Henry is the secret of my mother's family. Everyone has one -- a family secret, something that hasn't been passed from one generation to the next because it may have been too scandalous, too embarrassing, too-something. A secret that stopped with one person who never passed it along. (I fear this post is terribly long -- too long for some of you! But so many asked about the asylum, I really couldn't break it up into two posts.)
My mother and her sisters never knew their grandfather. My own grandfather's refusal to discuss it led to speculation. Was he a drunkard? Did his wife leave him? Why did my grandfather say he was "raised" by his older sister? What was his father's name?
His name was Henry and he was a Mennonite farmer with six children, my grandfather being the second-to-last of them. He was born in Ohio, his father part of a line that came over in the 1700s and his mother a Canadian whose ancestor, Nicholaus Erb emigrated from Switzerland to Germany in the 1600s, then to America and finally Canada. Henry moved to Ionia County, Michigan where he had what appears to be a relatively prosperous farm on 100 acres. He died in Traverse City, Michigan at the Northern Michigan Asylum, after living there for thirteen years. When he was committed, he was considered a pauper.
No one knows what it was that sent Henry, over the edge, dealing with mental illness in 1900. Probate records including medical reports by two different doctors spoke of delusions, visions, voices, mania, belief in supernatural powers. He was interviewed in the county jail and had $2.50 to his name when my grandfather, his brother and sister had him committed.
We can only guess that the fortunes of his farm had suffered. We do know that sixteen years earlier his wife had died, some of his children had moved away from the farm and that six years prior, over a two-week period, both a married daughter and his youngest son died. Did grief send this 63-year-old Mennonite farmer who loved music into a despair that evolved into mental illness? Or was this some genetic issue? We still don't know.
And would this have happened today? Remember, in 1900, one could be admitted to the asylum for any number of reasons. These might include epilepsy, depression (post-partum and otherwise), alcoholism, mental retardation, even menopause. Little was required to start the process -- fill out a form, have the judge sign off. By 1900, two doctors had to sign off on Henry's case before the probate judge approved the petition.
It was Henry's story that made me want to see the place where he spent the last sixteen years of his life, the Northern Michigan Asylum. Now a condo/shopping/dining complex, the buildings have been, in part, restored, maintaining the original brick and many features of its early existence, which hark back to 1885. While the main building of the complex has been altered to suit today's diners and shoppers, some of the remaining outbuildings of the asylum remain unrestored, in partial ruin. (Below, the music room in one of the men's residence halls.)
- It is important to remember that what I write here about treatment at the asylum and mental health is as it was reflected during Henry's time -- 1900-1913. As time moved forward, treatments changed, wards became over crowded and perceptions of mental illness evolved. The Northern Michigan Asylum, later the Traverse City State Hospital, achieved a much dodgier, less compassionate reputation. I'm focusing on the earlier days for the majority of this post; some thoughts on the later years near the end.
The asylum was built on what was known as the Kirkbride Plan. Thomas Story Kirkbride was a psychiatrist who, while traveling in Europe, learned of how Quaker sanitariums were managed. They operated on a moral compass, with the belief that beauty and love were the best possible therapies for one dealing with diseases of the mind.
Kirkbride brought this concept back to the United States in the design of many sanitariums and asylums around the country. The Northern Michigan Asylum consisted of numerous buildings including one very long, segregated unit -- men on one side of the quarter mile building, women on the other and administration in the center. This Italianate-style of architecture featured elegant cupolas which provided a dual purpose in the ventilation system. The infirmary and chapel were also in this building.
The grounds included additional residence buildings homes for inmates as well as numerous farm buildings.
Each patient room had a 12-foot ceiling, a window with discreet security mesh "bars," and art was plentiful on the walls. (If you look carefully at the photo below you will notice a discreet steel or similar mesh on the bedroom window.)
Fixtures on the heating vents were made of intricately scrolled ironwork and chair rails along the halls were polished to a shine.
Even the floor of the showers featured a tiled mosaic (remember, this was before the days of laying mesh-backed tile) with a pattern. All this work was done by hand.
Armchairs and tables -- many made in the workshops of the asylum by the inmates themselves -- were comfortably placed in hallways. Inspiring quotes and sayings were stenciled on the walls.
Remember -- construction on the buildings of the asylum began in 1883 and was finished two years later, a massive project when one considers that the motorized equipment we associate with buildings such as this did not exist at that time. Yet it featured a central heating system and electric lights. The ventilation system was state-of-the-art for the period, designed to alleviate the recycling of air to prevent the spread of disease.
Beneath the property, an underground system of tunnels allowed staff to move from one area to the other without having to bundle up to go outdoors in the cold Michigan winters. (The tunnels remain one of the "high points" on the tour for some of the participants. They are musty, dim, dank, with spiders clustered on the overhead pipes and awkward, uneven floors.)
The residence buildings had a music room and large dining hall and kitchen. Residents ate off of white tablecloths and many would have contributed to some way to the meal, whether it was through gathering and tending to the produce or caring for the extensive dairy herd.
It's curious to imagine what Henry would have thought of this place upon arrival -- if he had the capacity to think much about it at all. He was a Mennonite farmer who lived a simple and perhaps somewhat austere life. He probably would have been accompanied to the asylum by train, arriving in Traverse City in March, long before spring had come to Northern Michigan. Unlike the day we visited in August, when Henry came through the drive pictured below, it would have been cold and no doubt snowy. More than likely he was transported to the asylum by carriage. The first automobile was driven in Traverse City in 1899 and while the asylum may have been an early adapter, that is unknown. Did any of his children accompany him on that journey? No one knows.
Upon arrival, Henry would have seen (if, indeed, he was aware) a long, elegant building of golden brick and many windows. After intake and exam he would have been assigned a room either in the main building or one of the residence halls, and eventually a job.
Everyone at the asylum was given a job, a way to contribute. This served a double purpose -- it not only helped the institution become self sustaining, it also provided a sense of personal value and self worth to the inmate. They may work in the gardens or woodworking shop or on the land.
I would like to think that Henry found a spot working on the rich northern Michigan farmland, perhaps in the orchards or with the livestock.
Superintendent James Munson believed strongly in Kirkbride's Beauty Is Therapy approach, which was at the time, a revolutionary concept. Remember, this was more than a half-century before psychiatric drugs were first used. Munson believed that the emotional well-being of a patient would be enhanced by a beautiful environment, inside and out. Gardens, orchards and farmland was visible from the windows in each patient's room.
No strait jackets or restraining devices were permitted except in extreme cases. Munson felt the patients were now "home" and the environment should reflect this. Henry would have joined his fellow inmates in the dining hall at a table with a white linen cloth and fine china that was marked with the state seal. His table -- and other areas in the buildings -- would have fresh flowers from the asylum's prolific greenhouse (which delivered blooms and produce in all seasons). Staff dined on an elevated platform (barely visible at the right in the photo below) so they could keep an eye on their patients.
The beauty is therapy approach was also the reason great care was taken to include art and music as part of the inmate's daily life. Inspirational sayings would be stenciled to the walls and the halls were lined with art. It is said that Henry was a wonderful singer and perhaps he found some joy in singing with the others.
It is easy for me to imagine that Henry was in a good place for the last years of his life. Photos of the asylum paint a pleasant picture and wouldn't we all like to spend our last days, if not at home, in a place where we were surrounded by beauty, felt a sense of personal worth and value and were well cared for?
These may be rose colored glasses and I freely admit it. We don't know how ill Henry really was or if he was a danger to himself or others. Did this beautiful environment of white tablecloths, art and fine china fly in the face of his more simple upbringing? Did his family visit him? Today it takes four hours by car to get to Traverse City from Lansing where my grandfather lived. In 1900 one would travel by train and even during Henry's lifetime when the auto came into somewhat more common use, the trip would take two or three days. The journey wouldn't have been an easy one.
I mentioned earlier that the asylum had its bad days, too. It evolved into the Traverse City State Hospital. Our guide tells us that as a school boy, he would visit as part of his classroom activities, spending time with the residents, much as school children today might visit a nursing home. But he also recalls people at the gates and the windows screaming to be let out.
And therapies changed. Electric shock therapy and insulin therapy (in which one is put into an insulin coma and removed from it before they die, returning docile -- until it needed to be repeated) were two of the more extreme therapies that evolved as the century progressed. Lobotomies became more common -- often with disastrous results.
Rooms became wards and wards became crowded -- not just here but at other such places as well. Eventually, many of these state hospitals or asylums were closed and their populations simply released into the streets where many became homeless or imprisoned.
Commenter Karen mentioned in my "birthday" post where I first spoke of the asylum that her grandmother's sister was admitted to this asylum when she was 14 years old and died there at 104 and said that "It was a horrible place." Author Steve Luxemberg, in his profoundly beautiful and moving memoir/investigative work "Annie's Ghosts," speaks of another Michigan institution called Eloise and of his family secret, an aunt named Annie, who spent many years there. It is likely that had Annie's story been one of today, she would have lived her life independently or in a group home.
There is much to be said, good and bad, about the evolution of mental health in the years since Henry was in Traverse City. On the good side, many medications can help those once "locked up" deal with depression and other even more significant mental illnesses. Psychiatry and counseling have lost the stigma they once had. For some, group homes or mental health financial assistance make relatively independent living possible.
On the down side, many can't afford to seek help or pay for their medications. Countless people who could be helped may well be living on the streets or in jails. Too many fall through the cracks and sometimes those who most need a patient advocate to work through the complexities of the system may not even know what a patient advocate is. Their worlds are crumbling in much the same way as the unrestored buildings of the asylum itself.
Chances are likely that if we look around us, we will know at least one -- and probably a good many more -- individuals who, during Henry's era, and even many years after -- could well have been an inmate at the Northern Michigan Asylum or some other mental health institution. Some now lead seemingly perfectly normal lives and yet their interior world may be a private hell. Others may have issues more obvious. And some have found the support and assistance they need, perhaps with well regulated medication combined with a solid human support system.
All are human beings who deserve to be heard, to be respected. We may not always understand. But we can try.
The archival photographs in this post are from the book "Angels in the Architecture: A Photogrpahic Elegy to an American Asylum" by Heidi Johnson. That, an other books on the asylum (later Traverse City State Hospital) are available at Amazon.
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