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'At the Asylum'

Globe and Mail Update


Does not the word bring to the recollection of almost every reader some face – a friend, a relative perhaps – of one who, though living, is counted among the dead?

What sad chapters in many a family history have been written and must be written to the end of time bearing that terrible title – insanity.

Where is the mind so inflexible as to view undisturbed, or the heart so adamantine as to pass without sadness, the tomb of the living dead? Men who are reckless in all else, who laugh at death even, become sad and tender in the presence of insanity. With the rolling of time's stream down through the ages many a mighty boulder of prejudice has been worn away, and in no department of human experience more than in the treatment of the insane. The ancients had widely divergent views [with] regard to insanity. Some nations regarded the insane as inspired, and consequently treated them as sacred beings. Others looked on them as devil-possessed, and among such nations the insane were treated with terrible cruelty and in many cases, killed. Into Europe of the middle ages, the darkness of the centuries before projected itself, and the common belief was that insane people were possessed of the devil. It was not until the 9th century that the first gleam of light came. A Carthusian friar of that day, alone in his opinion, held that insanity was a disease, and established a hospital for the cure of demented persons. But centuries passed on before anything was done toward systemic treatment of the insane. The first who took steps toward the establishment of the modern methods of treatment – curative rather than repressive – were Esquirol and Pinel in France, and almost simultaneously Tuke in England. The basis of their treatment was to do away with the old demoniacal idea of insanity, and recognizing insanity as a disease, to treat it accordingly with such laws as might be discovered.

Canada occupies a high place among the nations in regard to this terrible malady. Not only is the proportion of insane exceedingly low, but the various provincial governments have devoted great care and judgment to the introduction of improved methods of treatment. In Canada the proportion of insane is one in 600 of the population; in the United States it is one in every 460 and in Great Britain it is one in 360, inclusive of idiots, who are counted separately on this side of the Atlantic.

Danger, however, exists that Canada in the future may be more troubled than in the past. In the state of New York, the asylums have for years been crowded, owing largely to the great proportion of immigrants who become insane, and the inferences that the nations of Europe are not overstrict as to the class of people they allow to leave their shores. Dr. Daniel Clark, superintendent of the Toronto Asylum, in his annual report October, 1888, pointed out that the belief that Canada was becoming a dumping ground for the insane of Britain. Of the 165 patients admitted during 1888, 92 were of foreign birth and only 73 Canadian birth. From inquiry among the patients sent elsewhere it was learned that a large number of patients had been at some time in the asylums of Britain and Ireland. The greater proportion of insanity in the older countries comes largely of life in the slums and misery among the poorer classes. Of women in all nations there is a greater proportion of insane than of men, chiefly because of a more nervous organism, and more exciting causes such as childbirth. In olden times, women were more frequently supposed to be evil-possessed than men, the number of “witches” as compared with “wizards” being out of all proportion.

The Toronto Asylum

In the early states of settlement in Ontario and up to the year 1841 no asylum for the insane existed in the province or in Canada. The county gaol was the only refuge for the insane poor. By virtue of an act of 1839 power was given to establish an asylum and two years later, spurred on by Dr. Rees, the provincial authorities acquired the old gaol on Toronto Street, after the completion of the new gaol in the East End, and established there the first Provincial Asylum. Dr. Rees was the first superintendent and 17 patients were under his care. Within a brief period, so rapidly did the number of insane increase, part of the Parliament buildings and a large house on the corner of Bathurst and Front Streets, belonging to the Honourable J.H. Dunn, were set apart as annexes. Dr. Rees remained superintendent till 1844 and the chiefs since that time have been Dr. Telfer, 1844-47; Dr. Park, 1847; Dr. Primrose, 1848-49; Dr. Scott, 1850-53; Dr. Workman, 1853-75; Dr. Gowan, 1875; Dr. Metcalf, 1875-76; Dr. Daniel Clark, from 1876 to the present writing.

The gaol building having been proved utterly inadequate to the requirements of the province, commissioners were appointed in 1844 to superintend the erection of a new building in the west end of the city. It must be remembered that at that period the Garrison Common extended over all that land now covered by the railway years, and the great manufacturing works of the West End, and northward past where Queen Street now goes. Fifty acres of land were laid apart and under the direction of Commissioners, Sheriff Jarvis, Dr. Widmer, Dr. King, Mr. John Ewart, and Mr. J. Chewitt, the Asylum Building , planned by the later Mr. J.G. Howard, was commenced in June, 1845. The building took five years and it was not until January, 1850, that it was ready for occupation. It stands today almost as then; wings have been added at either end, other buildings, such as hospitals and dwellings have been erected in the grounds, but the great central building, four and five stories in height, with a facade, facing north of 584 feet and the large dome rising from the centre, are the same in appearance as when finished 40 years ago. The wings since constructed extend from either end of the main building in a southerly direction and are 240 feet long. They are principally set apart for patients who pay a certain weekly allowance for maintenance and here patients have bedrooms for themselves, the wards are more neatly furnished in the main building and everything is more home like. To the south, verandahs afford a splendid view of the bay and the lake in the distance. Little of the wings can been seen from Queen Street and as the visitor enters the grounds where patients are often seen sauntering in the care of attendants, the principal thing that demands attention is the vast extent of the central building.

A great front, with cut stone facings and walls of white brick, long lines of barred windows, from which patients peep forth at the approaching visitor, and at the end huge verandahs, three stories high, prison-like with their iron bars, but a splendid thing when the weather is too stormy to admit of patients going out. Fully half of the patients are confined to this part of the building. On entering, the extreme neatness of the place is at once apparent. The main staircase is built of walnut and polished oak. Busts of prominent men, figures of statuary and finely painted walls add to the effect of the hall. From the centre of the building great corridors 14-feet run from east to west the entire length of the building. From these corridors, which run in the same fashion on all the flats, the wards are entered. They are in constant use by either attendants or patients, and at the busiest look like little roofed-over streets. Seats are provided here and there, and at night the clothes of patients, especially of such as are supposed to be dangerous, are left in the corridors out of the way of the inmates. All night long the corridors are patrolled by the guards, who on the slightest disturbance in any of the dormitories enter and put an end to it.

It has been considered that the life of an inmate of the Asylum is altogether a dreary one. The supposition is erroneous, except in the case of patients who are highly dangerous. In summer there is the exercise to be had in the grounds, where spreading trees and rich coloured flowers and fountains whose waters sparkle in the sun are to be seen on all hands. There is the orchard and garden, a never-failing source of delight. All the year round, there is service on Sundays, at which most of the patients are present. In wintertime there are occasional dances, and almost every week some of the city choirs give a concert. These entertainments are thoroughly appreciated by the patients, and have a splendid effect, the doctors say, in driving away melancholia. The greatest event of the year at the Asylum – more important than Christmas, with its evergreens and bunton and plum pudding, or any other festival – is the annual ball. A stranger on that evening might stay in the ballroom for an hour and see nothing that would lead him to suppose the great majority of those present are insane. Many a story is told of how visitors are deceived. On one occasion a visitor was standing in observation of a difficult number – a polka or quadrille – and while watching the dancers, a tall, dignified, well-dressed gentleman, passing, stopped on his way across the floor, and accosted him with the remark, “Very fair dancing, eh?” “Yes,” was the answer, “very good.” “One would hardly suppose now that these people are mostly mad,” was the next remark of the dignified gentleman. The visitor had been feeling his way before, not knowing whether he was speaking to a patient, but the manner of the gentleman led him to suppose that he was a physician or a chief attendant. So he entered into a lengthy conversation, which included many of the chief topics of the day, remarks on current politics, scientific discovery and news of the world of letters. Some chance word led to the mention of authorship, and there upon the dignified gentleman seized his acquaintance by the coat collar and demanded in a tone of excitement if the visitor had seen his book. But for that unlucky word the visitor would have gone away under the impression that the dignified patient was one of the Asylum authorities. That is but one of the many cases of a like character, and as a rule the patients are well informed regarding the affairs of the outside world.

There is a fairly expensive library and reading room, in which the principal papers and magazines are kept. To give a description of the great massive buildings in detail is too great a task to be within the scope of such an article as this. The chief features of the building are the great corridors, the neat dining rooms attached to every ward – a better plan than one central dining hall, as patients of a similar character can be collected in the smaller rooms and managed more easily – the abundant light everywhere, the frequent sight of pictures and statuary and the ceaseless passing to and fro of nurses and male attendants. Water pressure is supplied from the dome in the central building. This lofty structure can be seen from many miles out on the lake, and is one of the most striking objects seen by persons entering the harbour. It is not chiefly ornamental, however, for in it is a huge water tank containing about 12,000 gallons. In the wings are tanks containing 6,000 gallons each and the supply is pumped directly from the lake. The building is heated throughout with hot water and close upon five miles of pipes have been used for that purpose. Fire protection, a most important matter in such a building, has been carefully looked to. In the grounds are a number of hydrants, and hose reels are kept in constant readiness, there being a well-organized brigade recruited from among the attendants. The culinary and laundry departments of this great establishment are on a vast scale. The laundry is in the quadrangle to the rear of the building and is furnished with steam washing and wringing machines, a large drying room and all other necessary machinery and conveniences. An engine of 40 horsepower is used to keep the apparatus in motion. The sum of the produce annually consumed is immense and since the lands around the Asylum have been disposed of very much of this has to come from the outside.

The Superintendent

Returning to the central building, we stop before a door on the left of the entrance hall bearing the words, “Superintendent; Private.” Here visitors whose friends are within the building come from the news that means joy or sorrow to them – joy that the loved one will soon be restored, or sorrow because there is no hope. Many a sad word is spoken here, and many a comforting one, for Dr. Clark is a kindly man, whose experience instead of hardening has made him all the more tender towards those with whom he confers in such times of trouble. We knock and are invited in. The Superintendent is a stout, medium-sized gentleman, a little past middle age, with iron-grey hair and a short-trimmed moustache. In his speech there is a little of the accent that makes him such a favourite when he tells Scotch stories at a St. Andrew's dinner – the doctor is a Past President of the Society – and there is an indication of good humour and “pawkiness” in the keen eyes that look out from under his bushy eyebrows. The doctor talks freely of the Asylum, its position, relative importance, and efficiency. He pays respect to the influence of Dr. Buchan, chief assistant, Dr. Weir, Miss Bastedo, Lady Superintendent and Miss Corley, for the aid rendered in maintaining that efficiency. He tells us that Toronto Asylum, while a great institution, with 710 patients here and 112 at Mimico, has a less number than London, and is far distanced by The Willard, of New York State, with over 2,000 patients. After giving the other information already placed before the reader, the doctor speaks of improvements in the method of treating the insane. This is a topic of which, as he himself puts it, he is full. In “Half Hours In an Asylum,” written for the old Canadian Monthly, he has dealt with the subject fully, and from the stored knowledge of his brain, he treats various aspects of the disease. The conversation turns toward

The New Asylum Buildings

at Mimico, which are intended after a time to entirely supersede the present Asylum, and the doctor tells how they came to be erected. He first proposed a system of detached cottages some ten years ago. At that time there were no asylums built on that principle. Some few in the United States have been furnished with cottages, but in all cases they were connected with the main buildings, or else strung in rows one after the other. For a considerable time the doctor thought out his plans and then submitted the proposal to the government. Mr. Kivas Tully, Government Engineer, cordially approved of the idea and worked it out on paper. The principal advantages of the cottage system, as against one great building, are these: (1) They are more homelike and cheerful. (2) By this means a better classification of patients is insured, the noisy and filthy and dangerous being kept more by themselves. Convalescents may be entirely separated from epileptics and hopelessly insane persons, and recovery thus aided, there being a grave difficulty at present in the manner in which the intermingling of the classes retards recovery. (3) Cottages are more healthy, being capable of better ventilation and of admitting more sunlight. (4) There is less danger from fire, a most important matter, as it has been found that there is always great loss of life at fires in asylums, owing to the patients becoming frightened and refusing to leave the building. Not only does this security come from the isolation of each building, but also because the cottages are only two storeys in height. This also enables the aged and infirm who can take exercise to get out of doors more easily. (5) Cottages give greater safety in case of an epidemic. The chief objection taken by the critics to the cottage system is that it costs very much more than one great building. Dr. Clark quickly disposes of that argument. He points out that in reality the cost is less in the cottage than in the other method. While the cottages have more outside walls, great high buildings on the other hand need a great deal of scaffolding in building, more deeply sunk foundations, more massive division walls, and a hundred other things that go to increase their cost. The cottages at Mimico cost $250 per patient to build, while, in the present building, not withstanding the greater cheapness of building material and of labour 40 years ago, the cost was $750. Like the present Asylum, the cottages are of brick, with stone facings.

After the Government approved of the cottage principle they proceeded to select a site. The Agricultural College had been established at Guelph, and the old farm bought by the Government of the Honourable John Sandfield MacDonald, which was located about a mile and a half back from the lake shore near Mimico, was pitched upon, but, owing to the difficulty of building a sewer to the lake through the bed of rock between, and also pumping water that distance, the authorities exchanged the land for eighty acres close by the shore, about three-fourths of a mile cityward from Long Branch. Operations were begun 18 months ago, and there are now two cottages finished and occupied by 112 patients, there being accommodation for sixty in each. Two others will be completed in a month, and further drafts of patients made to fill them. The Asylum at Mimico when completed will be in the form of a parallelogram, composed of fourteen cottages, facing outward on all sides. The executive building will be one of the cottages, and will be at one side. The place is now lit by electricity, and will be in every part when completed. In the courtyard formed by the square of cottages is a large building, where the bakery, laundry and workshops of all kinds, carpenters, painters and others are located. From this building also the whole of the cottages are lighted, as well as heated by steam. It is an interesting fact that at the present time there is utilized in the production of heat a flow of natural gas, which was struck during the excavating operations. Here are the store rooms, enormous in capacity, together with the steward's offices. The building is to be surmounted by a dome-shaped tower containing two large tanks, from which water is supplied to all parts of the village – for the fourteen cottages will deserve the name. The most unique of all the improvements is the system of covered ways which run from each cottage to the central building. These underground passages are provided with railways, on which are carried all provisions and other materials needed in the cottages. Along these passages run within sight and easy of access the electrical wires and the water and steam heating pipes, thus insuring perfect immunity from frost. The Mimico Asylum will be one of the most perfect in the world when completed.

The cheery, optimistic chat of the doctor has brightened us up somewhat, and yet as we pass from out the shadow of the building into the rushing traffic of Queen Street, we feel that everything in the outside world is sweeter to our sight than before we visited the Asylum, and we join in the eastward-bound throng, wondering the while how many lives that might have blossomed into beauty have been cut off and left to wither away in this tomb of the living. Genius is near to insanity, they say, and the border-land between them is but a few hairs breadth. God knows how many of the brightest men and women of Ontario have passed that narrow boundary, and spent what was left of time behind these walls. “Oh, dullness, portioned of the truly blest,” sang Burns in a sad mood, and the thought comes to us that, after all, the dullard's lot may be enviable in some cases, as when the fire of insanity takes hold upon a mighty brain and tortures it into a glowing furnace of violence and hatred and forgetfulness.

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