Monday, June 12, 2017

The Lost Bloomingdale Insane Asylum -- 114th St. and 10th Av


The first, main building as it appeared in 1831.  artist Archibald L. Dick, from View in New-York and its Environs (copyright expired)
Students graduating from King's College in May 1769 had other things to think about than lunatics.   Agitators were promoting anti-government sentiments and within months the Golden Hill incident, followed by the Boston Massacre, would spark full-blown military revolution.

Nevertheless Dr. Samuel Bard addressed the need for a "public infirmary" for the insane during his speech that afternoon.  Another professor, Dr. Peter Middleton, said Bard's case was "warmly and pathetically set forth."

A campaign for public donations, or subscriptions, was initiated and on June 13, 1771 the petitioners were granted a charter for the Society of the Hospital in the city of New York, in America.   War slowed the progress of the project; but according to The North American Review in 1837, "The New York Hospital was opened for the reception of patients in 1791.  Apartments were then appropriated to lunatics; but the accommodations being inconvenient, a new and separate building was erected in the immediate vicinity of the general hospital, and opened in 1808."

The governors of the New York Hospital, "with a view of introducing a course of moral treatment for lunatic patients," applied to the State for aid.  In 1816 an act was passed granting $10,000 per year to the Hospital until 1857--a princely sum equal to nearly $175,000 today.

The Review explained "A piece of ground containing eighty acres, near the Hudson river, about seven miles from the city of New York, was purchased; and on a dry, elevated and pleasant spot, fronting the Bloomingdale road, the building now called the Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum was erected."

The Federal-style stone building was completed in 1821, "and to it were immediately removed all the lunatics in the old hospitals in the city."  The building could accommodate 200 patients.

The complex was enlarged with the addition of two buildings in 1829 "for the more violent."  Patients and visitors could stroll the park-like setting of gardens and winding walkways.  Inmates worked the orchards and vegetable gardens.

In 1836 much of the unused 80 acres was sold off, reducing the campus to 40 acres.  By then the Bloomingdale Asylum had received 1,915 patients.  Of these, 828 were considered cured, 399 were "relieved," and 146 died.

Following the opening of the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in 1839--intended for insane paupers--the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum accepted only paying patients.

The New-York State Register, in 1845, described the institution with glowing praise.  It "is pleasantly situated near the banks of the Hudson River...laid out in gardens, pleasure grounds, gravel walks and farm lots, well adapted to the unfortunate inmates.

"The building is erected on one of the most elevated and healthy sites on the Island, and sufficiently retired for the comfort and convenience of the patients."  The fact that the asylum was "sufficiently retired" from the city most likely gave more comfort to citizens than to patients.

Miller's Strangers' Guide to the City of New York offered a pleasing picture of the Asylum in 1866.  "The sudden opening of the view, the extent of the grounds, the various avenues gracefully winding through so large a lawn the cedar hedges, the fir and other ornamental trees, tastefully distributed or grouped, the variety of shrubbery and flowers."


In 1857 Phelp's Strangers and Citizens' Guide to New York City had noted that "it is necessary, before a patient can be admitted into the Bloomingdale Asylum, that a lunacy-warrant from any two justices of the peace, or police magistrates, issued upon the evidence of two reputable physicians as to the alleged fact of insanity be procured" and that "payment of board (which is always in advance) must be arranged."

The artist of this etching added a family of deer to render a tranquil atmosphere.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The procedure for pronouncing a patient insane was important.  In the mid-19th century declaring one's inconvenient relative a lunatic or "incompetent" was a common means of disposing of the problem.  It was used, for instance, by men who had grown tired of their wives, or by those who greedily eyed the fortunes of their relatives.

State laws contributed to the problem.  When S. J. Hopkins had his wife, Maria, committed in 1857, he was freed of all financial obligations.  As was pointed out in court, "By statute she is to be supported by her mother.  The marital right of the husband is gone the very moment she becomes insane...The husband, therefore, is not responsible for her support."

So when doctors at the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum quickly found Maria quite sane and released her, Hopkins was infuriated.  When the carriage carrying Maria and her three brothers arrived at the Recorder's Office in August to make her discharge official, Hopkins tried to assault her.  She was escorted safely into the building by a police officer.

The Recorder's release of Maria's to her brothers "was followed by a spontaneous burst of applause from the spectators, and especially from the ladies," reported The New York Times on August 27, 1857.  But the article ended "The husband, after their departure, expressed his determination to his friends to assert and obtain the right to the control of his wife."

The accusations of illicit commitment continued.  Two cases made headlines in 1872--those of Theresa Drew and Rosa McCabe.  Both women received court hearings on August 13. 

The proceedings prompted The New York Herald to dramatically explain that many New Yorkers suspected "barbaric cruelties exceeding the most startling records of fiction," and that "victims of jealousy or hate or revenge [were] dragged from their homes, and, upon the mere pretence [sic] of insanity, thrust into the gloomiest dungeons of an insane asylum, and there, helpless and remediless, left to linger and suffer and die."

Theresa Drew was described by the Herald as "as large, muscular but pale faced woman of some forty years.  She wore a lilac colored striped dress, with white shawl and bonnet trimmed a la mode."  Her interview with the judge and doctors resulted in her being deemed sane.

The case of Rosa McCabe was shocking.  Now known as Sister Mary, she wore the habit of the Order of Stanislaus.  The Herald explained she "had sought retirement from the pomp and vanities of the world by becoming a nun...Here, as the story goes, a priest sought to make her yield to his vile passions, and upon her refusal she was charged with being insane and removed to the Bloomingdale Asylum."

Whether Sister Mary was sane or not was not concluded during the hearing.  But the writer for The New York Herald felt the idea of an insane nun was more believable than an immoral priest.  "This story of the unsaintly procedure of a priest may of course be purely the hallucination of her dethroned reason."

The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum had faced a far different scandal in 1870.  Although patients were charged  between $8 to $30 per week--upwards of $565 today--an inspection by the Sanitary Committee of the Board of Health on December 1 that year yielded disturbing findings.

"There are eight water-closets in the house," reported The Times, "the excrement from six of which pass through a seven-inch iron pipe, which...empties itself into a cistern right under the windows of the female 'lodge.'"  The human waste traveled "about a half a mile until it finds its level in a stagnant pool in Manhattanville...The water is muddy enough and the smell sickening enough, when it leaves the Asylum ground and enters the open street, to have it indicted as a nuisance."

Worse yet was damning publicity that stemmed from the secret journal kept by a prominent banker, J. P. Van Vleck.  According to his lawyer, in 1871 he was arrested "while sitting at his breakfast table, and was taken, without a word of explanation," to the Asylum.   During his 16-month commitment, he kept "a minute diary."

Once released, the scandal spread beyond New York.  On August 15, 1872 the Pennsylvania newspaper, The Elk County Advocate, reported "Although subjected to no special indignity, he says that the treatment of the insane by the keepers is simply revolting."

The banker's case appeared to be another of false commitment.  "The gentleman who was dismissed yesterday was never treated medically during his entire imprisonment, and his manner and general intelligence prohibit the belief that he is of unsound mind.  He does not yet know by whom he was incarcerated or on whose medical certificate."

Van Vleck's diary and the subsequent publicity led Governor Hoffman to appoint a commission "to examine the charges against the Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum," one week later.  John D. Townsend, Van Vlecke's attorney detailed charges to a New York Times reporter:

"The insane, he said, were kicked and choked until blood spurts from the mouth and nostrils--some being driven to suicide by systematic cruelties.  He commented on the report of the overseers, making out everything to be 'lovely' in the Bloomingdale Asylum, and said that the officials were fully prepared for the visit of the Committee, and had everything arranged for the inspection."

The officials may have tidied up the Asylum for the Committee's inspection, but a former employee, George K. Irwin, provided ammunition for Van Vleck's lawsuit.  The Wheeling West Virginia Daily Intelligencer reported he provided affidavits "relating many cruelties resulting in death, by parties connected with the Asylum, that the food is poor, that the inmates receive foul treatment, that vile practices generally obtain there."

A New-York Tribune reporter faked insanity to get inside, and then spirited out reports of the conditions.  The New England Journal of Medicine, in September 1872, was offended, writing "We are glad to observe that the expression of the public press is almost universally condemnatory of the exploits of a Tribune reporter, who thought it sharp to feign insanity and get himself lodged in Bloomingdale, for the purpose of surreptitiously obtaining facts.  Such sneak-practice betokens neither great shrewdness nor a proper sense of honor."

The Journal urged that "popular judgment should be suspended" until the investigations were completed.  "It is easy enough to arouse a prejudice against an institution about which so much mystery hangs as is inevitable and necessary with an insane asylum."  The article stressed that "sensible people" would give the Asylum the "benefit of every doubt."

The Asylum was cleared of gross wrongdoing and the disgrace soon faded.

Somewhat expectedly, of course, stories of sane relatives being committed unfairly, continued.  One of these was the 30-year old Susan Dickie who was declared insane in 1871.  The South Carolina newspaper The Newberry Herald reported on March 6, 1878 that she was committed "on the certificate of a physician who had only seen her for ten minutes, and who knew no more about her complaints or the nature of her antecedents than he did about the back of his head.  He got a good fat fee for his opinion."

The newspaper floridly complained that the doctor thereby "deprived a fellow-being of her liberty, and consigned her to a living tomb and the fellowship of maniacs for seven long years."

Susan Dickie's commitment followed the death of her father and the reading of his will.  She was to received one-sixth of the income of his $900,000 estate.  Only after she was noticed by "a few persons who knew nothing of her history," according to the Louisiana newspaper The Bossier Banner, was her insanity questioned.

Susan was released after a thorough examination.  The Bossier Banner reported on March 21, 1878 "For six years she has been for the most part a solitary little woman, the occupant of a little room among imbeciles, idiots and maniacs.  To-day she comes out to enjoy all the pleasures of reunion with old friends and the practical and pleasant consolations obtainable with $7,000 a year."

The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum played an important part in the defense of Charles J. Guiteau following his assassination of President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.  In attempting to prove that Guiteau was insane, his attorney presented the 1829 records of the Asylum, which documented that his grandfather, Dr. Francis W. Guiteau "died there insane."

A witness named Scoville testified that he knew Francis Guiteau when he was about 16 or 18 years old in Utica, New York.  He was "disappointed in love," said Scoville. When he challenged his rival to a duel, the pistols were loaded with blank cartridges.  Guiteau, realized that he had been made a fool of.  The "shame of it, united with disappointed affection for the lady of his choice, dethrone his reason and he became insane."

His grandfather's insanity did not sway the jury and Charles J. Guiteau was executed on June 30, 1882.

On February 23, 1889 the Mississippi newspaper the Woodville Republican reported on the wealth of the Bloomingdale Asylum, which it called "the richest institution of the kind in the world."  The 50 acres of land, it said, was worth more than $6 million.  And its patients nearly all came "form the highest classes of society."

The newspaper mentioned some of the wealthy inmates, including John Travers, son of a recently-deceased Wall Street tycoon.  "His share of the...estate was $300,000."  The article said "The richest patient at present is Howard Meyer, son of the New Brunswick millionaire, who has an income of $7,000 a year devoted to his support."

But living and being treated at the Bloomingdale Asylum was expensive.  The writer added "This may seem like a large sum, but when one sees how physicians and others who minister to the rich charge for their services it soon melts away."

At the time of the article the Asylum was poised to move.  The land on which it stood had become far too valuable for the facility to remain there.  On May 19, 1888 The New York Times had reported "The site occupied by the asylum is confessedly the finest for residence purposes on Manhattan Island...It embraces some 558 building lots, of an average value of from $5,000 to $8,000 per lot."

Public opinion played a part in the proposed move as well.  As Morningside Heights developed, "protest upon protest was accordingly made by interested parties against the presence of the madhouse within city limit," explained The Times.  The article reported that the Asylum would be moved to White Plains and the old buildings demolished.

In 1897 Columbia University moved onto the former site of the Asylum.   Half a century, in 1947, later Horace C. Coon wrote his history of the institution, Columbia: Colossus on the Hudson.  He started his book with the tongue-in-cheek comment "It is no accident, perhaps, that the present site of Columbia University was once occupied by the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum."


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