I wish I hadn’t found the two old books Their stories upset me and took me to a dark place I really didn’t want to go.
“Civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces.”–Jean Jacques Rousseau
I have become a scavenger constantly looking through the shelves of old shops and flea markets for volumes about the history of my state and The North Country. My world has become smaller during the pandemic. My longest trips are now by car and very close to home. But even with these limitations there are moments of surprise and wonder. I have finally taken the time to notice old architecture and landmarks. I also have started digging into to secrets carefully hidden from general knowledge in the chapters of local history.
The two old books laid side by side, yellowed and beaten up on a table in an antique shop. They seemed to beg to be picked up and read, The Proceedings of The Board of Supervisors of Jefferson County, NY, one from 1905 and the other from 1910. They were from my county and as I looked through them they listed the industries of each township. I was thrilled to have this information and was willing to pay the price to own them.
The content was fascinating, everyday life written in a multitude of interesting details. But even in the formal reports a human story emerged and it presented itself with as much emotion as any novel. In each book there was the “Report of County Judge”, a list of over thirty people, each person examined by two doctors, deemed insane, and committed to The St. Lawrence State Hospital In Ogdensburg, NY. Most of the people on the list were sent away because “proofs showed (they) had no property”. This didn’t seem right. Deemed insane because of being poor? I needed to know more.
For me it’s never been enough to read about a place or an event. I need to go to the spots where things have happened, to see the surroundings and the context. I’m not afraid to go to old ruins and graveyards. It’s sightseeing in its rawest form. No roped off exhibits with explanations, no narrative signs, no gift shops, no t-shirts or refrigerator magnets to take home to remember the glorious day. The forgotten sites are what they are, the remaining evidence of other moments and other lives.. When I arrived at the asylum in Ogdensburg, New York it was abandoned, boarded up and fenced in.
Not ready to give up, I next went to New York State history room of my local l library where I found all the volumes of The Proceedings of The Jefferson County Board of Supervisors. Starting with 1911, I examined every volume up to 1964 and found that every year from 39 to 88 Jefferson County citizens were sent away to places for mental health rehabilitation, mostly because of lack of property. In 1965, the practice of listing the names and hometowns of the patients was stopped.
I was still puzzled by that fact that poverty had been the undisputed evidence of insanity and the justification for commitment. I read that poor people were looked down by most of society in the late 19th century. Some saw those without property and means as “moral degenerates, victims of subtle vices which undermined our national vitality” Instead of “systematic changes and rational long-term policies, ideological driven views and moral prejudices” influenced the way to dispose of the poor. It became the practice of the day, for a person, who wasn’t able to take care of themselves and had no family that could support them to be institutionalized.
Asylum care gained strength in the late 1800’s. Institutions were established all over New York State to take to take care of the unfortunate. There was a need for such a place in The North Country and a group of civic minded people rallied to find a solution. The building of The Ogdensburg State Asylum for The Insane was started in 1887 on St Lawrence River on 958 acres at Point Airy. It was designed on “The Cottage Plan” that provided detached buildings so patients could be grouped according to psychiatric disorder.
In 1889, Dr. Peter M. Wise became the superintendent and changed the name of his new charge to The St. Lawrence State Hospital. He believed in the theory of “moral treatment” which included rest, recreation, and occupational therapy (‘purposeful activity”). All sorts of craft making activities were provided including sewing, chair caning, weaving, and woodworking. The hospital garden tended by residents raised enough food and tobacco for all its occupants. Dr. Wise also started an onsite nurse training program.
As I went through the volumes of the Board of Supervisors reports I noted the evolution of health care in my county. In 1920, a TB center was established. In 1927 public health nurses were sent out into the rural areas for maternity and child care. Smallpox and scarlet fever were monitored. The Association for the Blind was formed. And placement of patients became more thoughtfully specialized. People were sent to the State School in Rome, US Veterans Hospital in Northport Long Island, The Marcy Hospital, The Craig colony for those with epilepsy., The Syracuse Psychiatric Hospital, or The Gowanda Homeopathic Hospital. Treatment evolved as mental health science advanced.
At The St. Lawrence State Hospital, voluntary admissions were started in 1908 and out patient treatment in 1910 which deceased its population. In 1955, tranquilizers came on the scene making patients less aggressive and no longer needing constant supervision. In 1957, an open door policy was started in which some patients had more freedom to come and go. And unfortunately, in the 1960’s legislation was passed no longer allowing patients to engage in work projects. In the 1980, the state hospital was closed, fenced in and its buildings began deteriorating in the harsh The North Country weather.
The practices from over a hundred years ago upset me but doing more research I’ve come to wonder if we doing any better with mental health problems now? In my search for answers I found this sobering quote about conditions today. “Thousands enter our nation’s mental health system every day, with limited chances of emerging unscathed, or even improved. If hospital stays are considerably shorter, due to aggressive use of medications, limitations imposed by insurance payers, and the availability of more community housing, they are no more marked by recovery and full community integration than in the days of large state hospitals”
In addition, we as a culture seem to be perpetuating our society’s growing “disease of despair”. Many people in power are motivated by profit as they take advantage of those who are troubled. People without banking accounts must turn to the high cost of predatory lending and payday check cashing schemes. High interest rates on credit cards destroy people who are struggling financially. Despite the prolific and sometimes overuse use of pharmaceuticals, we still live in a world of chronically depressed and unhealthy people. Homelessness, crime, childhood poverty, and illegal drug use is on a upswing. The opiate crisis, for example, made a lot of money for some as it destroyed the souls of individuals, families and communities. And right now my state is in the process of legalizing and promoting marijuana use without understanding how weed hurts young minds and without recognizing the full scope of the unintended problems that will arise from this legislation.
Recently I visited a nationally known chain store and found the staff standing around two new glitzy New York State scratch off machines. They were placed in the aisle that was on the path at the end of the checkout rows to the exit. I live in an area plagued by poverty made worse now by inflation. I asked the group if they were worried about the adverse effect these machines would have on the disadvantaged and financially desperate. I was told I didn’t have to use gambling machines and that those people who did use them would be okay.
To make matters worse, New York State is allowing online betting starting this year, 2022. Our legislators passed a law in April 2020 allowing this practice There are now several companies that will feel no guilt as they encourage people to lose money in a scheme where the odds are against them. On my local TV station such companies blast commercials with the phone number for gambling addiction help at the bottom of the screen. Recently one these ads was follow by another ad for a bankrupt attorney. Coincidence?
Have we become insane as a society? Have we become so blind that we don’t understand that not all our problems can be solved with money and technology? In our rapid evolution have we removed ourselves from basic truths, root causes, and common sense solutions? Have we forgotten that we are merely humans easily swayed by fear and impulse? How about helping our young people to be productive in this chaotic world? How about more life skills taught in our our schools to prevent the ever growing disease of despair? For example, financial education for all kids should be offered before the dropout age of 16. (A state senator from New York proposed such a program but it is stuck in the NYS Education Department right now and has gone no further.) How about teaching more life coping strategies? Resiliency training would be of great value so pupils can learn the importance of goal setting and how to rise above mistakes and defeat. https://theautonomoustraveler.com/2018/02/20/resiliency-the-bear-and-the-buckwheat-pillow/
We seem to live in a world working against itself. There are many dedicated people who work tirelessly to help the down and out and others who work to guide individuals toward the creation of a healthy world. But somehow we are allowing counterproductive policies and practices to exist. As a result, in our collective insanity we have created a cascade of unintended consequences and continuous problems.
I wish I hadn’t found the two old books. Their stories upset me and took me to a dark place I really didn’t want to go.
“Civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces.”-Jean Jacques Rousseau
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