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Astounding Disclosures! Three Years In A Mad House
In 1851, a former patient at the Maine Insane Hospital published a scathing attack on his treatment by the institutionís attendants and doctors. Isaac Hunt describes all sorts of abuses and mistreatment. His account makes people wonder whether or not the asylum offered conditions better than those uncovered in local almshouses and jails by the investigative reports of Dorothea Dix. Out of Huntís complaints came an investigation by the Maine Legislature into conditions at the asylum. The testimony of three witnesses is included here. As Hunt was writing his exposť, a fire, partially described here, destroyed the institution in Augusta, Maine, with the deaths of 27 patients, many confined and unable to escape, as well as one attendant. This is an autobiographical voice apparently impaired by his disability, but it is valuable evidence on what life could be like in one the institutions favored by Dix.
Why was this inhuman manifestation on the part of these arbitrary men? Why did these boasted Republicans -- Democrats -- men standing at the head of the boasted ranks, whose watch word is supposed to be liberty or death; who pretend that all men are born free and equal; aid and abet the inquisitors of my dungeon, more atrocious than any part of the French Bastile in the bloodiest days of the Revolution or the Algerine prisons, in retaining me there for torture and death? I'll tell you, reader. I was a victim. To be sure it was not for fear of my safety that those men refused to allow me to depart -- far from it. It was the strong levers of reason, right and justice, my tongue and my pen, the great engines which can hurl tyrants from their rotten thrones, and give the famishing victim Liberty! Liberty!! 0, thou art a jewel, a jewel of inestimable value, scarcely known to any but him who has been deprived of thee!
Through the month of January, 1847, I continued my labor in the attic, in the full possession of all my mental faculties, and a command over my emotions. During this time I reasoned with myself, calmly, am I a dog? Must I submit, and die here like a dog, or shall I arise and strike a blow for God and liberty! Yes, I determined that I would die worthy of being a descendant of a man who, upon the 19th of April, '75, was a minute man, and met the British army at Concord Bridge, and assisted in driving them into Boston. Yes, I determined that I would die like a man; that henceforth my motto should be "liberty or death," surrounded as I was by human devils, in their own den. Accordingly, on the 3lst day of January, which was the Sabbath, I wrote a letter to Dr. Bates, and that letter I dated Feb. 1,1847, as I designed to present it to him Monday forenoon, when he made his usual visit to his patients. As he was leaving the gallery that forenoon I put the letter into his hand, he observing at the time -- "O, this is for me." "Yes, Dr. Bates, that is for you;" I replied. Here follows the contents of that letter. I alluded to the treatment I had received from Dr. Ray; I stated that I then considered myself to be of sane mind, and accountable for my acts; I requested him to take such measures as were in his power to send me away from the Hospital during the month of April; and further stated that if he did not send me away at the expiration of that time, I should consider myself justified in resorting to any measures which might be within my power to obtain my liberty. I said, now, sir, treat me with humanity, Christianity, and mercy, or with cruelty and barbarity, whichever you deem most expedient. I closed my letter by saying -- Sir, I will have my liberty or perish in my efforts to obtain it." What impression my letter made upon Dr. Bates I did not know exactly, but the next morning, as I was in the gallery when he made his usual morning call on his patients, he came to me and shook me by the hand as usual, cavalierly observing "Well, Mr. Hunt, you are here yet." To this I replied -- "Yes, Dr. Bates, I am here at present." We then parted, and this closed my conversation on the subject of leaving the Institution.
After that I used to talk with Mr. Webb, the supervisor. I told him I was sane a man as I ever was, and that they had no more right to keep me there than they would have to go into the village of Augusta and take any man there away from his business, and shut him up in the Hospital, and call him crazy, and keep him there. I told him that if they undertook to keep me after the time that I had set to go away in order to do so they should take the crime of actual murder upon their heads, and they might do it in any manner they might choose. They might set a crazy man to dash out my brains, or poison my medicine, or confine me in the maniac harness or cells; either of which would be murder -- as close confinement would undoubtedly kill me in a very short time; and that, furthermore, I would give them such a specimen of insanity as they had never had in that or any other Hospital in this country; that I would butcher every officer in the Hospital, and as many others as I could who should attempt to confine me; that their cage was not strong enough, and that they had not men enough there to keep a sane man who was determined to be free or die, as I then had reason to know that if I were to do all that I said I would, I should only be called a crazy man, and my doom would only be close confinement until death should release me. One day when I was conversing with him about it, he said, -- I don't know about your going -- you are trumping up too strong to get away. I replied that I intended to trump strong, and that shillalahs should be the trumps or I would die in my efforts to make it so. By my saying that shillalahs should be the trumps he understood my meaning; for, when we were playing cards, if clubs were the trump I used to say that shillalahs was the trump. I requested him, as he had never in any manner abused me, not to meddle with me if I should start to go without permission, as under such circumstances I should not know any friends, and did not wish to harm him, and that I should take the life of any one who should attempt to stop me, if it was in my power so to do. I only allude to these things for the purpose of showing the terrible strait to which I was driven; for, with mild and nonresistant means I could never have obtained my liberty. I had tried that course for more than two years, and all of no avail whatever.