of psychiatric medicine at the time, it does not seem so incredible that physicians might have been fooled into believing his well-acted presentation, particularly when friends and family were appealing for help. Nor does it seem very surprising, given his erratic behavior in the hotel, that he was held for a few days in the violent section for observation, even after he began behaving in a calm and sane way there.[6] Moreover, his own report indicates that once he had been transferred to the main building, his conditions improved enormously, and his attendants were in fact civil and even courteous.

In any case, the Tribune articles led to a great public outcry. Not only did the Bloomingdale governors undertake an immediate investigation, but the Governor of the State, John T. Hoffman, also appointed a special commission to examine the problems of the Bloomingdale and the question of asylum admissions in general. Both groups’ reports ultimately exonerated the institution as a whole and the process for admitting patients to asylums in general. However, both did note that there had been some individual cases of abuse, and while the governor’s report  suggested that this partly reflected the enormous difficulty of finding good attendants for the challenging task of working with seriously disturbed patients, both reports also blamed some of these abuses on lapses in administration and on the Dr. Brown’s long periods of absence during the months preceding.

A complaint of abuse from former patient in 1876, claiming that she had suffered permanent damage to her mouth and throat as a result of forced feeding led to another investigation by State Commissioner in Lunacy John Ordronaux, to which the governors offered full cooperation. While noting that the patient’s mental state made it difficult to determine the exact circumstances of the injury, he found that it had unquestionably been inflicted in the course of force feeding. He concluded that the attendant had been well intentioned, but that her error pointed to shortcomings in the “organization, discipline, and administration” of the Bloomingdale. As a result a new set of staff members, one male and one female, were appointed to oversee the activities of the attendants.[7]

The heated and often savage press compaign, the constant exposure and investigation of the Asylum, and the commissioners’ criticism of the Bloomingdale administration clearly weighed heavily on the sensitive psyche and constitution of David Tilden Brown. In February 1877 he asked for three months’ leave for health reasons, and in May 1877, the governors announced his resignation. As already noted, he traveled briefly to Europe for treatment of his depression and then settled in Illinois, where he lived quietly in complete withdrawal from his earlier professional life until a reporter from the World found him, and exposed his story to his readers, leading the doctor into a renewed spiral shame and ultimately suicide. While many papers expressed disgust or concern over this press lynching, the smirking headline in the Boston Globe announcing his death displayed here conveys a sense of the mob atmosphere in which the popular attack on the Bloomingdale had unfolded.

Clearly, the Bloomingdale appears to have been going through a period of stagnation, Undoubtedly, too, there had been instances of abuse, both in the committal process and in the treatment of patients, particularly the violent and uncontrollable ones. The stories highlight potential points of vulnerability in the system: the weak legal position of women, whose fate could be so easily controlled by the word of a male relative, and the peculiar relationship of divorce and inheritance cases to instances of wrongful commitment. Certainly, given the still uncertain foundations of psychiatric medicine in these period, there must have been frequent cases of misdiagnosis, or committal to a mental hospital for things that might be viewed as something other than mental illness today (epilepsy, for example). On the other hand, it is likely that many disturbed individuals were unaware of their problem and, not surprisingly, felt that they had been wrongly incarcerated. The reader of their accounts of the wrong done to them frequently comes away with a sense that the were not entirely in touch with reality. The reports of the commissions introduced reforms to protect against the worst abuses, at least, and those reforms were implemented and pushed further under the administration of David Nichols, who also took care to provide better training and higher professional standards at the Bloomingdale. While stories of illegitimate confinement and abuse continued to appear in the press from time to time in the years of his administration, there would not be another wave of accusations like the one in the 1870s, not even when the asylum found itself in a very vulnerable position in the late 1880s.

It can be argued, moreover, that this surge of popular concern was not so much about the Bloomingdale as it was a reflection of broader social concerns, some legitimate, some less so. Charges like these were not only laid at the feet of the Bloomingdale, but at that of many other insane asylums. Society’s sense of what was acceptable treatment of the mentally ill was changing, just as it had in the era when “moral treatment” began to replace the earlier view of the mentally ill as beasts deprived of reason. If one were to characterize this change, it might be that it represented as a turn to greater medicalization or professionalization of the care of the mentally ill. At the same time, however legitimate those concerns might have been, the sensational atmosphere of the press campaign and its macabre denoument suggest something of a panic or witch hunt. In light of this, it is interesting to note, given the centrality of habeas corpus to this episode, that a Google Ngram analysis of a corpus of American book literature from the 19th and 20th centuries seems to show that  the 1860s and 1870s were a period of uniquely high interest in this term.



[1] Russell, p. 256, 257.

[2] ”Discharge from the Bloomingdale Asylum on a Habeas Corpus,” New York Daily Times, July 27, 1857, p. 5.

[3] ”Another Lunacy Case,” New York Times, January 19, 1858, p. 4.

[4] ”The Underhill Lunacy Case: a Brooklyn Sensation,” New York Times, December 30, 1864, p.8.

[5] ”Commodore Meade, U.S.N., in Bloomingdale Asylum,” New York Tribune, December 6, 1863, p.2.

[6] Julius Chambers, "Among the Maniacs,"  New-York Tribune. August 31, 1872, p. 1.

[7] Russell, p.278-279.