1855 Miss Phebe B. Davis

Names of patients who were incarcerated at state insane asylums 72 years ago or more can be difficult to find; not because they aren’t there but because they are buried in old documents, records, and books. It is rare that one finds a first hand account of the experiences of a person who had lived to tell the story of being locked up at the state lunatic asylum. Miss Phebe B. Davis, wrote and published a pamphlet entitled TWO YEARS AND THREE MONTHS IN THE NEW-YORK STATE LUNATIC ASYLUM, AT UTICA: TOGETHER WITH THE OUTLINES OF TWENTY YEARS’ PEREGRINATIONS IN SYRACUSE, in 1855, with her own money. Her goal was to inform the public about the terrible abuses that were endured by the patients while in “the house.” I read her story with one hand over my mouth for many different reasons, and at times, I could be heard to say, “Oh, Jesus!” and “Oh my God!”

Davis Pamphlet 1855

Davis Pamphlet 1855

I have transcribed her pamphlet word for word and bolded the names of all the people she mentioned. This is what I meant in my book when I said: “To believe that all our ancestors were good, kind, law abiding citizens who were literate, owned their own homes, and held steady employment is unrealistic.” Some of our ancestors were down right mean!

The pamphlet is not an easy read since it was written 157 years ago, but all 64 pages are worth the effort. I knew that some words were printing errors but everything else I kept as originally written. If you have read my blog, you will already know Dr. Amariah Brigham and Dr. John P. Gray. In the coming days, I will do more research on Miss Davis, Dr. Benedict, Dr. Nichols, and Dr. CookBub.”


8 thoughts on “1855 Miss Phebe B. Davis

  1. So interesting. Thank you for all the research you have done! I will be looking forward to the next posts about Miss Phebee and those involved. I haven’t read the booklet yet. So sad though that she had to have it published with her own resources. Probably “publishers” didn’t think their readers would read it because of the subject matter, and because she was a woman . Perhaps they didn’t take her serious because she had been a “patient” herself. They might have been in denial of the truth of what they read. I will have more comments when I read the booklet. Thank you!


    • Well, in 1855, women could not vote. You know the story, keep them barefoot and pregnant, pretty sad! By the way, I had to self publish my book because many literary agents told me that no one would be interested in this subject. I got tired of dealing with them and did it by myself, with my own money. -Lin


  2. Doing some “google” research..Miss Phebe wrote “The Travels and Experiences of Miss Phebe B Davis”-Syracuse, Ny Publisher: Syracuse : J.G.K. Truair, stereotypers and printers, 1860. and was used as a resource book in another writing Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Phebe was quoted in several books..check out http://www.amazon.co.uk/davis-phebe. Also in the book ” Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945 by Phyllis Chesler, Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris (Sep 1995). By Benjamin Reiss (chapters 1 and 2). “there is an “excerpt” from her book. N.Y. State Lunatic Asylum at Utica, N.Y (1860). The sequel can be read as a PDF or on Line at the following link for the Medical Heritage library (http://archive.org/details/0006312.nlm.nih.gov)

    Author: Davis, Phebe B
    Subject: Davis, Phebe B; Mentally Ill Persons; Travel
    Publisher: Syracuse : J.G.K. Truair, stereotypers and printers
    Language: English
    Digitizing sponsor: Open Knowledge Commons, U.S. National Library of Medicine
    Book contributor: U.S. National Library of Medicine
    Collection: medicalheritagelibrary; medicineintheamericas; usnationallibraryofmedicine; americana

    Just sharing…I find this fascinating…being a “voice of a woman” for a cause in those times must have been very challenging, if not frustrating!


    • The Travels book is Miss Davis’s follow up to the pamphlet about her incarceration at Utica. She went south to try to sell her book and wrote her experiences about how slaves were being treated there. Again, it isn’t an easy read because she jumps back and forth. You might enjoy reading it though. I found her experiences at Utica and her problems caused by Priest May and the women of the City of Syracuse, much more compelling.


  3. Pingback: 1855 Samuel Joseph May | The Inmates of Willard 1870 to 1900 / A Genealogy Resource

  4. Thank you for taking the time to share this amazing story written so very long ago. Though I have only just began reading it, 7 pages so far, I am hooked!


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