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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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Another instance of this sort of homicide occurred in Vermont. An infirm old man, eighty years of age, was wantonly attacked and killed by two attendants within a week of his commitment. He was a French-Canadian whose understanding of English had been none too good while he was sane. When his skill in a foreign tongue had been further impaired by a clouded understanding, he was of course doubly helpless. Failing to obey the command of an attendant with that promptness which conduces to personal safety, he was attacked and struck with such force that several ribs were broken. The shock of it all caused his death. The attendants were indicted for manslaughter, and placed under bonds of eighteen hundred dollars each. When called to trial the more culpable of the two, rather than risk his liberty, forfeited his bond and, as this book goes to press, has not yet been apprehended. The other attendant appeared, but, thus far, has not been tried. That men guilty of such brutality should be given an opportunity to purchase their freedom by forfeiting a small bond is simply another of the many injustices legally imposed upon the insane. (9)

(9) Readers of "Hard Cash" may not be familiar with the public correspondence into which it drew its author, Charles Reade. His letter of January 17th,1870, in the Pall Malll Gazette, shows how the ribs of insane patients could be and were broken by brutal keepers with such fiendish skill as even to leave no external evidence on the body of the victim; and that letter shows also how prevalent then were atrocities of the kind I have been describing, and how easy it was for their perpetrators to escape punishment.


The young man who was for a time my neighbor in the violent ward, and my companion in mischief, was also terribly abused. This man possessed a distinctive and interesting personality. To-day, could I enjoy his companionship, I should rank him high on my list of those whose companionship I crave. I am sure I do not exaggerate when I say that on ten occasions, within a period of two months, this man was cruelly assaulted -- and I do not know how many times he suffered assaults of less severity. After one of these doses of unmerited punishment I asked him why he persisted in his petty transgressions when he knew that he thereby invited such body-racking abuse.


"Oh," said he, laconically, "I need the exercise." To my mind, the man who, with such gracious humor, could refer to what was in reality torture, deserved to live a century. But an unkind fate decreed that he should die young -- and by his own hand. Ten months after his commitment to the State Hospital he was discharged as improved -- but not cured. This is not an unusual procedure; nor was it in his case apparently an unwise one, for the patient seemed fit for freedom. During his first month of regained liberty, this young man hanged himself. No message of excuse did he leave. In my opinion, none was necessary. For aught any man knows, the memories of the abuse, torture, and injustice, which were so long his portion, may have proved to be the last straw which overbalanced the desire to live. The doctors will say, and truthfully, that it was a suicidal impulse which drove him to his death. But can they surely deny that that suicidal impulse might never have gained control had he been committed to an institution where not only he, but all other patients would have been treated kindly and scientifically? Surely, if thousands who contemplate suicide stop short of it because of some little circumstance, saved by a narrow margin, is it not equally true that an adverse circumstance may drive a desperate person over the final brink to his death?


I know of two other instances of young men of about my own age who committed suicide shortly after release from their places of confinement. These two had been inmates of the large private hospital where I had suffered in the strait-jacket. So far as I know neither of them was subjected to abuse while there. But one of them who was confined in the violent ward must have seen patients abused. The other, who I think would have recovered had he been skilfully tided over his despondent period, was not at any time confined in a violent ward. But, if he did not see others roughly handled, of course he heard the ever-present rumors of abuse. Such rumors are common topics of conversation in all asylums, and they undoubtedly have a depressing effect upon those who need little to convince them that life is not worth living. When a patient is discharged and enters his old world, is it surprising that sometimes he should choose death rather than take the chance of again entering a place which to him is worse than the grave itself?


If I were to recount each instance of cruelty (major and petty) which I can recall, my chapter on abuse would soon become a book of itself. And, if it were possible to put in book form the stories of the lives of persons who have suffered experiences such as mine, I firmly believe it would take several thousand feet of shelving in a Congressional Library to hold this record of Man's inhumanity to Man. Fortunately no such collection of woe ever can be gathered. Read the few stories of this nature that exist, magnify the impression gained, and an approximation may be reached. Without question, during the past century hundreds of insane men and women have been murdered by their keepers. And many of these murders were as deliberate as any ever committed, for attendants frequently hate unto death certain of their troublesome charges.

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