The Jackson Insane Asylum

The Insane Asylum of Louisiana was founded in Jackson in 1847.  It has been in continuous operation ever since, although it is now known as Eastern Louisiana State Mental Hospital.  When Field visited the institution in 1888 it had recently been turned over to a new administration.  From 1874 until 1888 it was run by John W. Jones, an idealistic physician who was responsible for building the facility Field both admires and condemns.  Lacking money from the Legislature, Jones purchased a cheap brick-making machine and had the inmates produce three million bricks, which were used to construct the imposing main building Field visited. 

 In this early piece of investigative reporting, Field describes in detail the deplorable conditions mentally ill patients—children and adults—were forced to live in. Her outrage at the Legislature for abandoning  these unfortunates by hopelessly  under- funding the hospital is expressed with the same clarity of emotion found in her admiring descriptions of a rose garden. 

 The contrast between the rural charm of the ride to Jackson and what she found inside the asylum is a fine example of Field’s artistry. (Picayune Oct. 7, 1888)

            Monday afternoon, unbeknownst to anybody, as the saying goes, I went down our gay and charming Canal Street, across that wonderful levee cutting out to the river like a long yellow lip, with all its multitudinous detail of busy life, and made my way on board the big Bayou Sara packet, Jesse K. Bell.

            It was a royal afternoon, with a freshness and crispness and zest in the October sunshine that made any sort of moving around pleasant.  There is no hint of melancholy in our autumnal days;  no falling leaf, but rather for us a re-beginning of things and a renewal of good life.  Men moved smartly about the levee and mules trotted briskly, and the noises were full of enterprise and thrift and energy.  Human nature at its task of bread getting sings with a hearty, wholesome voice  a sort of sonorous glad bray that is cheering and musical to the ear of the heart.

            I wonder would such thoughts have come to me if it had not been for the weather, for I was bound for a visit to that most wretched, miserable and altogether horrifying prison house that stands on God’s green earth—an insane asylum.  I know persons who are professional funeral followers, and who, so to speak, roll the corpse and the grief of the family under their tongues and who can tell you to a nicety the width of the crepe and how much the mourners took on.  Ophelia mad—like “sweet bells jangled, out of tune, and harsh”—is as far removed from madhouse madness as it exists in the state asylum at Jackson, as a professional funeral follower’s curiosity as far from the deep-eyed sympathy of a friend.  I have had many ugly days in the way of newspaper work, but I do believe that blackest on the calendar are those days when I have been sent here or there to write of madhouses.

            It is true that the trip up the river on that beautiful and luxurious boat with so genial a guide as Captain Joubert, was a very good preparation for a bad day’s work, on the principle that makes a wise mother give a lump of sugar to a child before asking it to do disagreeable things.  The Bell fairly crocheted her way up river, putting off and taking on dabs of freight here, there and everywhere, and finally did not reach Bayou Sara before three o’clock of Wednesday morning.  I sat in a dismal hotel on the river bank until sun-up, after a bad breakfast made the worst by a bargain with a man to drive me over to Jackson, which is an old, old little village twelve miles inland, in East Feliciana parish.  

            “I’ve been driven 500 miles in a buggy this summer,” said I to the man, “and never yet did I have to pay four big dollars for going twelve little miles.”

            “Well, mi-god!  Maybe that is so, but you never did see them Feliciana roads yet,”  answered Mister Man.  This speech sent my heart down to my toes.  It seemed after all there was something in the way of roads worse than those of Iberia parish and that Feliciana had got ‘em.

            This is a hill country sure enough.  We were not free of the town before our stout little cob began climbing steep, high hills.  We got away from Bayou Sara and drove through St. Francisville, a mile distant, and apparently one of those pretty, rambling, inconsequential little country towns that sprawl all over everywhere like a bed of wild clover.  In Europe, villages huddle  up in heaps of houses, clinging to the skirts of the village church.  In America, they spread out, cover enough ground for a Cologne or a Manchester, and even in some cases, like St. Francisville, a few of the houses seem to have taken to the woods.

            It was six o’clock in the morning when we started, and so cold that I bundled up in the dust robe. Cotton wagons loaded were going into town one after the other.  Cotton pickers were at work in the fields.  Where the fields had been picked over two or three times the remaining bolls looked like huge white roses.  The hills were high and of beautiful shape, and here and there would be piled half a wagon load of cotton—looking like a snow drift left on a field in early spring.   The ground was yellow, in some places as red as bricks, and the soil appeared thin where it showed on the hills.

            It was most restful to the eye, those splendid hills white with cotton or yellow with hay, and dotted here and there with solid-looking farmhouses, but it looked no more like the Teche country than a Connaught giant looks like a Kerry farmer.  As for the roads, they were excellent.

            Over the hills and down into the dales, across a stream of white, cold water, through a stretch of pine forest, and before the sun was high enough to warm us, we rattled along the quiet streets of Jackson and my driver deposited me at the hospitable door of the Mattingly House.

            In all the state it is hardly possible for just such another town as Jackson to be.  It lies on the hills, with the sweet-smelling pine forest fringing it all about, with an air of peaceful decay and departed grandeur that is indescribable.  It is to towns what “She” is to old maids, and its glory must have been at least a glory of no later date than before the war, some twenty or thirty years. There is a fine Methodist college there now that was a state pride early in the forties.  All over  the town are stately brick houses almost as big as our City Hall and with deep stone porches and huge columns quite as large as those in front of the City Hall.  One might easily fancy that if those huge doors should open, beribboned and be-powdered damsels in high-heeled, embroidered shoes, with silken kirtles and soft laces falling against the peach bloom of their innocent bosoms, should come tripping forth.

            Up on the top of a hill overlooking the town stands the Insane Asylum.  It looks like a courthouse, and in front there is a deep porch with huge yellow pillars as big around as redwood trees in California, or the marble columns in Canterbury Cathedral in England.  On the top of this majestic building is a little wooden cupola with a double-faced clock telling the hours.  On either side are big brick wings—three-story high houses—and most of the windows are protected by wooden bars. 

            Beyond these wings are other buildings, a sort of motley collection, most of them apparently scruffed together, mere patchings of timber and shingles.  A beautiful old garden, just being recovered from a picturesque but most untidy tangle of neglect and desolation and a rank profusion of weedy vines, trails away from the buildings, gently slipping down the hill until it is brought up sharp against a picket fence.  Beautiful trees are in the yards and the place, really imposing and elegant from the distance, might be taken for some fine college.  It has nothing in common with the look common to such asylums—no high unscalable fences, no iron-barred windows, no keepers prowling around like stealthy watch dogs.

            Barring a trifling dispute with a big snake that had the right of way over the hill and kept it, and an ignoble rout at the horns of ill-bred cattle, I reached the asylum gates safely, rang the bell and was admitted.  Upon close inspection the fine old building proved to be more nearly than anything else a fine old ruin;  shaking floors, peeling walls, big holes gaping in the roof, heavy cornices about to fall, mortar and plaster gone in many places from the ceilings.  Ruin is very picturesque at times, and ivy is most artistic, but it is to the eternal shame of any state that leaves its insane people huddled like rats in a prison that the teeth of time has gnawed into the merest shell.

             A state that repudiates its debts is in a bad way, goodness knows, but it would be difficult to say which were the deeper disgrace, repudiation of a money debt or hard-hearted neglect of men, women and children from whom God has taken brains, homes, friends, food, clothing, feeling—all the sum of sweet life.

            Within the past few weeks the asylum has been put under a new management and is now officered as follows:  Superintendent, Dr. L. G. Perkins;  physician, Dr. A. Gayden;  clerk Mr. M. T. Carpenter;  matron, Mrs. L. G. Perkins;  “supervisoress,” Mrs. M. E. Lowry.  There is also an electrician, a druggist, an engineer, a supervisor, yardmaster and attendants.   The salary of the superintendent is $2,400 a year, the physician $1,200, clerk $500.  The matron’s’ salary is $25 a month, that of the supervisoress $20 a month, and the average wages of attendants is only $15 a month.

            Dr. Perkins is a native and lifelong resident of East Feliciana parish.  He is a tolerably wealthy man, a physician of high standing in the parish and has heretofore never had anything to do with asylums.  His physician at the asylum, Dr. Gayden, is also his son-in-law and a resident and well-known practicing physician of the parish. Both of these gentlemen have the entire confidence and respect of the community.  The financial affairs of the institution are managed by a finance committee;  the treasurer is Dr. Holcombe of Jackson.  Supplies are received on requisitions made by the superintendent, who bases his demands on an estimate of $175 per annum for each person.

            I asked the superintendent about money matters, and got rather vague replies.  “The legislature,” said he, “has appropriated $90,000 in warrants.  Whatever is realized from those warrants will be what we shall get to run the asylum, I suppose.  The asylum farm numbers at 750 acres of the poorest land you ever saw.  It is hill land broken up by innumerable gullies.  We can get our vegetables off of it and our wood, and that is all.”

            There are at present, or were on the day of my visit, 456 patients in the asylum, the sexes being evenly divided.  Of these, sixteen are pay patients, paying from ten to thirty dollars a month each.  There are five or six little idiot or “foolish” children in the asylum who live, eat, sleep, and are confined in along with men and women who  are raving lunatics. For better protection and comfort these little children, ranging in ages from seven to ten years, are kept housed in the hospital wards.  These children are victims.  They are not properly inmates of such an institution at all, and being there is a crying shame that they must be confined in the same rooms with persons who are afflicted with all the chronic and acute forms of mania.

            Save in the items of sex and color there is no subdivision or classification of patients in the asylum.  All—simple idiots, “silly” ones and epileptics, are dumped in together. It is not easy to see how any cure can be truly effected.  The demoralizing mental influence of one lunatic over another must be disastrous and evil in an asylum where the majority of the patients sleep, not in cells or single rooms, but in long dormitories with five or ten or more beds in a room.   If one girl can give hysteria to a whole seminary, why may not one howling bedlamite demoralize a whole madhouse!

            The method of incarcerating people in the insane asylum is apparently of the easiest.  All that appears to be necessary is an order from some court.  To this may or may not be appended the certificate of an examining physician.  The average formula presented to the asylum for the admission of patients is exceedingly simple.  In the usual technical phrases, the judge declares that one so-and-so, giving the name or nickname by which the person has been known,  is to be held in the asylum.  The judge then goes on to say:

            “I am of the opinion that he is a person of unsound mind, though there is some question as to when his present condition of mental trouble began.  His mother testifies that he has been unsound from infancy.  The difficulty presents itself whether he is what is known as a lunatic or insane person under the letter section of 968 of Revised Statues, or what is known as an idiot, but from evidence that appears to me sufficient proof  I am justified in giving him the benefits of the institution for the insane.”

            If this is within the law, it is a terribly lax and wicked law that works directly in the interest of criminals who desire to get rid of persons without doing actual murder.  There are, by the way, many persons in the asylum who rightly belong in an inebriate’s home.  Not long since, a white man was received in a dying condition from Calcasieu.  The physicians say the man must have been in a dying condition when shipped off to the asylum.  He only lived a few hours after reaching there, dying of a fever.

            According to law of recent enactment, every inmate of the asylum has the right to select and name one person with whom he may correspond without submitting his letters to the asylum authorities.  A big mail box, provided according to law, stands in the hall, and into this patients put their letters, sealed, stamped and directed.  It is very generally used.  But there are no mail carriers in Jackson and the law does not oblige the asylum authorities to forward these letters;  so there they lie, dusty, unanswered documents, of God knows what madness and misery.

            In the woman’s wards the attendants are all young ladies—that is, with one or two exceptions, girls still in their teens or barely out of them.   They are without exception a lovely, charming and courageous set of young women—refined, gentle and sympathetic, and manifestly ruling by something else than brute force.

             At a recent convention of insane asylum superintendents it was resolved that no attendant should have the care of more than ten persons.  Here there are young ladies who have a charge of thirty and thirty-five patients each!  When Dr. Perkins took charge, even the cells where the raving ones are confined was in charge of a young girl.  Fancy one girl as keeper to fifteen or twenty mad beasts—having to cleanse them, wash them, feed them, dress them perforce, and do all offices for them, and that at a salary of fifteen dollars a month.  This is coming perilously close to repudiation of an honest debt, I think.

            Not long since, Miss Taggart, a young lady in charge of the cells, happened to pass close to the open door of one.  A tremendous woman was in it chained to the floor by a chain around her bare ankle.  Stealthy as a panther the hand reached out and clutched the girl’s dress and the madwoman, screaming with joy, drew her in as a devil fish sucks in its victim.

            One of the young lady keepers standing on an upper gallery saw the white dress on the floor, guessed what had happened and gave the alarm, not a moment too soon to save Miss Taggert’s life.  The cells are now in charge of a man and his wife.  In these cells are one or two women who are so violent that like bloodhounds they must be kept almost entirely on the chain.  Another form of restraint is to half pin the arms to the sides, or to lock the inmate up in a big wooden chair.  Straight jackets are used particularly for those who are mischievous and tear their clothing.

            I have in my day visited many insane asylums.  Our state institution is the cleanest I have ever been in.  It is also the bleakest, the barest, and offers the least possible chance of recovery to its inmates;  that is, if recovery is to be assisted by comforts, delicacies and amusements.  There is a hand organ, and sometimes on rainy days the women go into a huge, unfurnished amusement hall—as big almost as Grunewald Hall—and grind out a tune or two.  That is all.  There are no books, no pictures, no cards, no musical instruments, no games, no nothing.  It is not safe to give mad folk furniture, and this is  given as the reason why the dormitories are absolutely bare of even chairs.

            I should say for the two hundred odd women in the asylum, save in the dining-room, there are not ten chairs.  Those patients who might be benefited by comfortable and pretty surroundings must squat around on the floor, sit on their beds, or walk about along with the most terrible cases in the asylum.  The bedding in all the wards is good and comfortable, but there are no mosquito bars, and during the winter, with the exception of one or two wood fireplaces in the immense halls, these miserable wretches live in the cold.

            There are no apartments set aside for pay patients nor special attendants for them.  I am told that pay patients have better food than state patients, that is, more variety, but they eat at the same time and in the same room with the others, sleep with them and share all the discomforts of no fires, no mosquito bars and no amusements. 

            There are no water closets in the building, but in the center of each wing there is a little room with a hole in the ground and a bit of sewer pipe.  Into this, excreta is thrown and the stench arising therefrom is enough to soon wipe the asylum’s population off the face of the earth.

            Strange to say, however, with the exception of one young attendant, ill with typhoid fever, the inmates are remarkably healthy.  If a fire should break out in the building, the only means of putting it out is a bucket of water.  There is not even one Babcock extinguisher, nor a yard of hose on the place.  Water, however, is brought into the building from a fine well.     The electrical and pumping machinery, etc. are first-class, but are housed under an old, wooden shed, that is almost rotted away.

            The laundry department is also in a wooden building, not much better than a tinderbox.  The kitchen departments are absolutely bare of cooking utensils, with the exception of a few boilers.  The huge baking pans for bread are mended up with scraps of tin and wood.  A look into the bake-oven showed it to be full of bread that was as good and light as could be made of an extremely poor grade of flour.  Breakfast is served at , dinner at twelve, and supper at six.

            It was a saddening spectacle to stand by the door of the woman’s dining-room and watch these poor specimens of forlornity file in.  They were dressed in cotton or gingham, in black cashmere, and one or two quite handsomely in silk and velvet.  Most of them had short hair, many were puffy of skin and eccentric and unlovely to look upon.

            One poor thing, dressed in deep black and a black bonnet and veil, carried in each hand a traveling bag, stuffed full of her miserable belongings.  She is always going somewhere.  Who knows?  Perhaps once she was a traveling correspondent for a newspaper.

            Another pitiful case was a young woman who came in chattering like a monkey.  With her busy hands she constantly twisted her head and jaws, setting herself in this and that position, as I have seen a ventriloquist do his dummies.  She keeps this up incessantly and when the attendant feeds her, her hands must forcibly be held down from her face.

            There stalked into the dining-room a short, stout, gray-haired woman, with large, coarse features. She was deadly white, of the peculiar pallor seen on the inmates of such an institution, and a terrible cancer was eating a hole in her nose.  Her cheap calico robe swept away from her.  She wore a wreath of laurel leaves bound on her brow, carried a long scepter of laurel in her hand, and looked like Norma.  A bundle of rags tied upon an old shawl dangled at her arm.

            Behind her, wearing a bridal veil of white cotton, with wild flowers and grasses and a pretty bloom of pimpernel pinned on her gown, walked a young woman.   She carried in her hand a tin can full of flowers and wild grasses.  She fancies herself a butterfly, and says she must always live among flowers.

            Many women become insane, it is said, from diseases peculiar to the sex, and Dr. Perkins has great hopes when he shall be provided with the proper appliances for treating them, of restoring them to good physical condition, and thereby to mental health as well.  “It shall be my care,” said the doctor, “to cure their bodies if I can.  A wholesome body is the best tenement for a wholesome mind.”

            There are no operating rooms in the asylum, no surgical instruments, no surgical chairs or tables and the lack of these things shows wanton neglect on the part of the state, for they are as necessary as good water, a perfect system of sewerage, good food and a comfortable temperature.

            A futile effort has been made to render the institution self-supporting.  This is, of course, out of the question.  The inmates, however, do much of the work—the sewing, wood-chopping, gardening, mattress-making, etc.  The care of the insane, as we perform our duty, is but poorly done.  It is a shame to huddle these unfortunates together the way they are;  to have a common sleeping-room for a vulgar, raving maniac and a gentle, refined, soft-voiced woman suffering from melancholia.  It is a shame to leave these unfortunates living in rooms almost unroofed to the storms, with the water and the winds visiting them and constantly menacing their health.

            It is a shame to kennel them in this big barn, clean and sunshiny as it is, to leave them without any of the softening and soothing effects of music, books or amusement of any sort. The attendants are good and kind and capable, the superintendent and staff of officers apparently do the best they can, but nonetheless it is true that the huge yellow building on a hill in Jackson in which the law provides we must house our insane pauper population is a blot on civilization and a disgrace to our state.

            The patients are not beaten nor outraged;  they have plenty of well-cooked, coarse food;  they are gently treated and are nursed and given medicine when ill;  they are kept properly clean and are allowed once a day to go into the garden with their attendants.  In other respects and beyond this I cannot see that they are any better off than when they were in the black hole of the Common Street Marine Hospital. 



What “She” is to old maids  What Field apparently means is that the past glory of Jackson is like that of an unmarried woman who is dismissed with the term “she” and not “Mrs.”  This casual reference is one of many she makes about society’s unfair treatment of women.

Methodist college  In 1845, Centenary College purchased the College of Louisiana and moved from Brandon Springs, Miss., to Jackson as Centenary College of Louisiana.  In 1908 the college was moved to its present location in Shreveport.

Grunewald Hall  A large auditorium located on Baronne Street in New Orleans.  It was destroyed by fired in 1892.

Babcock extinguisher  A chemical fire extinguisher invented by Boston chemist James Francis Babcock.  It was widely used in the nineteenth century.

Looked like Norma  In Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma (1831)  Norma is a Druid priestess who makes an entrance, in a forest scene, with a sickle in her hand, ready to cull the mistletoe, a Druid fertility ritual.

Common Street Marine Hospital  Field refers to the New Orleans City Insane Asylum which was located in the former Marine Hospital building on Common Street.  According to Joy J. Jackson, in New Orleans in the Gilded Age, LSU Press, 1969, p. 190, the building was a “dank, gloomy establishment with no yard space.  Consequently, mental patients could never be allowed outside for exercise or sunshine.”  The asylum had no women orderlies or regular doctor.