1876 The Case Of The Lunatic Boy – Part 1

This is a very interesting article from The New York Times. It refers to an unnamed “lunatic boy” who was mistreated at the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. The Superintendent of the asylum was Dr. C.H. Nichols, formerly of the Bloomingdale and Utica Asylums for the Insane of New York State. The Government Hospital accepted veterans, pauper, and pay patients. The article speaks of the Testimony before a House Committee (of Congress), and alleges that veterans of the Civil War and pauper inmates, including women, were being beaten and whipped; starved; served rotten meat and butter; and were covered with vermin (hair and body lice), while the pay patients were treated humanely and were kept in good physical condition. The article speaks of the barbaric treatment in various insane asylums and county poor houses in the United States but gives praise to the Willard Asylum for its mild and humane treatment “of the wildest and most incurable cases from the county poor-houses.”

Back to the “lunatic boy. It is often difficult to figure out who people were from old newspaper articles because although the reporter knew who this boy was, he didn’t state his name. While trying to uncover the identity of the boy, I came across an old document/pamphlet entitled The government asylum. Horrible and extreme cruelty to the army and navy patients, Supplement only, July 1876, written by Mary J. Van Keuren. Mrs. Van Keuren’s son, William Edgar Van Keuren, a veteran, was horribly mistreated at the Government Asylum. She wrote the piece about the testimony given before Congress that included the cases of: OLIVER D. AMBROSE, THOMAS W. WHITE, GENERAL LOOMIS, and WILLIAM EDGAR VAN KEUREN (Edgar). After reading the account of the testimony, I believe that the unnamed “lunatic boy” was OLIVER D. AMBROSE, who “became insane from the effect of the assassination of President Lincoln, who happened to be sitting near the box in which Mr. Lincoln was killed. When Booth jumped out of the box Oliver shouted “Booth!” Booth!” Although I could not find any statement regarding Oliver’s age, the account suggests that he was a minor, was not insane, was beaten and starved, and was kept in the asylum for eight weeks without ever being seen or evaluated by a doctor.

The Case Of The Lunatic Boy.

“The testimony before the Committee on Expenditures, of the House, on Thursday, as to the management of the Government Hospital for the Insane, at Washington, was certainly painful enough. The institution evidently ought to be overhauled. But we wish some committee could examine various rural hospitals for the insane throughout the country, and especially the insane wards of the county poor-houses. Such treatment as the poor crazed boy received in Washington is mild and humane compared with that dealt to lunatics in these places in every State of the Union. Such a committee would discover in these “dark places of the earth,” lunatic women, often those who had seen better days, shut up in dark cells or cages, without clothing, cold, often hungry, devoured by vermin, besmeared by filth, chained, of, if loose, associating with vagabonds, paupers, and drunkards, and frequently debauched and ruined by them. The visitors of the insane wards in the poor-houses of the United States know that there is appearing in them what might be called a new and horrible human variety – a race, the offspring of the lunatic and the drunkard, of the crazed pauper and the vicious vagrant. In these “asylums” men are known who have been in chains and cages for years, some some confined as to be deformed for life; some scarred and marked by fetters and whips, without clothing, and treated during these long years worse than the brutes. Our readers have only to refer to the reports of such associations as the New-York Prison Association, the New-York and Pennsylvania State Boards of Charity, or the reports from every State of those experts and philanthropists who have visited and studied our county alms-houses where the insane have been cared for, to convince themselves that such facts as have been uncovered at Washington are common in every State of the Union.

The truth is that the condition of the insane poor in the United States is a disgrace to our humanity and civilization. The wonder is that it has continued as it has so long. Not a year has passed for fifty years, in which reports of experts have not exposed these abuses. Such philanthropists as Miss Dix, Dr. Willard, and others have spent their lives in seeking to reform them. Our own State Board of Charities, under Dr. Hoyt, have struggled incessantly with them. And it is only within a few years that in this State, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania a few victories over stupidity and barbarism begin to crown the long contest. In the West and South, and a large part of the Middle States, the condition of the insane, where they have no money, is still discreditable to our civilization and Christianity.

It will be said that this occurrence in Washington is different from what happens in county poor-houses, in that the Washington Asylum receives pay patients. But it will be found that the management of many asylums in the country districts, for patients of means, is disgraced by the old punishment and restraint system. In England, the old barbaric methods of handling the insane have been given up. “Non-restraint” is the rule. The vigorous exertions of the Commissions of Lunacy throughout the Kingdom have cleansed the “dark places of cruelty” of their abominations. A new and violent patient is seldom confined, or at most with the camisole or shirt, but is placed between two attendants, or is put in a padded room, where he cannot injure himself. Chains and blows, cages and cells, hunger and cold, are given up as means of curing lunacy. The lunatic is considered a patient under a peculiar disease, who can be broken of bad habits by kind and wise treatment, even as a child is. No asylum in this country has carried out the non-restraint principles so far as the best English asylums; but what has been accomplished by a singularly mild and humane treatment at the Willard Asylum of this State of the wildest and most incurable cases from the county poor-houses, shows what can be done by humanity and science combined. Such a treatment as that of the poor boy in the Washington Asylum, which might occur in many others, ought to be as much a thing of the past as the pillory, or whipping, or ear-cropping of our colonial days. And yet many a reputable asylum resorts to it. It would be a happy result of this cruelty if Congress could appoint a Commission of Lunacy which might help to reform such abuses throughout all the States, until every lunatic in the country was treated – as he should be – as an unfortunate and diseased human being.”

SOURCE: The New York Times. Published: April 24, 1876. Copyright @ The New York Times

1876 The Case Of The Lunatic Boy – Part 2