1901 Detained For 15 Years As “Feeble-Minded”

Girl Then Pronounced Insane Is Declared to be of Sound Mind.
Now Under Commissioner Feeny’s Protection – Tells a Story of Ill-Treatment at Newark (N.Y.) Asylum.

Fifteen years a prisoner as feeble-minded, has apparently been the lot of Mary Lake, now an inmate of the Richmond Borough Almshouse, but about to be set at liberty. Commissioner of Charities James Feeny of Richmond Borough is largely responsible for justice being done the girl even now.

The young woman is a daughter of George Lake of New Dorp. Lake, on Dec. 5, 1883, was sentenced for a serious offense to ten years in State prison. Lake’s children were committed to the County Almshouse, and the records show that on Sep. 10, 1886, Mary, twelve years old, was committed to the State Institution for Feeble-Minded Children at Syracuse. She remained at that institution until she became of age on Jan. 4, 1896, when she was transferred to the New York Custodial Asylum for Feeble-Minded Women, at Newark, N.Y.

Commissioner Feeny on Sept. 19 last received a letter from C.W. Winspear, the Superintendent of that institution, stating that Mary Lake had become insane, and demanding that she be removed. The Commissioner found that she must be brought back to Richmond County, and preceedings were taken to have her legally declared before she could be committed to an insane asylum. Some correspondence ensued between Commissioner Feeny and Superintendent Winspear, and under date of Oct. 1 the latter sent a certificate made by the attending physician at the institution, which follows:

Mary Lake has had a number of attacks of excitement, but none so severe as the present attack, nor did they last as long. Has been very much worse the last two weeks. I have no doubt of her insanity. N.E. LANDO

Upon the receipt of this the Commissioner sent Superintendent of Almshouse Pierce with a nurse, and armed with straitjackets and other paraphernalia to bring the supposed insane and violent girl to her home county, and the Superintendent was surprised to have placed in his custody an attractive-looking young woman entirely docile, well-educated, bright, and intelligent. Miss Lake was brought to the almshouse on Oct. 2, and since that time she has been under careful inspection, and has undergone several severe examinations at the hands of Dr. Isaac L. Millspaugh and Dr. John T. Sprague, who finally certified to Commissioner Feeny that the young woman is not now insane, and perhaps never has been; that there is no evidence that she has ever been even feeble-minded, and, on the contrary, she is intelligent, well-educated, is willing to work, and is most competent in every respect.

Commissioner Feeny did not feel justified in turning the young woman out upon the world, for, while she had been educated and trained to household duties, she is unsophisticated, and with the aid of Mrs. George William Curtis and other ladies whom he has interested in the case, the Commissioner is attempting to find her a good home.

Miss Lake, when seen at the almshouse, talked freely of her life in the institutions, and told stories of ill-treatment at the hands of some of the assistants at the Newark institution. She says there are others at the institution who are sound-minded, and who desire to be and should be discharged from the asylum.

She claims the reason she was declared insane and sent back to Richmond is that she was charged with being the originator of a plan to appeal to Gov. Odell upon the occasion of his visit to the institution during his recent tour of State Institutions. The plan was not carried out by the inmates. While she was among the number who agreed to speak to the Governor, she was not, she says, the leader or the originator of the plan. She declared her determination to leave, however, and fearing that she would make some trouble, the authorities at the institution, she says, took the above-mentioned method to get rid of her.

Of the other Lake children, one son has been lost sight of, another is in an institution for the blind in Brooklyn, and one daughter is said to have been brought up in a private family in ignorance of her parentage, and to have been happily married very recently.

SOURCE: Reprinted from The New York Times, Published: October 26, 1901, Copyright @ The New York Times.