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Three Years In A Mad House (1851) - Social Welfare History Project

Astounding Disclosures! Three Years In A Mad House

By Isaac H. Hunt – 1851

Introduction: … In 1851, Isaac H. Hunt, a former patient at the Maine Insane Hospital published a scathing attack on his treatment by the institution’s attendants and doctors. Isaac Hunt describes all sorts of abuses and mistreatment. His account makes people wonder whether or not the asylum offered conditions better than those uncovered in local almshouses and jails by the investigative reports of Dorothea Dix. Out of Hunt’s complaints came an investigation by the Maine Legislature into conditions at the asylum. The testimony of three witnesses is included here. As Hunt was writing his exposé, a fire, partially described here, destroyed the institution in Augusta, Maine, with the deaths of 27 patients, many confined and unable to escape, as well as one attendant. This is an autobiographical voice apparently impaired by his disability, but it is valuable evidence on what life could be like in one the institutions favored by Dix.

Note: This is an Abridged Text

The author of this little work, was, on the 21st of September, 1844, taken to the Maine Insane Hospital, in the city of Augusta, State of Maine, a wild maniac. [View Annotation – 1 »] The Hospital at that time was under the superintendance of Dr. Isaac Ray, now of the Butler Insane Asylum, of Providence, R.I. [View Annotation – 2 »] In this institution I remained nearly three years, and I shall endeavor to give a vivid description of each and every circumstance connected with my confinement, treatment, torture of body and mind, and the malpractice performed on me. These facts will enable the reader to judge of the extent of my madness. It is of no use for me to deny, (for of that fact there is abundant proof,) that when I was taken to the Hospital I was a perfectly deranged man, laboring under a strong fever of the brain, [View Annotation – 3 »] or great and uncontrollable mental excitement, of which, under humane treatment, I should have recovered, and no doubt returned to my business in full possession of my mental and physical faculties. But the moment I entered the Hospital a fear came over me — a deep state of mental depression was followed by that of horror and fear, and of course what little consciousness I had at the time was put to flight, for I knew not, but dreaded what was to follow. I entered the Hospital on Saturday evening; the first assay they made was to have me swallow some Pills. [View Annotation – 4 »] I refused, but was forced to submit, and took them. This operation was under the direction and personal assistance of Dr. Ray, and the attendant, Alvin S. Babcock. The next day I felt the necessity of a shower bath, and expressed my feelings to Dr. Ray. But, in language, you will doubtless think very cold and vulgar in so learned a gentleman, he thus addressed me: –“We’re very short on’t for water, and I can’t let you have it; there has’nt been no rain lately, and I can’t let you have it.” I then said: “Sir, if you will tell me where you get your water, I will go and get some myself, as a gallon will be sufficient.” He then said that he could not let me have it; to which I replied: — “Sir, I think that I need it, and if you cannot let me have it here, will you permit me to go to my own house, or some other place, where I can have such remedies as my case requires.” [View Annotation – 5 »] To this he replied: — “You can’t go; you have been brought here by your friends, and you must stay until you get well.” I was hereupon plied with medicine, the effect of which was to cause me to travel the gallery for hours and hours, perfectly wild and uncontrolable, as patients often are in almost any Insane Hospital. But I trust to God that in no other case have those walks been caused in mad men, as was mine, by horrid draughts of, to me, a nameless medicine. This state of my mind and physical prostration, through the effect of that medicine, was continued for several days without intermission, until about the close of the next week, or sometime in the week following, when I was given medicine which threw me upon my bed, followed by the most horrid chills, that shook me, body and soul and made my very bones rattle, — my teeth chattered and my bones rattled like the dry bones of a skeleton; I gave up all hope of life with such composure as I could muster; but my hour had not come, for at this juncture, Babcock, the attendant, came and gave me a bowl of hot ginger tea, saying in a jocular manner: — “Die! oh, no, not you — you’ll not die yet — you’re worth a dozen dead men.” The tea and the application of a pyramid of blankets and comforters, warmed the system — the chills retreated, and I kept my bed for some days. About the ninth day after I went there, I was again subjected to the horrid wild-fire medicine, which was followed by the same terrible and strange sensations and wanderings over the gallery. I refused peremtorily to suffer this treatment; I refused to take the medicine. The attendant insisted that I should, and harsh words followed. I told him the medicine was destroying me and I would not take it. He then commanded me in a tone of authority, to take the medicine. I did take it. I took it from his hand and dashed it out of the window! In a moment this stalwart, muscular man struck me a violent blow upon my head which either knocked me down, or he instantly seized me and crushed me to the floor. I struggled, when he siezed me by the throat and choked me. I began to have fear that he had my death in view, and would murder me upon the spot. I begged for my life, when he harshly exclaimed. “I will learn you not to throw away your medicine when I give it to you!” I begged for mercy, and promised if my life was spared to take anything he might give me. Upon this he released me, and I continued my usual dull routine of the previous days. The next morning, Babcock entered my room, as usual, with medicine. From the treatment I had already received, of course I dared not refuse to swallow the terrible draught, though it should instantly cause death. I took the pills, and some liquid contained in a mug. These compounds had the effect to destroy my bodily health for the residue of my earthly existence. There is a penalty for such malpractice, and if I had it in my power to bring Dr. Isaac Ray and Dr. Horatio S. Smith before the legal tribunals of my country, I should not possibly find any difficulty in sending them to the State Penitentiary for the full term of twenty years for malpractice, and three years additional for conspiracy. [View Annotation – 6 »]

As I closed the last chapter, so was affairs with me; torture by day and night. About this time my son called on me. I saw him, but did not see him go away. Strange, wild, fearful fancies racked my mind, in regard to him and his fate. I heard a scream and supposed it to be his voice; I supposed he had been put into the shower box [View Annotation – 7 »] and showered. In my bewildered state of mind, I was sure that it was his voice which uttered a terrible scream. I supposed that, a day or two after this, they put him into the furnace, and cooked his flesh, and put it upon the table for me to eat. These things gave me great anguish, and I mentioned them to Babcock. He made this atrocious reply: “Well, let the devil kill his own meat, then he can’t find fault with his butcher.” It was then winter; snow and cold sleets were upon the earth. I was ordered out into the snowy yard to split and saw wood, and into the attic to pump water, and attend to the various menial occupations best calculated to worry and annoy me. I refused on several occasions, when Babcock carried or dragged me into the yard or attic, and forced me to work as he directed. It was terrible, but there was no appeal, it was inhuman, but who could object? They were my masters, and I their easy slave — their crushed victim. [View Annotation – 8 »]

MARY JANE WHITNEY called and sworn. I have been employed in Hospital four years — absent about a year. I have seen Hannah Dow pinch patients ears — patients told Dr. Bates: Hannah denied it. Dr. Bates sometimes loses his temper. Tainted meat quite frequently served up. Poorest food to lower gallery. Attendants did not eat it.

MISS MEHITABLE TIBBETTS called and sworn. In 1847 I worked in the kitchen ten months, afterwards an attendant four or five months. First season I worked there, an attendant, Mary Ann Fowler, wanted me to assist in removing a patient, — said she could not get her out of the room. After I got there she choked her. I told her if she choked her she must handle her alone. She choked her and pushed her in. She choked her out of revenge. No need of it. Poorest food sent to lower gallery and cottage. Tainted meat served to patients. Pudding made of mouldy bread.

CHARLES SAVAGE Jr. called and sworn. I have been an attendant six or seven months. While there saw circumstances of abuse. Have seen a patient, named Howard, taken down and used roughly. Have seen him choked. Have seen Bartlett on his breast with his knees. Have seen him slat him about. Have seen Bartlett take them by the hair and pull them to the floor, and up again. Have seen this done several times. This was done on new patients. Potter used patients rough. He would throw them down, but I do not know of his wounding them. Have remonstrated, and he said it was none of my business. Had heard patients tell Dr. Bates of abuses, when I knew the complaints were true. Dr. Bates would turn it off, and say he ‘guessed Bartlett used them well’ — ‘guess all right.’ Dr. Bates asked no questions. Suppose I have taken patients down when unnecessary. Believe I have told Dr. Bates so. Have seen more instances of abuse than I can state in number. Have heard patients repeatedly complain to Dr. Bates truly, and he “guessed all right,” and did not investigate the grounds of complaint. Patients are understood to be showered for punishment. Have known Weeks to keep them in shower box 15 or 20 minutes. John Wheeler was ordered to be showered for breaking crockery. Weeks ordered Wheeler to be showered. Have known patients to be taken out and over worked so as to produce a delirious state of mind, and then showered. Have known patients to die in the night when no one with them. Had four sick in my gallery and three died. Sick patients are not furnished with watchers, as they are at home. There was a difference in the food furnished the galleries. I have known tainted meat furnished lower gallery patients. Have put it on the tables. It was considered that lower gallery patients would not know the difference. It was considered that the Dr.’s table was furnished better than any other in the house. Mr. Bartlett said the officers would not dare to turn him off without giving a reason. If they did he would start their boots. We had rules, and a general understanding that there were to be no tales told out of school. I told Dr. Bates I did not like the food and the way things were managed. Know of no charge made against me. Many patients might have better care taken of them at home than there. Have heard Bartlett say he would not permit a friend to be brought there. [View Annotation – 9 »]

During the past session of Congress, through the intercession of Miss Dix the philanthropist, a bill passed the Senate granting ten millions acres of government land for the benefit of the indigent insane, to be divided among the States, no part of which was to be appropriated for building Asylums, but to be exclusively devoted to defray their expenses, as I understand it, in Asylums of a public or private character. Now I do not doubt, and neither do I think there is a person in the country that doubts the real philanthropic motives of Miss Dix in what she has done, and is doing for the insane, to alleviate their deplorable condition, for they are really deserving the sympathy of the humane and true christian; but she is in reality bringing upon them the greatest misery, wretchedness, suffering and woe it is possible for them to endure. I trust that Congress will never pass that bill, for the result will be to feed and pamper a pack of political blood hounds, who will eat it all out, in having the care and custody of those for whom it is designed, — and although Miss Dix has probably visited every hospital in the country, yet she is as ignorant of the insane as she can possibly be. Although I am poor and needy, and would not knowingly do aught to injure a fellow mortal, yet I would earnestly beseech Congress never to pass that bill, but if they have land to appropriate for that purpose, they had better give it to families of insane persons who will go and settle upon it, or give a hundred acres or a quarter section to any poor person who has not any land, that will settle upon it, and let it be a homestead forever, for their heirs, and not subject to sale or disposal for anything but taxes; and not let the lands go into the hands of speculators; and ten million acres of land disposed of in that way will do more than ten millions of times the good that it would to be appropriated in the manner proposed by Miss Dix. Pass that bill, and there will soon be ten insane persons where there is now but one, for if there are funds to support them, there will be no lack of victims for the hospitals. But abolish all insane hospitals, and in one year there will not be more than one insane person where now there are ten, and about one in every ten of those would probably be put into jails, and the other nine would be taken care of at home or in Alms Houses, and thus would be saved to the community a vast sum of money and an incalculable amount of suffering.

This is the sentiment of my heart, it is as I should myself wish to be treated, or such as I would give my insane friend or relatative, and I think that I know the character of insane hospitals quite as well as Miss Dix, although I have never put my foot into but one of them, and probably she has been into about all in the country except the one in Maine where I was incarcerated. Yes, citizens, these are sober facts, and who of you would send your dearest friend to prison if they were insane if you could possibly keep them at home; and all hospitals are prisons, and nothing else, and of the most barbarous kind, whether they are public or private. I speak what I know is truth, whether you will believe it or not, and I would just us soon vote to establish and maintain the Spanish Inquisition [View Annotation – 10 »] as I would any Insane Hospital.

On the 4th of Dec., 1850, the author of this little work was in the city of Boston, to procure its publication, and that day several men were at work setting the type for that purpose, but the fates decreed that it should not then make its appearance before the public. Upon that day the astounding news reached that city by telegraph, [View Annotation – 11 »] that the Maine Insane Hospital, whose deeds of darkness this was intended to expose to the world, was in flames, and a large number of its inmates were victims to the devouring element. What must have been my reflections at that moment none can tell or imagine; none can conceive. Was it possible that God had decreed the destruction of that modern Babylon, whose iniquity had been so great as to cause his vengeance to rest upon it? was it possible that in His infinite wisdom should suffer such at human burnt sacrifice to be offered to the God of Moloch, [View Annotation – 12 »] in order to open the eyes of the people, that they might be able to see the abominations which had been practiced there, under the garb of humanity and religion, and which had been so unjustly concealed by the rulers of the people? Or was it permitted that the sufferings and woes of those victims of abuse and horrid atrocity might cease and be at an end? But the scenes of that dreadful night; who shall describe them? who can paint them in all their true colors?

Twenty-eight human beings — with fond friends at home, anxious for their restoration and happiness — have thus perished within the walls of that burning edifice; and it was not in your power nor mine — in no human power — to rescue or relieve them! Oh! May such a scene and such a lesson never be forgotten — never, indeed, can it be!”


Annotation 1.  A “wild maniac” refers to a person with mania, one of the principal diagnoses of psychiatric disabilities at the time. It suggested excitable hyperactivity, disorganized behavior, and elevation of mood.

Annotation 2. Isaac Ray was one of the founders of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane. A leader on issues of law and insanity and a friend of both Dix and Charles Sumner, Ray moved from Maine to the new asylum in Rhode Island during Isaac Hunt’s confinement.

 Annotation 3.  A “fever of the brain” suggests a delusional state.

Annotation 4. Various medications, especially opiates and purgatives, were commonly administered in asylums, even those that emphasized moral treatment. On medications, see “The Medical Treatment of Insanity” from The Journal of Insanity.

Annotation 5. Hunt’s insistence on cleanliness, as well as the his obviously educated literary style, suggests he came from comfortable circumstances. He had either a middle-class or elite background. He considered Dr. Ray a peer and expected to be addressed in a courteous manner.

Annotation 6. Forced to take the medication, Hunt became delusional. Hunt blames his suffering on the medication that he was forced to take, and he maintains that such forced medication constituted criminal malpractice. The rights of patients in psychiatric institutions to refuse medication remained a source of constant controversy.

Annotation 7. The shower box, in which inmates were sprayed with cold water, was supposedly a form of treatment but could easily become a type of punishment.

Annotation 8. Manual labor was a common part of moral treatment in insane asylums, but Hunt describes this labor as akin to slavery.

Annotation 9. The testimony of these witnesses, all employees at the Maine Insane Hospital, derives from the records the legislative inquiry into conditions at the asylum. A vote on censuring the administrators of the institution failed by a narrow margin.

Annotation 10. The Spanish Inquisition involved the infamous torture of Protestants during the Counter-Reformation.

 Annotation 11.  Samuel Morse’s telegraph, which first appeared in the 1840s, was a new innovation in communicating news in 1850.

Annotation 12. In the Old Testament, Moloch was a god to whom children were sacrificed.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hunt, I.H. (1851). Astounding disclosures! Three years in a mad house. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=10427.

Source:  Patricia Deegan Collection. Disability History Museum, http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay


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