The Reporter in the Madhouse (Part Three of Three)

Continued from Part Two

It was during his sanity hearing that the lawyer for "Felix Somers" argued that his client was perfectly sane and that there had been no reason to commit him to an asylum.  Though Doctor Baldric became visibly upset when the lawyer reported similar cases of false imprisonment who had been "victims of a persecution worse than the Inquisition,"  there was even worse to come.  Not only did the lawyer present numerous affidavits verifying that the client was sane, but he also described the horrors that he had been forced to undergo while in the asylum.    It was only then that he threw in the real revelation:  that the client was actually a journalist who had deliberately infiltrated the asylum as a test of the Lunacy laws and that none of the doctors involved, including Dr. Baldric himself, had any idea that he was really sane. 

Doctor Baldric's lawyer didn't speak at all.   What could he really say at that point?   The lawyer and his client simply left the courtroom while a group of lawyers and journalists surrounded Chambers to congratulate him on a magnificent performance.   When the judge restored order, and it took a while, he simply declared Chambers to be sane and released him.   After the court adjourned, news of what had happened spread throughout the courthouse.    

Though rival newspapers promptly announced what Chambers had done, it was still up to him to tell the complete story.   Going straight to the Tribune's editorial offices, he began writing up what he had experienced based on his memory and the notes he had managed to smuggle out of the asylum.    The expose was released in installments over the course of the next two weeks though the public response seemed muted at best.   Still, it says something about the impact of Chambers' revelations that, within thirty-six hours of the events in court, twelve out of the one hundred and eight-six patients in the asylum were released into the community as cured.  

Chambers would also write about how the doctors at the Bloomingdale Asylum responded after his expose came out.  Part of this expose including confidential information that had been leaked by a staff member describing the hospital's annual income.  This revelation apparently outraged the doctors and hospital board who then arranged for Chambers to be followed by a private detective for a few months afterward.   Chambers described one innocent encounter with a released patient he named "Staunton" who greeted him on the street to express his appreciation for the expose.   Shortly afterward, Staunton, who had been functioning perfectly well in the community after his release, was reportedly kidnapped and forcibly committed to an asylum in another part of the state.    What became of him afterward, Chambers was never able to determine.

Despite the hospital's attempts at punishing the ones responsible for the expose, the damage was already done.  A few days after the expose come out, then-Governor of New York, John T. Hoffman, appointed a Commission to investigate the allegations of abuse that Chambers had brought to light.    The Commission was charged with investigating Bloomingdale Asylum as well as several other private and public asylums in the New York area.    Julius Chambers appeared at the first meeting of the Commission to give a verbal report of what he had experienced in the asylum and his own recommendations for improving patient care.  The members of the Commission met at the asylum shortly afterward and verified all of the details that Chambers had provided.    Though the staff were on their best behaviour (they knew better than to hit the patients while the Commission members were watching), the Commission members saw for themselves what conditions at the hospital were really like.

Based on the Commission's findings, which were reported directly to the New York legislature, a new act was drafted to improve conditions in the asylums and to appoint a Commissioner of Lunacy 514lODn5vFL._AA160_[1]who would oversee mental health care in every asylum in the state of New York.  As Chambers pointed out in his book however, there was only so much that new laws could accomplish.  Ultimately, it would be up to the medical profession to reform itself and develop better ways of dealing with mental illness and for dealing with  doctors who provided substandard care for patients. 

Along with his groundbreaking expose, Chambers included all of his experiences at Bloomingdale Asylum in a book, A Mad World and Its People, which was published in 1876.   His book provided full details of his undercover assignment and still remains one of the classic works in the history of investigative journalism.   Though he would continued to be an advocate for psychiatric reform, Julius Chambers worked as a journalist, editor, and travel writer up until his death in 1920.   

Did Chambers' expose and later crusading for reform creating lasting change for mental patients?   That likely depends on who you ask.   Certainly allegations of abuse continued at other asylums, even with the supposedly more stringent laws that Chambers helped bring about.   When journalist Nellie Bly carried out her own daring undercover assignment by posing as a mental patient at the Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum for female patients in 1887, she found many of the same abuses that Chambers had reported years earlier.     Her own book, Ten Days in a Madhouse, would also lead to a grand jury investigation and greater funding for mental health care.

Through their pioneering work as journalists, Julius Chambers and Nellie Bly continue to be powerful inspirations for the countless journalists who came after them.    Their exposes also demonstrated the important role that investigative journalists could play in ensuring that people unable to speak for themselves would get the treatment they deserve.   While skeptics may argue that many of the issues surrounding mental health care are still with us today, focusing public attention on abuses within the system is still the only real way that true reform can happen.

           

Related Stories

  • The Reporter in the Madhouse (Part Two of Three)
  • Down on the Heebie-Jeebie Farm
  • The Nazi Patient
 

 
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