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“The Most Solitary of Afflictions and the Most Social of Maladies”: Britain’s Attitude Toward Madness and Its Effect on Bedlam Asylum

Historians have a unique task of explaining the past, rather than simply relaying facts and figures to the public. This is because history is more complicated than simply recounting facts. The context of events, places, and peoples of the past must be explained in order to understand them. Historians explain that context. Similarly, sociologists often explain the behavior of individuals and society, often in a more modern context, but not limited to the present. Therefore, in the case of mental health, it is difficult to keep sociology and history apart from each other.[1] Each is very important to explain the complex behaviors and attitudes society has had toward mental illnesses in the past. Michael MacDonald once said, “Madness is the most solitary afflictions to the people who experience it; but is the most social of maladies to those who observe its effects.”[2] For Great Britain, from the beginning of the 13th century, this holds very true.

“Madness” was a term most popular to describe mental illnesses in Europe prior to the 20th century. Madness could take many forms but there were two most common distinctions between different types of madness— the raving and furious versus the melancholy. Today we have many different types of mental illnesses that cover a variety of different symptoms and have plenty of different names, but in early Britain, nearly all afflictions could boil down to fitting within one of these categories. Today we might label these cases of madness as learning difficulties, epilepsy, brain tumors, personality disorders, and other common illnesses.[3] Unfortunately for those with these illnesses before the more modern era of medicine, treatment could be often found in asylums, which for the most part were places of great horror before 19th-century reforms began to take place.

Social attitudes and understandings of mental illness have evolved quite a bit in Britain since the 13th century, but there is once infamous asylum which for many years, remained untouched by the outside world’s opinions and advancements in technology. This asylum is most known by its nickname, Bedlam. Bedlam is one of many asylums that left some people to believe that madness was a fate “even more deplorable than death itself” in England.[4] Bedlam has a very unique history and experience from other European asylums throughout the ages. Bedlam remains distinct because of its seeming uncaringness toward popular social attitudes and movements for the majority of its operating years. Bedlam’s failure to change with the times, as well as its unusually cruel methods of “treatment” was what led to the notorious asylum’s downfall in the early 1800s.

Old Bedlam postcard
Colored wood engraving of Bethlem Hospital, more commonly known as “Bedlam”

Demons and Animals

To understand Bedlam’s failure to keep up with society it is crucial to first look at society itself during the operating years of Bedlam. In the 1200s the mentally ill were thought to be possessed by demons and usually religious organizations like parishes were charged with taking care of the ill.[5] The idea of the mentally ill being possessed was popular through the 16th century until the Age of Enlightenment came in the 17th. Luckily though, in medieval Britain, the mentally ill were often left alone unless they were a threat to others or causing a disturbance.[6] Often the treatment of those who were taken in by parishes was cruel and painful, the main idea being to “drive out” the demons, oftentimes using violence.[7]

At the turn of the 16th century, the number of those affected by madness rose in Britain along with the sudden rise in the poor. Poverty was becoming more rampant due to high rates of unemployment, inflated prices, and the enclosure of land that was once free to roam.[8] To be mad was to be idle in society. The mad were those “generally incapable of productive labor.”[9] Defining madness in such a way meant that everyone from the poor and old or to the misfits and crippled could fall under the umbrella term of madness. Despite the rising commonality the mad were depicted in horrifying manners, especially through art. They were shown biting, beasty looking, tense and contorted, often in shredded clothing or shamelessly naked. It is said that these depictions were inspired by medieval depictions of Hell and the Last Judgement.[10] Madmen became a symbol of the bestial possibilities of those people who lost the “governing principle of reason.”[11]

Due to these animal-like ideas of the mad, the idea of domestication as a form of treatment became popularized.[12] “Domestic” had two different meanings at the time. The first was the ideal of domesticity in a familial way. Though this was an idea at the time, this didn’t surface very often in early asylums as it did in ones later, past the 17th century. The second meaning was domestication in the way animals would be tamed. This was the most popular use of the domestication ideology in Britain asylums from the medieval period until the late 18th century.[13] With the increase in the mad and these frightening depictions of them, asylum culture began to formulate. Rather than being an option for those who were too dangerous or disturbances to the public more and more of the mentally ill were being placed into madhouses on the grounds of “maintaining social order.”[14] In Andrew Scull’s book Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective he brilliantly sums up this growing attitude by saying it was an attempt to “conceal the ultimate affront to bourgeois sensibilities.”[15] 17th through 18th-century asylums began to advertise themselves as places to confine the mad and morally disreputable, rather than a place to treat and assist them.[16] Asylums became Britain’s place to hide away those they would rather forget about.

When Madness Becomes Trendy

Despite hiding away those that society did not accept into their “sensible” ranks, society did not forget about those who they’d locked away. In fact, madness actually became quite a popular subject in the upper classes. Sensible society became voyeurs of the mad.[17] Constantly madness was depicted in media all around. From art to literature the fascination was rampant. Plays featuring scenes in Bedlam, or other unnamed asylums were their most popular in the 17th century.[18] William Hogarth, a renowned artist, sold expensive paintings to wealthy aristocrats of Europe while selling slightly cheaper mass-produced engravings of them to the less wealthy. Many of his works included scenes depicting the moralless, sinful, and the mad.[19] 1771’s popular novel The Man of Feeling, by Henry Mackenzie, had a scene in which the main character visited Bedlam to be entertained by the patients of the institution, a practice that was not wholly uncommon at other asylums around the time.[20]

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“The Rake’s Progress: Scene in Bedlam” by William Hogarth

Despite all of this, madness did not reach its peak in popularity until King George III’s case of insanity became public in the late 18th century.[21] King George III’s ailment was thought to possibly be caused by porphyria, though it is still officially unknown if this is the case. George III was locked away and subjected to humiliating and painful treatments, considered to be a “violent patient” during his bouts of madness.[22] The notorious physician of Bedlam at the time, Dr. Monroe, was even consulted and gave his opinion that King George III was helplessly insane and would never recover.[23] After his “treatments” which ranged from being intimidated and beaten to being starved and forced into a straightjacket, King George III’s madness went away, even if only for a short while.[24] Suddenly all of Britain had reason to celebrate. Their king was once again well. The fact that George III recovered also led to an interesting change in attitude toward the treatment and institutionalization of the mad. If George III was able to be “cured” of his madness, others might be able to be cured as well. If this was the case, many people began to realize, the way those were locked away were being treated, or rather the way they weren’t really being treated, had to change.[25]

 

Cue Moral Reform and Science

1024px-George_III_in_Coronation_edit
Portrait of King George III by Allan Ramsay

Institutional psychiatry was forced to broaden and diversify with the new calls for moral reform.[26] The reform, although partially spurred by George III’s own experience, was also part of a much larger concern at the time. People were becoming more and more involved in natural and human rights and other reform movements popping up because of this interest.[27] Britain was coming to the realization that although intimidation and coercion often modified the different symptoms of insanity, they did not produce any lasting or positive results, instead often making the patient’s condition even worse than before.[28] These attempts to tame and domesticate madness were increasingly seen as misguided. Interestingly enough the religious institutions that had believed the mentally ill to be possessed by demons were now becoming a more popular place to go for those who were seeking help with their mental state. Because of the horrid nature of institutions of the time, people were returning to religious-based psychiatry.[29]

During the late 1800s, there were significant discoveries about mental health made which changed much of the way we view mental health nowadays.[30] Both crises like war and revolution increase those who suffer from mental health problems due to the very brutal nature of the events.[31] Because of increases like this, it is easier to understand why the social pressure to reform asylums became so great in the late 17th and 18th centuries.[32] Scientists were beginning to realize that the body functioned much like a machine and that different parts of the body functioned like different parts of a machine, for instance, the function of the brain as the place where thoughts were created.[33] What today may be considered common knowledge were new discoveries then and it was discoveries like this that mad explaining madness and treating it advance so quickly, helping to reform asylums.[34]

The most significant of asylum reform came in the 1800s, but reform began earlier in a number of institutions.[35] Forward and modern thinkers were cropping up everywhere, bettering the lives of the mentally ill one step at a time. One of such thinkers was a doctor by the name of Thomas Bakewell. Bakewell believed that by treating the mad as if they were not afflicted by madness in any way that they would usually behave as if nothing was the matter with them.[36] Another important figure in asylum reform was John Connolly. John Connolly was originally one of the strongest critics of the asylum system and its effects on the mentally ill, but later on, Connolly adopted a more moderate stance on them, more interested in reform than abolishing the system altogether.[37] Connolly’s most notable criticism of asylums was the fact that they often paid little attention to the needs of the individual, often lumping many with many different symptoms together despite the fact that he believed it would do more harm than good to those not as mad as others. He also was opposed to the increasing amount of greed and profit-seeking within asylums, advocating instead that asylums should be a place for aspiring physicians to learn how to identify and treat illnesses for the betterment of medicine.[38]

John Connolly’s most important reforms made to the asylum did not come in the form of either of these concerns, however. After securing a position as a resident physician at Hanwell Lunatic Asylum in Middlesex, Connolly began to practice many of the methods he preached, including non-restraint treatment. Connolly believed that restraint was seldom determined based on the individual patient’s needs and often excessive and harmful. Originally Connolly’s definition of restraint was very broad, meaning the mads’ confinement within institutions, but by the time Connolly began working for Hanwell Lunatic Asylum his definition had narrowed, now focusing on the excessive use of straitjackets, chains, and other similar devices.[39] Initially, much of what Connolly advocated for was largely ignored by other physicians at the time, but after he began to demonstrate great success with the system at Hanwell in the mid-1800s this idea became more and more popularized. So popular, in fact, that it caught the attention of Robert Gardiner Hill, the house surgeon at Lincoln Asylum. Hill claimed that Connolly got the idea of his non-restraint system from a visit to Lincoln Asylum two years prior to earning his position at Hanwell.[40]

The York Retreat was another successful attempt at asylum reform. The institution was set up by former Quaker William Tuke, who believed in a more nurturing and calm environment for those afflicted with madness. The York Retreat was described as brighter and airy with about 30 patients at any given time. The retreat’s different approach to the asylum environment proved quite successful with 40% being “restored to good health.”[41] In 1845 the Lunatic Asylums Act made public provisions compulsory for lunatic asylums. Though many communities delayed building or funding their own asylums it was a step in the right direction for making asylums less profit-oriented.[42] Progress was finally being achieved.

L0012306 The Retreat, York
York Retreat

Bedlam’s Early Days

Throughout the years Bedlam was the exception, not the standard, in British lunatic asylum reform.[43] Though we now know Bedlam as England’s most infamous madhouse, its evolution toward becoming such was quite gradual.[44] Bedlam didn’t begin to specialize in treatment of the mad until the 14th century and wasn’t the large institution we think of today until the 18th and 19th centuries.[45] Bedlam, originally founded in 1247, was actually a proto-hospital ran by the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem. The guiding star of Bethlehem served as its emblem. It wasn’t until later that the shortened nickname “Bethlem” was popularized, and eventually “Bedlam”.[46] Monks were charged with taking care of the city’s rich, poor, and homeless for a variety of different ailments, not all of which were mental illnesses.[47]

In the early 1300s, Bedlam began to build up a reputation for housing the mad despite only having about six patients, most of which were those without friends or relations to take care of them or those who posed some sort of threat to society.[48] It was during this period that Bedlam made its slow ascent into becoming more of a prison than a hospital. The more patients Bedlam got the more they were crowded together in the small building, usually left without beds or furniture because the straw mattresses would rot far quicker than they replaced them.[49] The typical patient was a pauper, sent by their parish to be detained in Bedlam, but some patients were members of the aristocracy and supported by their families. Unfortunately, this monetary support that was meant to go toward food, clothing, and other provisions was often abused. The food that was meant to be given to patients was sold and the clothes were stolen.[50] Patients were usually beaten and chained to the walls, some even developing gangrene where the restraints would rub against their skin. Everywhere abuse and disease was rampant in Bedlam, lice, fleas, ticks, and starvation just a few other common conditions those locked away would have to deal with.[51]

The “New” Bedlam

In 1666 a fire known as the Great Fire of London struck and destroyed much of the city proper. Bedlam, which lay just outside of the city’s walls saw an opportunity in this destruction and decided to build a new location, solving the issue of their crowded, decaying, and outdated facility. In 1676 the new Bedlam was finished, now closer, but still just outside the walls of London. Robert Hooke built the grand and rather imposing looking building, which by the late 17th century was home to over 100 patients.[52] In 1728 the building was added onto once again to create more accommodations for chronic patients.[53]

N8000057-Leech_use,_historical_artwork-SPL
Woodcut of a woman using leeches from Historia Medica by W. van den Bossche

Bedlam’s original methods of treatment relied on a medical theory called the four humors. This theory, which dates to ancient Greece, was the commonly accepted medical knowledge well into the 18th century. It was based on the assumption that the human body had four fluids called “humors” that needed to constantly remain in balance with one another. The four fluids were known as black bile, yellow bile, white bile, and red bile. These humors needed to be drained if you had too much of one or the other. In the case of patients who suffered melancholic madness, it was assumed they had too much black bile in their body. For those who suffered from rage and aggression, it was too much red bile.[54] Both biles were drained using bleeding. Those who were lucky were bled using leeches. A single leech can drain nearly 60ml of blood in just a half hour. Sadly, for those at Bedlam leeches were often a luxury they didn’t have. Leeches were more expensive than knives, so special knives were used to bleed the patients. This meant a significant amount more risk because with knives the amount of bleeding was much more difficult to control.[55] Blistering was another method for when a doctor needed to draw out yellow bile. This method was done by applying caustic substances to the skin so that it would create an infection that they could drain the bile from. Laxatives were also seen as a cleansing agent, but left patients exhausted and humiliated, the strength of the medicines often causing violent vomiting and diarrhea.[56] Nicholas Robinson, a physician at Bedlam, once said that they used the “most violent Vomits, the strongest purging Medicines, and large Bleeding… often repeated.”[57]

 

As the years went on at Bedlam more “modern” treatments were employed. These treatments, along with some of the four humors treatments, were used to keep patients docile and well behaved. Treatments could be withheld for good behavior or doubled down on for bad behavior.[58] These treatments included intimidating patients and using menacing language to frighten them into submission, cold baths, spinning chairs, straitjackets, and devices like the one invented by Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave that was essentially a coffin with holes drilled into it meant to plunge an unsuspecting victim into cold water and nearly drown them, pulling them up right before they needed more air.[59] In some ways the straightjacket was one of the most pleasant forms of restraint at Bedlam, making the patient less susceptible to the injuries that metal restraints caused and preventing the necessity of corporal punishment.[60] Patients at Bedlam were still frequently bound and chained to the walls, beaten and whipped to keep them in check.[61] Luckily those who were from the aristocracy could expect slightly better treatment, as it was widely accepted that they responded better to “flattery” and “gentle physick” than harsher treatments.[62]

1024px-Siemens_konvulsator_III_(ECT_machine)
Electroshock machine circa 1960

Somehow, despite the Enlightenment and advances in science and medical technology much of Bedlam remained rooted in the past. The concept of “incurable care” never fully went away within the institution.[63] The only modernization that seemed to be coming to Bedlam’s medical treatments was thanks to William Lawrence, a surgeon at Bedlam in the 1800s. Lawrence believed that the mind was a function of the brain and that the physical treatment of the organ was the way to treat mental ailments.[64] Some bones excavated from the cemetery that was built beside Bedlam suggest cranial autopsies that were performed post-mortem showing the effort of understanding the brain by some at Bedlam.[65] Electroshock therapy was eventually introduced into Bedlam and patients were often connected to wires or meant to touch a brass cylinder that when cranked fast enough would induce shocks of varying intensity.[66]

Bedlam, Profit, and the Press

In 1751 Bedlam got its first dose of competition when St. Luke’s Hospital opened its doors, and unfortunately for them only more followed.[67] The Monroes, the notorious family in charge of Bedlam at the time, were known for monopolizing madness for their own profit. James Monroe was responsible for many scandals at the time that he oversaw Bedlam. One of the most famous cases of his abuse was when he ordered the detainment of a man by the name of Alexander Crutton. Monroe committed Crutton on the instruction of one of Crutton’s romantic rivals and detained and medicated him within Bedlam for over a week. Crutton alleged that Monroe even wrote the prescription for his medication six days before he was knapped off the streets and that Monroe wouldn’t release him despite his claims that he was perfectly sane.[68] This type of sensational drama was common at Bedlam during the Monroe family’s rule and the British tabloids ate it up and had a field day with it. Bedlam was so interested in profit that it offered (for a mere penny!) the opportunity to tour and view the facility and patients like a sort of human zoo, or cabinet of curiosities. Sometimes people were even upset when patients didn’t act “mad enough” and roar and bellow like animals.[69]

The “good” press didn’t last very long for Bedlam. The 19th century began the peak of Bedlam’s bad notoriety. Asylum reform was already a sympathetic movement by the time the cases of James Morris and James Tilly Matthews were published, and half of London had already toured the horrors of Bedlam first-hand. James Tilly Matthews was a patient with delusions of a group called the “Heirloom Gang” which he claimed built an elaborate contraption in the House of Commons that sent messages through the air and controlled the minds of government officials. Today we would classify what Matthews suffered from as paranoid delusions but agree that he likely posed no threat to himself or others. Matthews was noted to be well educated and able to create compelling arguments and persuasive and detailed drawings of and about said contraption. When his story was published, people were compelled and intrigued by the intelligent madman.[70]

L0001481 James Tilly Matthews'. Assassins Air-loom machine.
Drawing of the Airloom machine by Matthews

 

Edward Wakefield, a man who had gone undercover into Bedlam as a physician, was the man who discovered James Morris. Morris was an American sailor who had been chained up for the past ten years. Wakefield claimed the man was perfectly sane, but a little haggard looking after such terrible treatment and published a story accompanied by a depiction of him in the press. This led to much outrage, as no good explanation could be given as to why this innocent man had been detained in the madhouse for the past ten years.[71] Richard Dadd, although dangerous, was another case that intrigued the public. Dadd had cut off his father’s head and was detained in Bedlam temporarily. While there he was allowed to continue his work as an artist and created several truly haunting but beautiful paintings. When these paintings were seen by the public they were amazed to think a madman had such creative genius and seemed so human, somehow. Other patients’ depictions of their confinement were occasionally published and proved to have the power to move the public.[72]

It was not until 1815 that a parliamentary investigation of Bedlam was finally ordered and set up. This investigation led to the downfall of the Monroes and their corruption within Bedlam as well as a relocation of the institution itself. The relocation marked the end of hundreds of years of terror and abuse as well as the dawning of a new and better quality of mental health care. Bedlam’s fall, although long overdue was able to occur thanks to the changing attitudes of the British public toward mental health. Although such attitudes started off quite bleak around the 12th century, by the 19th century Bedlam was finally able to fall, and asylum reform was accomplished across the country with advancements in technology and social reform movements.

SOURCES

  • [1] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 3-4.
  • [2] Ibid. 8.
  • [3] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [4] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 58.
  • [5] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [6] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 139.
  • [7] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [8] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 161.
  • [9] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 122.
  • [10] Ibid. 113.
  • [11] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 59.
  • [12] Ibid. 16.
  • [13] Ibid. 55-57.
  • [14] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 171.
  • [15] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 15.
  • [16] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 122.
  • [17] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 158.
  • [18] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 106.
  • [19] Ibid. 129-130.
  • [20] Ibid. 144.
  • [21] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [22] Ibid.
  • [23] Ibid.
  • [24] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 154-155.
  • [25] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [26] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 27.
  • [27] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 275.
  • [28] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 74.
  • [29] Ibid. 27.
  • [30] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 244.
  • [31] Ibid. 178.
  • [32] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 27.
  • [33] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [34] Ibid.
  • [35] George Rosen, Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 276.
  • [36] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 75.
  • [37] Ibid. 163.
  • [38] Ibid. 173-176.
  • [39] Ibid. 164-172.
  • [40] Ibid. 191-194.
  • [41] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [42] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 197.
  • [43] Ibid. 213.
  • [44] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 84.
  • [45] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [46] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 84-86.
  • [47] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [48] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 121.
  • [49] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [50] Ibid.
  • [51] Ibid.
  • [52] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 85.
  • [53] Ibid. 136.
  • [54] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [55] Ibid.
  • [56] Ibid.
  • [57] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 172.
  • [58] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [59] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 68.
  • [60] Ibid. 69.
  • [61] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 154.
  • [62] Ibid. 172.
  • [63] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 185.
  • [64] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 211.
  • [65] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [66] Ibid.
  • [67] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 136.
  • [68] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [69] Andrew Scull, Social Order/Mental Disorder: Anglo-American Psychiatry in a Historical Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 60.
  • [70] Bedlam: The History of Bethlem Hospital, directed by Joe Matthews (Top Documentary Films Video, 2010)
  • [71] Ibid.
  • [72] Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 233-234.
Categories
Paranormal Points of Racine County Racine History

Paranormal Points of Racine County Volume II: The Orphanage

“Orphanage”. The word brings to mind images of miserable unwanted children and rampant abuse. In Racine however, those that know of the Taylor Home Orphanage think of hundreds of happy children and the dedicated charitable hearts of its founding couple, the Taylors. The Taylor Home was a beloved place and many who lived there recall a past full of fun, laughs, simple comforts, and caring staff. Still, these happy times do not change the fact that many believe the site of the old orphanage is haunted by someone or something. I happened to have a unique opportunity of joining a paranormal team in their investigation of the former site of the orphanage and learned quite a bit about the alleged paranormal occurrences and experienced a few strange happenings myself during the night I spent there. It’s difficult to say for sure if the site is truly haunted, but today we’ll explore the history of the Taylor Home before we delve into the stories of the supernatural.

133.04 Taylor Home 100 dpi watermark
The Taylor Home building

History of the Home

The Taylor Home was founded by Issac and Emerline Taylor for the purpose of giving orphans the “chance to grow, be happy, and enter community life on sound footing.”[1] The idea for creating an orphanage came from Issac Taylor, who had been an orphan himself. As a child, he was often mistreated by many of his male caretakers and he made the decision that if he ever had the money that he would create his own orphanage to be a better place for children to grow up.[2] Issac died in November of 1865 of pneumonia, but his wife Emerline continued in his footsteps. Emerline too ended up passing away a year after Issac, but her will had created a future for the orphanage Issac had dreamed of.[3] After her death, 38 acres of farmland were bought to place the orphanage on, south of Racine’s city limits. Construction began in 1868 and was completed in 1872, the official opening took place on July 17th, 1872, Mrs. Taylor’s birthday.

 

The orphanage was self-sufficient, subsisting off of an endowment Mrs. Taylor had left when she died, as well as growing their own fruits and vegetables and raising livestock like cows, chickens, and pigs. Most of their homegrown and raised food was on the dinner table each night, but they also sold the excess of their labors back to the community.[7] Children were usually placed in the care of the orphanage due of the loss of one or more parent from disease, war, poverty, and—most commonly—tuberculosis.[8] The Taylor Home children enjoyed entertainment and events like ice cream socials, magic shows, fairs, concerts, and open houses, cementing its exceptional reputation with the Racine community. In the years that the Taylor Home served as an orphanage, over 1,000 children passed through its doors living the exact kind of life Issac Taylor had hoped they would.[9] The fate of the Taylor Home was unsure for a brief time in 1955 when the state of Wisconsin passed legislation that closed down orphanages in favor of foster care and social welfare, but the Taylor Home adapted.[10]

133.04 Taylor Home Children feeding pigs 300 dpi
Children of the Taylor Home feeding the pigs

The Taylor Home abandoned the orphanage model and moved their focus to becoming an institution that cared for the mentally disturbed and troubled youth—dubbed “psychological orphans” at the time. Kearns, who was in charge of the Taylor Home when it made the transition, believed that a child “needs to understand his own negative behavior rather than becoming resentful and trying to ‘get back at society’ for what he thinks life has done to him.”[11] It was this philosophy that the Taylor Home adopted in an effort to aid troubled children and help the return to a normal life. Five cottage-style buildings were built on the grounds, starting in the 60s, and these buildings gradually replaced the original building.[12] For a short time children that were part of the residential and day-care programs would dine in the old Taylor Home building,[13] but by 1973 all construction of the cottages was complete and the original building was razed, leaving only the cottages on the grounds.[14]

Notably, there were a few deaths at the orphanage. Three caretakers died there over the years, including Nellie Jane Wright, Medora Roskilly, and Nora Harnett. Nellie Jane Wright lived in the orphanage nearly her whole life, arriving there in 1873. Her records listed her as a “little lame girl” due to her limp and crutch.[15] The orphanage soon became Nellie’s favorite place to be and she enjoyed her time there so much she never left, staying there for 60 years. She continued to work at the orphanage even after she grew up by becoming a caretaker for the children. She befriended many of them and was beloved by nearly everyone.  Nellie stayed at the Taylor Home until 1933 when she died of a heart attack.[16] Dying in similar circumstances, Medora Roskilly, a supervisor of the Taylor Home, passed at the age of 62 of a heart attack in 1952. Fire and Rescue squads had been called to the Taylor Home, but she had already died before they arrived. She had been working there since 1946.[17]

The death of Nora Harnett in 1899 was the most bizarre, though she did not die on the orphanage grounds.  Nora worked at the orphanage as a domestic and was well-liked by her employers there.[18] Though it was unsuspected until after her death, Nora was thought to be possibly psychologically disturbed. It wasn’t until one April day when she was walking down Sixth Street that she swallowed two ounces of carbolic acid and took her own life. She left three letters, one to her mother, one to a man to deliver the letter to her mother, and one to her employer at the orphanage. What she wrote to her employer is unknown.[19]

133.04 Taylor Home Children in Snow 100 dpi watermark
Children of the Taylor Home playing in the snow

Tragedies aside, the Taylor Home holds a special place in the Racine community. The Taylor Home officially ended its programs in the early 2000s, but it was not forgotten. In 2015 while walking the grounds Wendy Spencer found a large marble slab lying face down around where the old orphanage building once stood. It turned out to be the plaque that once adorned the building before it’s demolition. With the help of the community, a monument was erected on the old Taylor Home site, the marble slab being the centerpiece of the memorial.[20] Currently, the Taylor Home site is privately owned and houses various institutions including the administration of the village of Elmwood Park. It is also what some believe to be a paranormal hot spot.

 

Haunts of the Home

This volume of Paranormal Points of Racine County is a special one. Reports of ghostly activity on the site have centered mostly within a school that occupied one of the newer cottages. To accommodate the growing student population the school planned to relocate to a larger building and preparations for the move began in June of 2018. With the impending move, staff at the school saw an opportunity to call in a team of investigators to explore some of the alleged paranormal activity they had experienced. I was personally invited to come along and participate in the investigation and serve as a consulting historian. Prior to the investigation I researched the location. the above report is a summary of my findings. On June 15, 2018 I arrived at the Taylor Home site and met some staff from the school and the Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee (PIM). Before the investigation began, we did a walkthrough of the building and were informed of the various paranormal incidents that have occurred throughout the building.

Staff sitting at the front desk in the lobby of the building have often heard the sounds of running footsteps in the hallway to the side of the desk, sometimes even accompanied by the sounds of giggling and the rustling of the papers hung on the walls, like someone is running by at top speed. The noises have also been heard on the walkie-talkies while only staff is present. Near the lobby a teacher was working inside during recess when she heard the voice of a child ask, “Can I go?” At first, she responded, assuming it was a child that had been left behind in the building, ready to go out for recess, but she realized moments later no one was there.

Many of the incidents have occurred in room 23, a classroom on the first floor of the building. One afternoon, around 1pm when classes had finished for the day, a teacher in room 23 felt as if there was a presence in the hall outside of her door. She got up and shut the door but after she sat back down she heard the paper decorations on the outside of her door rustling as if someone was running their fingers up and down them. She then saw a beam of yellowish light sweep beneath the door, similar to a flashlight beam, before it suddenly disappeared. Frightened, the teacher stayed in the room for several hours before she left. The same teacher reported that she and her students have heard knocks on the door while it was open. A student got up to answer the door, but no one was there. The same teacher also has had chairs fly off onto the ground after being carefully stacked on the tables at the end of the day. While the teacher is out sometimes other staff have reported hearing furniture moving around in the room but when they investigate it appears as if nothing has moved. In the hall outside of room 23 a black shapeless shadow has been seen darting around the hall on multiple occasions.

820 Taylor, Mrs Issac 150 dpi watermark
Emerline Taylor

Outside of the school, multiple teachers have spotted a woman through one of the front windows of the building’s first floor. The woman is wearing a blouse with a tall collar and ruffled front with her hair tied back into a neat and tight bun. The entity seems to be friendly, leading staff members to speculate that she may be the spirit of Mrs. Taylor, back to check on the children. One teacher’s young son, around 3 at the time of the incident, was sitting in the back of the car outside the building with a sibling. He began to make faces out the window towards the school and when asked about who he was making faces at he said he was playing with the little boy he saw in the window.

No haunted location would be complete without creepy basement stories, and the Taylor Home site has plenty. Once, a teacher was alone in one of the basement classrooms when she began to feel uneasy. The uneasiness turned into an uncontrollable sadness and she began to cry. The feelings stayed with her the entire time she was at the school, following her until she passed the stoplights on Durand and Taylor Avenues, when they abruptly stopped. , but one particular incident in the basement stood out. While teaching, one of the teachers felt something touch her back and jolted a little. One of her students noticed and asked, “Did it get ya?” For three weeks the teacher had back spasms around the area she had been touched.

The storage room in the basement is also host to a few strange incidents, including the lights frequently turning on and off, a general feeling of oppressiveness reported by those who have entered the room, and once a door slammed shut behind a staff member entering the room to gather supplies for a project. almost like water running through the plumbing despite the fact that no one is in the bathrooms. Early one morning a teacher was in room 222 to prep for class when she started to hear her door handle rattling from the inside of the open door. When she looked over it was not moving, but after a few minutes, she heard another doorknob rattling across the hall, outside of the room. When she looked up again a door that had been closed when she arrived was now wide open, before it suddenly slammed shut.

The Investigation

After listening to the staff and their stories, PIM began the investigation. There is nothing quite like being in an empty school building after dark. While I was there several minor incidents occurred, mostly small noises that were left unexplained. The investigation team went to great lengths to come up with plausible explanations for many of the incidents, but some were left unknown. During controlled silences, we heard the sound of a soft female voice whispering something and a chair shifting near room 23. In the basement, we heard many other shifting noises along with creaking and shuffling sounds—some which could be attributed to the building settling, while others seemed too distinct. One of the staff members that was there heard a series of three short breaths in front of her face while sitting in the basement classroom, but it was not recorded on any audio, as she was sitting a distance away from the members with recording devices.

It was nearing midnight when the strangest incident occurred. we were in the second basement classroom when we heard a very loud thud from upstairs that sounded similar to something heavy falling, or maybe a large textbook being dropped in the middle of the floor. A storm was starting to roll in but the rain and wind had not yet picked up and the sound was very unlike that of thunder. The team quickly made their way upstairs but the source of the noise was never determined. As the storm began to roll in, faint knocks could be heard from various parts of the building but definite sources could not be discerned, though the storm may have been the cause. The storm eventually became too loud to continue the investigation any further and we dispersed after the equipment was taken down. From that night I cannot say for sure that the Taylor Home site is haunted, but I can say the experience was unsettling and I heard many unexplained sounds that left me wondering.

Sources

  • [1] “Compassion built into Taylor Home by Racine Couple 100 Years Ago,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), November 24, 1968.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] File 1, Folder 1. Taylor Home Vertical File (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] “Compassion built into Taylor Home by Racine Couple 100 Years Ago,” Racine Journal Times
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] “Taylor Orphan Asylum,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), August 20, 2003.
  • [8] “Compassion built into Taylor Home by Racine Couple 100 Years Ago,” Racine Journal Times
  • [9] File 1, Folder 1. Taylor Home Vertical File (Racine Heritage Museum, Racine, WI)
  • [10] “Taylor Orphan Asylum,” Racine Journal Times
  • [11] “Taylor Home Adopts New Concept of Child Care,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), October 9, 1955.
  • [12] “Compassion built into Taylor Home by Racine Couple 100 Years Ago,” Racine Journal Times
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] “Taylor Memorial Monument dedicated,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), November 15, 2017.
  • [15] “Death Takes “Miss Nellie” From Racine Orphan’s Home Which She Entered as a Lame, Young Girl 60 Years Ago,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), March 29, 1933.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] “Medora Roskilly Dies Suddenly,” Racine Journal Times (Racine, WI), January 7, 1952.
  • [18] “The Suicide of Nora Harnett,” Racine Daily Journal (Racine, WI), April 29, 1899.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] “Taylor Memorial Monument dedicated,” Racine Journal Times