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The lonely madness of Alice G

Globe and Mail Update

Alice G was driven mad by a broken heart, so said her doctors.

At 39, the unmarried housekeeper from Belleville, Ont., walked through the doors of the Toronto Asylum for the Insane, as it was called in 1893, and never saw the outside world again.

Her mother, the commitment papers suggest, had appealed to doctors for help. Alice spoke to people who didn't exist. She claimed to be a “prophetess” under orders from Heaven, and predicted she would give birth to two babies, one silver, one gold. She was reportedly infatuated with a local doctor.

Explaining the “supposed existing cause of insanity,” the physician who committed her scrawled on her form: “disappointment in love affairs.”

Beside occupation, he wrote: “Spinster.”

By society's standards, Alice G was to be pitied: childless, poor, lovelorn and, worst of all, insane.

In the asylum, what came to be called 999 Queen Street – and is now the site for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health – Alice was crowded into a dormitory, without a private toilet, where the residents regularly complained of chills and rats.

For four decades, even as a tiny, toothless old woman, she spent long days inside, ironing clothes in the laundry room and paid not a cent for her labour. The only notation related to any treatment she ever received is the careful recording, each year, of a single number – her weight.

We like to think the days have changed since society stored people with mental illness away in “tombs for the living,” as the Toronto Asylum was called in an 1890 story published on the front page of The Globe.

Certainly, the Queen Street location bears only a passing resemblance to its 19th-century self: The original building is gone, only sections remain of the four-metre brick wall that once encircled the nine-hectare property, and then for history's sake. Renovations are under way to create a “urban village” type of institution, where residents will live in private hotel-like rooms with their own keys and addresses; shops and restaurants will border on treatment facilities for people with mental illness.

But in truth, we are not so far removed from the time when parents told children to hold their breath on the passing subway, for fear of catching something from the “lunatics” dwelling inside. Society still warehouses people with mental illness – if more subtly – by ostracizing them in communities, abandoning them in prison, shutting them out in the workplace. Diseases of the mind such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder still make us hold our breath, lest we succumb next.

“Daniel Clarke [superintendent at the Toronto] Queen Street was talking about prejudice in the late 1800s. How much has that changed? I wonder,” speculates Geoffrey Reaume, a York University history professor whose book, Remembrance of Patients Past, chronicled the lives of residents in the institution between 1870 and 1940. “I still hear people, who are supposedly liberal and accepting, making very discriminatory remarks against someone with a psych history.”

It was Dr. Reaume who uncovered the story of the patient he called Alice G, protecting her identity under a privacy agreement with the Archives of Ontario. By poring over the files of more than 200 patients in the asylum, he found that the perception of life inside seems to have depended upon whether you were visiting or staying, rich or poor.

The lucky patients who could pay the bills were given private rooms near the front of the main building. All the wards had verandas, which The Globe writer of 1890 declares, offered “a splendid view of the bay.” Only dangerous patients had “dreary lives,” the story says; the rest enjoyed lovely walks among flower gardens, a library and reading room, and the delight of winter dances.

But Dr. Reaume's research describes a far different place. Wealthy patients undeniably received the best care, from cushions on their chairs to roast chickens delivered by family. The less fortunate, like Alice G, lived in the dark, spare dorms with barred windows in the back of the wards, or packed into the so-called “cottages” – large brick buildings set off by themselves.

In the 19th century, 1,200 people were crammed into the asylum; at times, some slept on sofas in the hallways. And splendid views or not, the verandas were used regularly to sequester problem patients, or when there were no other beds available.

“It was supposed to be a retreat from a troubled world,” Dr. Reaume says. “But instead you went from one troubled world to another.”

Rather than the idyllic strolls described in The Globe story, Dr. Reaume says patients were allowed on the grounds perhaps once or twice a week in “walking parties,” which typically amounted to marching as a group in the same circular path around the garden, over and over again. In one letter home, a female patient complained to her parents that the walks were “very tiresome.” But patients were lucky to get letters home at all; much of the correspondence written inside the institution was confiscated, stashed in clinical files to document patient conditions. Sometimes, letters were simply ripped up for the patients' “own good” – especially women, who with their “weaker constitutions” might be made distraught by the contents of their own writing.

Male residents were allowed to work on the grounds – they built the brick wall that kept the public out – and some patients were given passes to wander the property, although these privileges could be removed for bad behaviour.

But for women like Alice G, treatment – “moral therapy,” it was called – amounted almost exclusively to scrubbing floors or running clothes through labour-intensive washing machines. In her file, she is praised for turning up for work each day and for keeping herself clean. One concern: “She has a very greedy appetite, and will eat much if given it.”

“She is a very peculiar patient,” one report reads, about a decade after she was admitted. “Talks and smiles away to herself.” Even 30 years after her committal, her file suggests she still believed she was in the asylum “by mistake.”

She would never leave: At 83, her life spent in hopeless madness, Alice G stopped going to the laundry room. In the sole surviving picture, she gazes wide-eyed beyond the camera, her cheeks sunken, her lips pursed, as if pressing back a quiet sorrow.

She died in the spring of 1938, of heart failure, without record of a single visitor or any treatment to cure her.

As the medical file officially records, she weighed 81 pounds.

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