Portsmouth Asylum
The Insane - From an 1851 Report to the RI General Assembly

  The Insane 1

By reference to the statistics accompanying this report, it will be seen that besides 58 patients in the Butler Hospital at their charge, the towns maintain in all 85 insane paupers at their several Asylums and poor-houses. Of these I find noted in my memorandum book the following names of persons, who, as far as my very limited knowledge of the character of insanity will permit me to judge, are fit subjects for hospital treatment.

East Greenwich- Abigail Williams, aged 42 years, confined in a grated room; a well looking woman and conversed quite coherently.

Warren - Ellen Mason and Betsey Chase, each aged about 42 years, chained near each other to the floor and had been most of the time for 4 years or more; both were well looking women and both conversed coherently.

Foster -Eliza Hale, about 40 years of age, a poor suffering object, insane in mine and affected with a most distressing spasmodic affection in her throat- also, Hazard Wilcox, of the same town, 46 years of age, a well looking man, then chained and had been for the last seven years.

Glocester-Mary Balet, 72 years of age. Asenath Andrews, of the same town, 45 years of age; insanity caused by loss of property.

Coventry - Betsey Whitman, 50 years of age, confined in a small filthy room. Lydia Jourdan, (also of Coventry) about 30 years of age.

Bristol - David Cornell, 54 years of age, a most pitiful object. Mary B. Cornell, of the same town, 50 years of age.

Portsmouth - Mary Slocum, age 60 years, has been chained for many years; also a colored man has been brought to this Asylum since I visited it, and is now chained there, as I am informed.

Jamestown - Mary Weeden, aged 70, with the keeper of the poor in South Kingstown, who informed me that he was obliged to lock her out of her room days, or she would not sleep nights, nor allow others in the house to do so, on account of all the noise she made – was very clamorous when I saw her.

South Kingstown - Sally Cory, aged 66, confined to her room at times, has been insane about 4 years and is very boisterous. One other young woman in same town, who has since my visit been sent to the Butler Hospital.

The above mentioned 16 cases are all that I know of at the Asylums or poor houses of the State that I should feel warranted in recommending being sent to a Hospital; although, as I have before said, I do not by any means feel that I am competent to judge correctly on the subject. Most of the cases of insanity in our Asylums for the poor are of a long standing and are probably incurable. Where such as these are under the care of kind and considerate keepers, it seemed to me they were as well situated as they could be if placed in a large institution, where they would necessarily be subjected to more restraint, and where congenial occupation could not be so readily furnished them as at an Asylum where there were but few insane persons residing. But then, there is this difference in favor of the hospitals: in such an institution the insane are always insured uniform and kind treatment – whereas, in a town Asylum a change of keepers may subject the poor maniac to the most brutal treatment, and it will matter but little to him whether this is the effect of malice or of the ignorance of his care-taker.

I do not mean that these remarks should be understood to apply to cases of recent insanity - all such, I am decidedly of opinion, should be placed at once under Hospital treatment. And so should all those cases of longer standing, that cannot be controlled at town Asylums without resorting to chains, to close confinement, or to personal abuses. In the absence of a Hospital for the insane, there seemed to be some semblance of an apology for the dreadful treatment which such persons have heretofore been subjected in our State - but we no longer have that excuse; and I hope and trust that the day is near at hand, when such abuse will be classed among the most flagrant crimes that are committed on earth - and when communities who sanction them, will be placed without the pale of civil society. Already has there been great progress made in this direction. It is but a very few years since, that men and women, innocent of crime, were chained in dens and caves, and cells, and there left for years together; shut from the light of day, without clothes or fire to shield or warm them. Astonishing as it may seem, I am credibly informed that a small building that formerly stood in the highway, in the town of Jamestown, has lately been removed, in which an insane man by the name of Armstrong had been confined for nearly twenty years, the year round without fire. But what renders this still more astonishing and almost passing belief, is, that the building was elevated on posts some feet from the ground, and the floor made of slats, with spaces between them, after the manner of a corn crib - that the excrements of the prisoner might be allowed to pass, and thereby prevent the necessity of cleansing his house. He died suddenly; and in preparing his corpse for the grave, many splinters of wood and straw were found imbedded in his flesh, where they had probably been forced by painful writhings on his prison floor.

I lately saw a poor women at the Newport Asylum, by the name of Rebecca Gibbs, who had once known better days, but had lost her reason in consequence of disappointed affection, about 30 years since; from which time she had been a charge of the town. This poor creature was, as it were, completely folded up; her lower limbs being drawn up closely to her breast, so that her knees and chin nearly or quite meet. From this position they are never relaxed. I was told by a Commissioner of the poor, who accompanied me, that this revolting deformity was solely occasioned by the poor creature having in years past, been shut up for several winters in a cell, without fire, and without clothes, (for the last, as is common with maniacs, she tore from her limbs,) where she endeavored to screen herself as much as possible from the severity of the cold, by placing her body and limbs in as compact a form as she was able to, and that thus the sinews and muscles had contracted and adapted themselves to the position in which her limbs had been mechanically forced by the extremity of the weather.

But very different from this, indeed, appears to be the treatment which the insane receive in this Asylum, at the present day. I believe that I visited it at a time quite unexpected by the superintendent, and by all concerned in its management; and although there were 26 insane paupers in the Institution, I found them all at liberty, save one old man; who, I was told by the commissioner, was only temporarily confined in his room for some misdemeanor, and would be released the next day, which I have no doubt was done. Taking into consideration that these were nearly or quite all old cases of insanity, I was forcibly struck with the strong evidence it exhibited in favor of the judicious treatment of insane inmates of that Asylum, and felt almost convinced that there was no real necessity for the use of chains and prisons, in the treatment of the insane. And I am most decidedly of the opinion that if such means are to be used, they should only be applied under the skilful and humane direction of men who have made the proper treatment of subjects of this dreadful malady the study and business of their lives.

If men of inexperience, or of uncultivated or depraved minds, are allowed to imprison, or chain their fellow creatures at their pleasure or caprice, it matters not what may be the pretext, great abuses will inevitably occur.

It is but a few days since, that, in answer to inquiries I made with regard to the condition of a colored man, I have before alluded to, who was taken lately from the Butler Hospital and placed at the Asylum of the town of Portsmouth; that I understood the President of the Council of that town to say, - that this man was very well, but that on account of a habit he had of going to the closet and helping himself to bread and butter, he was then chained, it not being thought safe that he should use a knife, as he did in cutting the bread, &c. Still more recently, I understood the overseer of the poor of the same town to say, that this colored man was peaceable and inoffensive, but that he got in the way of the people engaged in the domestic concerns of the poor house, and that he was thereafter chained to keep him away. For the relief of such cases as this, I am satisfied that there is the most urgent need of some state legislation. In vain will ever be all appeals to the humanity of a community, the majority of which sanction and defend such abuses. For some years great efforts have occasionally been made by the more humane portion of the people of the town of Portsmouth, to relieve their insane poor, but without effect. They have not only been uniformly out voted in their town meetings, but it has been too evident that their exertions in behalf of the poor maniacs have only tended to rivit more firmly their chains. However divided on other subjects, all parties seem there to unite under the banner of oppression. It was on one of these occasions, when the question of relieving the insane poor was under discussion, that I heard a former Commissioner of the poor, in a town meeting in Portsmouth, declare in a loud and boasting voice, that he had himself once severely flogged an insane person at their Asylum; and to all appearances, the shamless avowal of his brutish exploit, excited he approbation rather than the disgust of the majority of the assembly. It was at this time that the most strenuous efforts were put forth for the relief of a young man by the name of Dennis, who had been brought from Providence, (where he had been at work at his calling, which was that of a carpenter,) a raving maniac, and not only chained at the Portsmouth Asylum, but absolutely baled, as it were, in sack-cloth. I remember, whilst he lay in this situation, putting an apple beside him, which he eat after the manner of a brute, by gnawing it as well as he could as it rolled about on the floor. The relations of this young man were among the most respectable and influential men in the town, and they made every exertion to procure his being sent to a curative Hospital. But it was all in vain. The god of Mammon was too strong for the angel of Mercy. It was some weeks or months after the failure of this effort to relieve poor Dennis, thatI visited Portsmouth Asylum in company with that inestimable friend of humanity, Dorothea L. Dix, and the late lamented Anna A. Jenkins. Death was then about to relieve the sufferer. The strong man lay prostrate and powerless in its grasp. Life's contest, with its all conquering foe, was nearly over - I heard the fearful death-rattle in his throat - and I thought as I looked upon a Commissioner of the poor, then present, who had been active in opposing the removal of the dying man to a Hospital - that happy would it be for him, if, when the same pale messenger was sent to summon his spirit into the presence of a merciful but just God, that he might then be allowed to free himself from the guilt of the blood of his fellow creature, by the plea of ignorance.

By the statistics contained in the report, it may be seen that the average time that ten of the insane paupers now at their Asylum, have been maintained by the town of Newport, is more than 25 years - thus showing that the town had been put to a charge for the support of ten persons only, of probably not less than $12,000. Now, there can be but little doubt that a large proportion of these cases would have early recovered, had the subjects of them been sent to a good curative Hospital in the very earliest stages of their malady. Thus, besides the incalculable benefits resulting to the cause of humanity by restoring the patients to their friends and society, the public would have been relieved from a great part of the expenses of maintaining them; and the restored persons would have themselves, been enabled to contribute by their labor to the productive property of the community, and not improbably, in some instances, saved their families or relations from coming to want and thus be thrown a burden on public charity.

By recurring to the letter received from the overseer of the poor of the town of Westerly, it will be seen that he has adopted the humane plan of sending insane patients of that town to the Butler Hospital, and that two patients placed there by him, were both shortly returned to health. It will also be seen, by recurring to the letter received from the President of the Council of the town of North Kingston, that the people of that town have humanely decided henceforth to keep their insane separate from their sane poor. With the exception of the city of Providence, I do not know that any other towns than these two have adopted this laudable plan, unless it may be the town or Richmond, which, at the time of my visit, had no public poor, excepting an insane patient at the Butler Hospital. In alluding to North Kingstown, I was reminded of a most interesting case of insanity, brought to my notice in that town. It was that of an old man of about 74 years of age, by the name of William Whitman, who has been one of the public poor of North Kingstown for about 40 years. I was told by the keeper of their poor, (himself evidently a kind hearted man,) that this old man is so perfectly harmless that he avoids, on all occasions, killing or hurting even the smallest insects, and that when at work in the field, he will carefully remove with his hand, the little bugs, worms &c., that are in the way of his hoe, and put them one side, lest he should hurt them. I have thought it was a pity that many of our greatest, and what some might call best men, could not be visited with a degree of this most amiable species of insanity. And for one, I am free to declare, that, far rather would I, that the Almighty should dispense such an affliction as that to a child of mine, than that He should permit it to be cursed with hardness of heart, and a lack of sympathy with suffering, wherever it may exist.

As a final argument to add to others, to prove to you that there does exist a necessity for some State legislation, not only to provide better care for the insane poor, but also to protect the sane poor from being abused by the insane, I will lay before you a statement, in nearly the same words in which it was related to me in the presence of a substantial witness, on the 30th of the 9th month, by Caroline Albro, an inmate of the Portsmouth Asylum. I believe the character of this poor woman for truth and veracity, will compare favorably with the best in the land; and if uncomplaining, quiet resignation to the Devine will, and meek and patient endurance of suffering under the most afflictive dispensations, is to obtain a reward hereafter – she will doubtless receive a large share.

After stating that some years ago she saw the (then) keeper strike old Thomas Durfee, an insane man of 80 years of age, a full blow with his fist on the side of his bald head, which staggered him- because he happened to be in the way; and at another time, seeing old Hannah Lawton, a poor old crippled woman, lying on the floor unable to rise, without help; having been, as she told her, knocked down by the keeper – and a few more trifling incidents of a similar character, Mrs. Albro proceeded to state- "that about six years ago, Mary Slocum, (an insane woman) struck my wrist with a fire hook, and shattered my wrist bone and knocked out my finger joint. I have suffered every thing with it; I do now suffer much at times. Mary Slocum used frequently to strike the people here- and once struck me on the side of the head with her fist and hurt me considerably, but I soon got over it. Mary was once jamming a child, about a year old, against a chair. I was afraid that she would kill it, and took it up; whereupon Mary seized a chair and struck me on the shoulder with it - on the same arm that she had before broken. My shoulder is still very lame in consequence of the blow- it is now nearly two years ago, since it was done. Mary came up one morning, where Miss Browning lay sick, and beat and hurt her considerably. Miss Browning died about six weeks or two months after this. I have suffered much for fear of the insane, and sometimes cannot sleep, for fear of being attacked by them. Last winter, I was in my room, which opens into the sitting room, where we usually sit, and I heard Mary Slocum attack Mrs. Cornell, an old woman of about 86 years of age. She beat her with a broom stick on the head, back, and arm, and bruised her arm badly and hurt the bone – so that she could never after that, dress or undress herself. She used to groan and complain much of her arm – she died about two weeks after the beating. She had (previously) been subject to spells of short breath, and seemed to fail fast after being beaten. I was told by them, who were at the house before I came, and who are now dead and gone, that Mary used to beat them and hurt them much. Mary Slocum once struck me at the table, on my hand with a knife, so as to make it bleed."

On the same morning and after old Mrs. Cornell was so badly beaten, it so happened that I was at the Portsmouth Asylum, and I have no hesitation in saying that I believe her death was hastened by the beating she had received. Her arm was bound up and she appeared wild with excitement and fright and complained bitterly to me. This Mary Slocum was then chained, and I could liken the position she occupied in that helpless family to nothing better than that of a wolf which a shepherd should keep chained in a fold and which was occaisionally let loose to worry and devour the sheep, thus keeping them in a constant state of terror.

The occasion of my visit to Portsmouth Asylum at that time was to execute a commission which I had received from some excellent ladies in Philadelphia, to remove from the Asylum and place at board for life in a private family, at their expense, William R. Fales, one of the most remarkable and interesting young men with whom I was ever acquainted. For many years this young man had been afflicted with a rheumatic complaint to such a degree as not to be able to lie in any other position than on his side, neither he turn or move himself in bed without assistance. His limbs were wrenched and distorted in the most shocking manner, and there was scarcely a particle of flesh on them. He was in almost constant pain, which a great part of the time was excruciating; yet through all his suffering his faith in the mercy and goodness of God never forsook him. To the last moment of his life his countenance retained a highly intellectual and almost heavenly expression. Whilst lying in this state he managed to write with a pencil many letters and some essays, which since his death have been arranged and published by one of his female friends in Philadelphia, and altogether form an exceedingly interesting and instructive memoir. The sentiments expressed in some of his essays bear a striking resemblance to those of Fenelon, and seem to be breathed forth in the same gentle spirit. His mind was of the finest mould and of the highest order, and nothing but health and education was wanting to have rendered him one of the first of men. He was removed from the Asylum about a year since and placed in a family where he received every necessary attention, but at the expiration of about months he was visited with a complicated disease, of which he died, aged about 30 years. Gifted with an exceedingly sensitive mind and of a delicate physical organization, both rendered more keenly susceptible by a most painful malady, it may well be conceived how his sufferings must have been increased by the constant apprehension of being attacked, in his helpless and perfectly defenceless condition, by the insane. He used sometimes whilst at the poor house touchingly to remark to me that he passed many long and weary nights without sleep on account of excessive pain, and that when his pain abated he was sometimes kept awake by the ravings and babbling of an insane woman who occupied an adjoining room.

By extracts from the late census, kindly furnished by the Marshal of this District, which I have incorporated in this report, it will be seen that the whole number of insane persons of this State, exclusive of paupers, are one hundred and forty in number, including fifteen at the Butler Hospital belonging to other parts. It is however, most probable, that there are an equal or greater number than the last mentioned, at lunatic institutions without our limits, that properly belong to this State. It will therefore appear by the census, and the returns from the poor houses and asylums, as I have collected them, that there were two hundred and eighty-three insane persons in all, within the borders of our State. This number, however, I think too small. I have myself detected some errors in the census returns and I fear that there are many others. By examining the tables that I have constructed from these returns, the members of the General Assembly can probably decide whether they are correct as far as their respective towns they individually represent, are concerned.

I have heard that in some countries the most appalling outrages have been committed under the plea of insanity, by relations and guardians, who, under the pretence that their wards were insane, have from a sinister motive, immured them in prisons or dungeons until they really became so. But it is hardly possible that such abuses can occur in this country, and I know not that any legislation on that point is necessary. However this may be, I feel that it is a subject too delicate and intricate for me to approach. An able paper treating on the legal relations of the insane, was published in the Monthly Law Reporter of September 1850. It is from the pen of Dr. Ray, Superintendent of the Butler hospital; and is a subject which he is qualified by both talent and experience to handle with a masters pen.

Transcription (C) 2002, William Saslow from:
Thomas R. Hazard, Report on The Poor and Insane in Rhode Island; Made to the General Assembly at its January Session, 1851, Providence: Joseph Knowles, State Printer, 1851, pps 95-105.


Portsmouth Asylum Links
  Historical Context
  Act Establishing (1832)
  Inventory Report (1833)
  Rules & Regulations (1838)
  Committee Report (1840)
  Committee Report (1857)
  The Portsmouth Cripple (1848)
  Produce Sold (1849)
  Meat Sold (1849)
  Town Council Excerpts
  1865 Census Excerpts
  1875 Census Excerpts
  1892 Account Book
  Committal Letters (1867)
  Oakum and Idle Hands
  Newport Daily News Clips (1851)
  Site Mapping (10/5/01)
  NPR Interview
  Town Farm Cemetery

Historical Texts:
  Report on Poor & Insane (1851)
  Fales Memoir (1851)
  Peterson's History (1853)

Selected Biographies
  Thomas R. Hazard -1
  Thomas R. Hazard -2
  Seth R. Anthony
  William R. Fales

Fun and Games
A Day at the Portsmouth Asylum

Other Poorhouse Links
The Poorhouse Story

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