"Asylums for the Insane." New-York Tribune, 28 Nov. 1868, p. 4.

Dublin Core


"Asylums for the Insane." New-York Tribune, 28 Nov. 1868, p. 4.


"Asylums for the Insane." New-York Tribune, 28 Nov. 1868, p. 4.

Within the current year, several cases have occurred which have directed the attention of thinking men to the mysterious places of confinement known as Asylums for the Insane. Prominent among these cases may be mentioned that of Mrs. Merritt of New Jersey, who was taken from her husband’s house to be imprisoned in the Trenton State Asylum,[1] and that of Mr. Stewart of Baltimore, who was decoyed from the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia and incarcerated in Dr. Kirkbride’s establishment, until he managed to make his case known to the Courts of Justice, and Law was put in operation to set him at liberty.[2] Another case is now on trial in Philadelphia, before Judge Brewster, in which an old gentleman, past sixty, who succeeded in escaping from Dr. Kirkbride’s at the cost of a broken leg—broken as he climbed over the wall in his effort to regain his freedom—appeals to a jury of his fellow-citizens to prevent his being again seized and imprisoned. On a former occasion, according to the evidence, he was forcibly dragged from his home by three stalwart policemen, and perhaps, as a preparation for the Insane Asylum, shut up to pass the night at a station-house, in a vermin-haunted cell. The Philadelphia papers, usually ominously silent when required to mention anything that may cast obloquy upon a powerful local institution, have at last, for very shame, as it might seem, felt obliged to take some notice of the proceedings. While the public stands aghast at some of the disclosures (such as tearing open and detaining private letters, and shutting up some patients in dark cells), the Asylum keepers are rallying their retainer[3] and endeavoring to defend their very exceptional conduct as best they may, with all the pecuniary and social influence at their command.

The interest which these cases have excited among the intelligent public, and the manifest uneasiness caused by a few criticisms from the press among the proprietors and administrators of mad-houses, show that the arrows not only struck the target, but are even now quivering in the bull’s-eye. Nor need it be thought astonishing that such simple causes should produce such important effects when it is remembered that in calling public attention to the manner in which people in this country are confined as lunatics, the keepers of insane asylums are disarmed of their most effective weapon of defense, secrecy. Let the defective laws on this subject once be amended, and asylums for the insane visited with that rigid scrutiny which is accorded all other places of incarceration (even at rigid West Point the examinations are conducted before a board of visitors chosen from different States of the Union), and then those splendid structures which rise all over the country for the confinement of the so-called insane would soon be curtailed in their fair proportions of dome and pinnacle and portico, and, like Othello, the asylum keeper would find his occupation gone indeed. The really insane, such as it were dangerous to allow at large, would then be the only inmates of unpretending but comfortable houses, while powerful corporations or shrewd individuals would be deterred by fear of legal punishment from practicing on the credulity of the public. The desire for wealth, not to be gratified in this, would lead men into other pursuits, and there would be an end of all this architectural jagglery>.”[4] which is now exhibited, because it would be discovered by conscientious men that the comparatively small proportion of bona fide insane persons was more benefited by attention to their minds and interior comforts than by a display of splendor in the building where they were confined.

As things are at present, however, it is desirable to impress the visitor to such an institution, as much as possible, favorably; he is led through carpeted halls and listens to the pleasant trickling of fountains—he sees no more of the inmates than shrewd officials choose to permit, should any one of the patients desire to gain his liberty and escape from this over-powering magnificence, or to communicate his desire to do so to the outer world, prompt measures will be taken to confine both his person and sentiments within a very limited space. Of course the visitor leaves with a favorable impression; he sees nothing of the dark cells, of harmless letters ruthlessly torn open, and detained; nor does he penetrate into that mysterious system of misrepresentation by which inquisitive patients are ingeniously cajoled.

It is in vain to urge that, the keepers of many of these places having fixed salaries, there is no inducement to detain patients unduly, “le prétre doit vivre par l’autel.”[5] As long as there is an empty room or unoccupied ward in the establishment, the keeper thereof has an indirect interest in filling that ward, or that room with paying patients. That greed of gain, which, alas! seems inherent in imperfect humanity, does not become at all diminished within the walls of an insane asylum. Men, for money, will still incarcerate others unjustly; men, for money, will still be found to act the ignoble part of jailors. Admitting that many of the patients in an institution are so insane as to make their detention proper; admitting that in many cases, friends and relatives take away patients when they are well; even admitting that it is to the interest of the officials generally to treat the patients with kindness, and that many have derived benefit from their treatment; still the appalling fact, announced some time ago in one of the daily papers, remains in all its terrible reality to attract the attention of the community. A man may be carried off from his home on the easily-procured certificate of a single physician (what a palpable fulcrum is this for the lever of wealth!), and, be he sane or insane, if those who imprison him desire it, and choose to pay for it, he may be inured without the opportunity of appeal to the laws of his country to protect him, until that “fell sergeant death,” more merciful than the tribunals of earthly justice, issues a preemptory writ of habeas corpus and releases him from his misery.


1. Mrs. Merritt was the sister of the former governor of New Jersey; she was institutionalized by her family in the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum with one physician’s signature attesting to her insanity. Dr. Horace A. Buttolph at the Asylum released her within a month; the medical community debated his decision, while the public read it as a recognition that she had been wrongly incarcerated by “disagreeable relatives” (“Certificates of Insanity,” Medical and Surgical Reporter [5 Sep. 1868], 193. RHD and her husband, L. Clarke Davis, would continue their campaign for asylum reform: Clarke published “A Modern Lettre de Cachet” in the May 1868 Atlantic Monthly, and RHD serialized the novel “Put Out of the Way” in Peterson’s in 1870 [text available on this website].

2. Further details of the Stewart case are unknown. Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride (1809-1883) was superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane and famous for the “Kirkbride Plan” which detailed proper construction of asylums under Kirkbride’s theory of “moral treatment.” ].

3. Lawyer.

4. Colloquial: trickery.

5. French: The priest must live by the altar.


S. M. Harris



“"Asylums for the Insane." New-York Tribune, 28 Nov. 1868, p. 4.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 7, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/6.

Output Formats