The Reporter in the Madhouse (Part Two of Three)

Continued from Part One

Though probably more pleasant that what someone who couldn''t afford private care could expect, the asylum that Julius Chambers intended to infiltrate wasn't a particularly inviting place. 

Despite being located on very spacious grounds that were well-maintained, much of the hospital complex was made up of dingy brownstone buildings.   On Chambers' admission to the asylum, the first thing the admitting doctor verified was whether the patient's family could afford to pay for his stay.  Though $52 for thirteen weeks boarding (paid in advance) doesn't seem that much by today's standards, it was still well beyond what most New York families could afford at the time.  As well, this was an era before psychiatric medications were available and most people committed to asylums tended to stay there for the rest of their lives (or until their families could no longer afford their care)..  350px-Bloomingdale_Insane_Asylum,_Manhattan[1]

Once the doctor received the money and examined the committment warrant, he then gave the new patient a very brief examination (basically, he just took Chambers' pulse).   No questions were asked about his condition or why he had been admitted.   After his two confederates left, Chambers was on his own but there seemed little risk of his being discovered.   In his book, he described the hospital as "three doctors, ten attendants, and nearly two hundred patients - all more or less deranged."    During his stay in the hospital, Chambers would conclude that long-time association with mental patients had an adverse effect on doctors and attendants causing them to acquire a "morbid state of mind"  (today, we would call this burnout). 

From the moment patients entered the asylum, they were systematically cut off from the outside world.   Not only were most people on the outside completely indifferent to what was happening in the asylums, but the doctors and staff seemed determined to keep their patients as quiet as possible.  Though Chambers had gone to elaborate  lengths to get himself committed, he scarcely needed to make any pretense after he was inside.  Once two doctors signed the commitment papers, no asylum doctor seemed at all interested in reversing that decision regardless of how normal the patient seemed to them.   Even if a patient pleaded to be released, that would simply be considered as evidence of their mental instability.

After being admitted, Chambers began taking notes using scrap paper taken from the New York Herald in which he pricked holes to hide what he was doing from staff (he would later smuggle this paper out in the toe of his shoe.)   To ensure that he would get the full asylum experience, he acted up enough to be sent to the "manic wards" located in the back of the buildings where the padded cells were kept.   Though the asylum had many attractive features, including beautiful gardens and a bowling alley, only the least troublesome patients were allowed to go there.   As for Julius Chambers, he was placed in a small cell six feet by nine feet in length with only a small iron cot and a straw mattress.  There were only a tiny grated window and the only real lighting available came from the open doorway.  This meant that the cell was completely dark whenever the door was locked (as it usually was).   And please remember that this was the asylum for patients from well-off families so you can probably imagine what it must have been like in the public asylums. 

Julius Chambers' words describing the conditions under which he was kept are as true today as they were then:

No means was ever resorted to which proved so effectual in breaking the will, destroying hope, and inspiring madness as solitary confinement in a cell whose walls or ceiling were bare of a single object to direct the thoughts or the attention of the unhappy prisoner.  The dungeons of feudal Germany, revolutionary France, or inquisitorial Spain, were no better calculated for these results than was the cell in which I found myself immured.

Along with the usual sounds and smells of the asylum, Chambers could also hear the screams of other patients throughout the night which added to the general sense of terror.  

When he was finally allowed to interact with other patients, he noted that many of them seemed unable to understand what was happening.   To get them to enter the dining-hall for their meals, the attendants often resorted to slapping them on their ears or simply shoving them in the right direction.  Those patients who could understand seemed too apathetic to offer much resistance and simply did what they were told.   Presumably, these were the patients considered well enough to be allowed out with minimal supervision.   As for the food, it was served in an eating-room that seemed substandard even for a prison.   Not only were the knives and forks completely filthy but the entire room was dingy.  As for the food itself, it was barely edible and the attendants were openly mocking at anyone who asked for larger portions (shades of Oliver Twist!). 

Chambers discussed his fellow patients at some length in his book.   Though many of them were lifelong mental patients, others came from distinguished families and had been important members of society before coming to the asylum. Despite many of them being fairly high-functioning, even to the point of being entrusted with helping to care for other patients, but there were also some who seemed downright catatonic.   Chambers focused on a few of them in his book with names such as "the Count", "the Professor," "the Senator," etc.   One of them had been a professor at an eminent European university while another was heir to one of the wealthiest families in America.  There were millionaires, elected politicians, and former Wall Street brokers but all of them were simply asylum patients when Chambers saw them.   

And these were the relatively well-treated patients.  As for the worst patients, they were kept in padded cells from which they were never allowed to emerge.  Not only were they fed through grates, but the attendants also hosed them down whenever they got too filthy.  Whatever they had been on the outside, they were largely just left to themselves in their squalid cells.   Chambers was able to watch as one attendant "fed the animals" (the attendant's own words) though he took careful notes all along.   As for their symptoms, they ranged from delusions of grandeur, paranoia, and extreme violence at times (Chambers saw one of them bite off another patient's nose).    Many of these symptoms of mental illness are seen in psychiatric hospitals even today.

The attendants were also quick to slap patients who acted out in any way and they showed very little patience for patients who were in distress.  Though there were differences between them in terms of abusiveness and general attitude, the long-term attendants were also the ones who appeared the  most uncaring.   Any time Chambers asked to be allowed to communicate with the outside world, or even to read a newspaper, he was put off and even mocked by more than one attendant. 

The only time conditions improved was when the Board of Trustees came to visit.   Not only were the wards scrubbed but many of the walls were whitewashed prior to their arrival.  The Board was made up of a panel of distinguished businessmen and politicians and Julius Chambers was especially careful not to meet any of them.   As a reporter, he had dealt with all of them and he was afraid  that one of them might recognize him.  This was never a real danger since the Board hardly spent any time interacting with the patients.   This meeting with the Board, and the yearly report the hospital was obliged to submit to the State Legislature, was the only real oversight into what was happening in Bloomingdale Asylum.  Again, this was a private hospital where patients supposedly received better care than the patients sent to public asylums. 

All told, Julius Chambers was only in the hospital for ten days though this was long enough to turn him into a lifetime advocate for psychiatric reform.   On that tenth day, his confederate Dinfor returned and questioned the doctors about the condition of "Felix Somers".   Although the doctors were reluctant to allow him to talk to Chambers (since he wasn't a relative), they finally agreed.    Though careful not to be overheard, Dinfors managed to let Chambers know that his newspaper was working on his release.  Unfortunately, that involved having him return to court to overturn the commitment order.

Interestingly enough, Chambers wrote that his treatment at the hospital improved dramatically during his last two days there, largely because the doctors and staff members knew that he arranging for a legal writ for his release.  Even the other patients seemed to treat him differently.  

Doctor Baldric  emphatically insisted that his patient wasn't fit to be released.  He even went so far as to speak with the man he thought was the patient's uncle to prevent this from happening.  They even asked that the writ be withdrawn so they could release him without involving the courts at all.   This was after they had told Dinfor that Chambers would need months of treatment before his release.

Since Baldric had no luck with the two confederates on the outside, he went to work on Chamber/Somers directly (along with trying to discover how he had managed to arrange the writ in the first place).   When that failed, all that remained was to go to court and what would prove to be a complete debacle for Doctor Baldric and his hospital.

To be continued





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