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The Medfield Insane Asylum was created in 1892 by an act of the Massachusetts State Legislature. At its height, the asylum held over 2,200 patients supervised and cared for by between 500-900 staff members. Built in the Greek Revival, Queen Anne, and Beaux Arts styles, the 58 buildings scattered on 900 acres of rolling green land a self-contained institution. The facility had it's own power generation, heat, water, and sewage systems. The patients raised their own livestock and produce.
Major institutions of the era were built in the Kirkbride style--patients and administration were housed in one large building. Intended to offer humane treatment for those in need, Kirkbride style buildings worked toward changing public perception of "lunatics" who were generally locked in prisons and alms houses. The newer hospitals were meant to treat the insane in a more natural environment away from the pollution and hectic life in the city. Medfield was to be a different kind of institution. When the doors of the asylum were opened in 1896 it was the first in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to be built on the cottage plan.
The cottage plan gained popularity during the end of the 19th century. The Kirkbride buildings were becoming overcrowded and dangerous places. The doctors of the time found that the Kirkbride buildings lacked proper facilities for patients who were noisy and violent. The cottage style, which continued to be popular through the 20th century, was move away from large institutions into more home-like environments.
The plan generally consisted of multiple paired buildings (segregated by sex and patient type) surrounding a central core of administration, recreation, worship, and treatment buildings. At Medfield, the "cottages" mimicked the home environment--sleeping quarters were on the second floor and sitting and work rooms were on the first floor.
Unfortunately, as suggested by the article to the left, life could still be a dangerous and violent place at the asylum.
A newspaper article describes the early set up of the asylum.
At first, the staff worked on the wards and lived with the patients, usually sleeping in the attics of the buildings were they worked. For a time inmate death rate averaged four per week... Farming took place on the hundereds of acres of land surrounding the campus. A farmhouse was built across Canal Street in 1901. It served as living quarters for the head farmer and his family as well as 14 farm hands and 30 patients... farming was stopped in the late 1960s... There were also between 6-10 emotionally distrubed children admitted to the facility; the youngest just 4-years old.I located annual reports for the first 23 years of the hospital's operation. I'm going to spend some time with the documents over the next few weeks and write a future blog post about them. For now here are a few highlights:
From the Trustee's Report
The doors opened to the Medfield Asylum in 1896. Due to overcrowding in other state asylums, the State Board of Lunacy and Charity transferred "about 600 patients of the chronic and incurable class... from the various hospitals for the insane" to the newly built asylum. The Superintendent, Dr. Edward French, made $2,500; Assistant Physican Dr. Charles A. Drew made $1,500; Assistant Physican Thomas Howell made $900; Steward John B. Chapin made $12,200; Engineer Arthur e. Read made $1,000, Bookkeeper Sue R. Haynes made $600; Treasurer Charles C. Blaney made $500; and Matron Mary R. Satterwaite made $450.From the Superintendent's Report
The world of cleaning, furnishing and otherwise preparing the different buildings was begun March 1, and was pushed forward as rapidly as possible. Twelve of the cottages for patients were ready to be put in order while six others designed for the filthy and more disturbed classes were in process of erection.Let's take a look at the occupations of the first 600 patients of the asylum:
Now let's take a look at the chief complaint of those six hundred people who were the first to call the Medfield Asylum home. Note the variety of complaints that would lead to life long commitment to an insane asylum such as epilepsy, influenza, masturbation, menopause, disappointment, and domestic affliction.
The last patients left Medfield State Hospital on April 3, 2003. Here is some of what is left behind.
Check out my next blog post, We Too Have Lived, to learn more about the Medfield Hospital Cemetery that is tucked away behind the old asylum property.