Saturday, June 30, 2012

Medfield Insane Asylum

Welcome. We've been expecting you.
In a recent blog post about the New Orleans City Asylum, a reader commented about an abandoned asylum here in Massachusetts. The asylum contains, among other things, a cemetery in which many of the patients who spent their lives in the care of this asylum were buried. I woke up before sunrise this morning and headed out to Medfield for a look. I needed to experience the place for myself.

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. 

15 comments:

  1. Jason, thank you for such a detailed and informative post on such a fascinating piece of our professional history! I have a personal interest in genealogy and am hopeful that eventually I'll find a family member of my own tucked into the historic documents of a psychiatric facility!

    Your blog is lovely and I don't get to it nearly often enough. I have nominated you for The Beautiful Blog Award here http://www.allthingsprivatepractice.com/ppio-just-nominated-for-the-beautiful-blogger-award/ . It seemed like a simple way to tip my hat to your lovely space while at the same time introducing my readers and others to your blog. Thank you for the effort you put into sharing your thoughts with the rest of us!

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    1. That is so kind of you, Tamara.

      I have had many helpful reference librarians help me with the start of my search for records about this particular asylum. A lot is currently hidden from public view. The state archives will not release records that relate to patients--even if the records are from the 1800s--because of modern day privacy laws. I'm exploring some ways that I might be able to get some of this information out of cold storage--and tell some of the stories of these people--in way that is respectful and maintains their privacy. We'll see what I can manage.

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    2. Ever have any luck getting records? What if you are their guardian?

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  2. I find this really interesting. I've been trying to research the Medfeild State Hospital for some time ever since I walked the grounds. Most of the stuff I found is about the failed plans for rennovations and the massive amounts of waste which may be traveling into the water supply of a couple town tanks. But I've been interested in asylums for many years and since this one is so close to my college and I can almost feel the ghosts of the people who once lived there, It would be realy nice to hear the stories behind the buildings. If you could help with that, you would be touching my life and the lives of my friends; making the stories real. We would pass them on, and keep thos people alive through their stories.

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    1. Thanks so much for the comments! I'm working on it. Perhaps you'd like to help me? E-mail me if you'd like to chat more about this!

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  3. Hi Jason
    I am doing my family genealogy, and just found out today that my great grandmother was a patient at Medfield for over 5 years until she died there in 1909. I am wondering if descendants with proven documentation might be allowed access to medical records. Could you share with me any information on who to contact?

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    1. Hi Anonymous. You might find your grandmother is buried at the cemetery attached to the former grounds of the asylum. The head stones used to just be numbers but thanks t an Eagle Scout, many of them now have names.

      The records that survive are at the Massachusetts State Archives. As a descendent, you may have access to your grandmothers records, if they exist. You may also still need to get a court order. If you contact me in an email we can talk more about some steps you can take.

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  4. Hello. I ran what we called a quarterway house on cottage street. Norfolk Human Services was the vendor. We had six residents from the state hospital who were provided services to integrate them back into society. Some wonderful people. Some successes, some back to the institution. I have long since left Massachusetts and am in my fourth decade as a psychologist. I lost track of all the residents who participated in the program. Again, all wonderful people who deserved the extensive resources that were provide to them. It was an attempt at community mental health that has long since been abandoned. The decaying buildings of Medfield State Hospital are a metaphor for the failure to provide adequate community services for our chronically mentally ill. If you want some history from that era (late 70's to early 80's) I would be happy to share them with you. Rich

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    1. Oh wow Rich -- it would be super interesting to talk!

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  5. Very interesting stuff! I worked there in the 80's and my mother worked there from early 70's to the day they locked the doors for good! Some very interesting stories to be told!

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  6. Jason, Can you please tell me how to get my Grand fathers records from Medfield State Hospital.
    He was taken there against his will,every time family would visit him ,he would tell them of the horrible treatment he received.He died there,I received his death certificate today and it stated he died from syphilis.this is not true,he was beaten to death. this is the doctor that signed the death certificate.
    1946 death ..Doctor Henry Benjamin

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    1. Hi anonymous, thanks for stopping by. Several comments up another person asked about receiving a relatives records. Those that exist are held by the state archives. You'd need a court order in order to get the records (if they exist) from the archives as they are protected by medical privacy laws.

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  7. Hi,

    Regarding mental health records: I recently called MA archives for info regarding a couple relatives in insane asylums.

    A court order is required to obtain records, even if they date to the early 1900s (as in my case). You have to become an executor of the deceased's estate through probate.

    The state suggested www.mhlac.org (Mass Mental Health Law) could provide assistance.

    Finally, the person I spoke with in Mass said getting the records isn't impossible, you just have to go through all the motions, file the paperwork, and wait while they are authenticated, copied, mailed, etc between various agencies.

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    1. I think you'll find it a little more difficult than that. The records have not been catalogued, so assuming you get permission from a court to have access to them, someone would have to locate the records your relative appears in and redact all other information. Becoming an executor through probate court can be an expensive and lengthy process. Best of luck, however, in researching your relative!

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  8. I was a patient at Medfield State Hosptial in 1969 in the Clark building 3EW and also in 1970. In 1971 I was a patient in building E1 on the hill. Any patients or staff that were there also?

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