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A Mind That Found Itself: An Autobiography

Creator: Clifford Whittingham Beers (author)
Date: 1910
Publisher: Longmans, Green, and Co., New York
Source: Available at selected libraries

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I became well acquainted with two jovial and witty Irishmen. They were common laborers. One was a hod-carrier, and a strapping fellow. When he arrived at the institution he was suffering with alcoholic delusional insanity -- a curable form. He was at once placed in the violent ward, though his "violence" consisted of nothing more than an annoying sort of irresponsibility. He irritated the attendants by persistently doing certain trivial things after they had been forbidden. For instance, the door to a certain room he would open and re-open, undoubtedly in response to "false voices" which perhaps commanded him to do so. The attendants made no allowance for his condition of mind. His repetition of a forbidden act was interpreted as deliberate disobedience. He was physically powerful, and they determined to cow him. Of the master assault by which this was sought to be accomplished I was not an eye-witness. But I was an ear-witness. It was committed behind a closed door; and I heard the dull thuds of the blows, and I heard the cries for mercy until there was no breath left the man with which he could beg even for his life. For days, that wrecked Hercules dragged himself about the ward moaning pitifully. He complained of pain in his side and had difficulty in breathing, which would seem to indicate that some of his ribs had been fractured. This man was often punished, frequently for complaining of the torture already inflicted. But later, when he began to return to the normal, his good-humor and native wit won for him an increasing degree of good treatment.


The other Irishman's arch offense -- a symptom of his disease -- was that he gabbled incessantly. He could no more stop talking than he could right his reason on command. Yet his failure to become silent at a word was the signal for punishment. On one occasion an attendant ordered him to stop talking and take a seat at the further end of the corridor, about forty feet distant. He was doing his best to obey, even running to keep ahead of the attendant at his heels. As they passed the spot where I was sitting, the attendant felled him with a blow behind the ear; and, in falling, the patient's head barely missed the wall.


Addressing me, the attendant said, "Did you see that?"


"Yes," I replied, "and I'll not forget it."


"Be sure to report it to the doctor," said he -- a remark which showed his contempt, not only for me but for those in authority; and this contempt the latter at least had earned by their leniency and indifference.


The reader will already have observed that the years of the patient are no protection. The attendant who had so terribly beaten me was particularly flagrant in ignoring the claims of age. On more than one occasion he viciously attacked a man of over fifty, who, because of his affliction (paresis) was virtually a man of seventy. He was a Yankee sailing-master, who, in his prime, could have thrashed his assailant with ease and thrown him into the sea. But now he was helpless and could only submit. However, this man was not utterly abandoned by his old world. His wife called often to see him; and, because of his condition, she was permitted to visit him in his room. Once she arrived in the nick of time -- a few hours after her husband had been cruelly beaten. Naturally she asked the attendants how he had come by the hurts -- the blackened eye and bruised head. True to the code, they lied, and declared that the patient had fallen out of bed, or stumbled against the wall.


The good wife, perhaps herself a Yankee, was not thus to be fooled; and her growing belief that her husband had been assaulted was confirmed by a sight she saw before her visit was ended. Another patient -- a Frenchman, who was a target for abuse -- was knocked flat two or three times as he was roughly forced along the corridor by an attendant. I saw this little affair and I saw that the good wife saw it. The next day she called again and took her husband home. And so this distressed woman felt it her duty to assume entire charge of her mad and really dangerous husband. The result was that after a few (probably sleepless) nights, she had to return him to the asylum and trust to God rather than the State to protect him.


Still another victim was a man sixty years of age. He was quite inoffensive, and no patient in the ward seemed to attend more strictly to his own business. Shortly after my transfer from the violent ward this old man was wantonly attacked by an attendant who broke the patient's arm. The attendant (the man who had so viciously assaulted me) was summarily discharged. Unfortunately, however, the relief afforded the insane was slight and brief, for this same brute (as I have since ascertained) soon secured a position in an asylum a thousand miles distant, where, no doubt, he continues to indulge his base proclivities.


Death by violence in a violent ward is after all not an unnatural death -- for a violent ward. The patient of whom I am about to speak was also an old man -- over sixty. Both physically and mentally he was a wreck. On being brought to the institution he was at once placed in a cell in the Bull Pen, probably because of his previous history for violence while delirious at his own home. But his violence (if it ever existed) had already spent itself, and had come to be nothing more than an utter incapacity to obey. His offense was that he was too weak to attend to his common wants. The day after this patient's arrival, shortly before noon, he lay stark naked and helpless upon the bed in his cell. This I know, for I went to investigate immediately after a ward-mate had informed me of the vicious way in which the head-attendant had assaulted the sick man. My informant was a man whose word regarding an incident of this character I would take as readily as that of any man I know. He came to me, knowing that I had taken upon myself the duty of reporting such abominations. My informant feared to take the initiative, for, like many other patients who believe themselves doomed to continued confinement, he feared to invite abuse at the hands of revengeful attendants. I therefore promised him that I would report the case as soon as I had an opportunity.

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