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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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Page 73:


I cannot lay too much stress on this absolute fact: that hospital managements deliberately, wilfully, and selfishly suppress evidence which, if presented to the proper authorities, would lead to the conviction of guilty attendants, and eventually to their almost complete elimination from asylums. Several instances of such suppression have come to my attention since my discharge, two of which I shall now cite. During the summer of 1907, a Committee of Investigation appointed by the Legislature of the State of New Jersey, uncovered, several months after the commission of the crime, the suppressed evidence of the murder of a patient by attendants at the Trenton State Hospital. On the witness-stand the hospital official in authority admitted that the attendants had killed the patient and that their only punishment had been their prompt discharge as employees. He further admitted that the "scandal" had been deliberately suppressed, and that no evidence or report of the crime had been submitted to the proper authorities as is, of course, required by law. So skilfully was this crime concealed that even the wife of the victim was unable to learn the cause of her husband's death until the investigators laid bare the facts. And this same Committee of Investigation uncovered another alleged and, to my mind, proved murder in another State Hospital for the Insane -- at Morris Plains, New Jersey. Here, again, the "scandal" (a hospital euphemism for "murder" and lesser crimes) was "hushed-up" or "whitewashed." When it was finally dragged into the light of day, what happened? Those in authority, making characteristic use of the ignorance of the public regarding such matters, brazenly, I think, denied in sweeping terms, and under oath, the incriminating evidence of supposedly credible witnesses. If an investigation in New Jersey can reveal two unreported murders that occurred within a year in two State Hospitals, how many such crimes would be unearthed should the two hundred and twenty-six public and one hundred and two private hospitals for the insane in this country be honestly investigated? The probable figure is too appalling to print.


Hospital managements (not only the doctors, but the trustees as well) are too often cowardly bodies of men. They shun publicity, and thereby sacrifice the well-being of their unfortunate charges. If they would act promptly and rigorously when abuse is even suspected, they would need have no fear that the public would not support them. But, so long as they continue to suppress facts which no good citizen in the sane world would dare or wish to suppress, just so long will they stand in danger of being dragged into a compromising prominence by those reformers who, from time to time, like Dorothea Lynde Dix, succeed in penetrating the mysteries of their exclusive society. Nor can they surely tell when and where the lightning of accusation will strike. And if, instead of sporadic lightning, the steady glow of enlightenment shall obtain, present incompetent servants of the public will correct their costly faults, or be forced to seek employment in other fields where their innate deficiencies will interfere with no one's happiness but their own.


For bringing the facts to light the method of procedure would be simple. Let each Governor, or each State Legislature, appoint an irreproachable Committee of Investigation. Give that Commission as much power both to investigate and to recommend legislation as was given to the "Armstrong Committee" of the State of New York, which, in the year 1905, so effectively investigated the Life Insurance Companies. There should be no taint of politics in such a Commission. Common decency and the Golden Rule should conspire in its appointment and in its work.


There should be a country-wide clean-up. Not only should existing evils be brought to light; but any abuses found to have existed during the two or three years preceding an investigation should be revealed and published to the world. And the inmates must have a fair hearing -- a thing they have seldom enjoyed. I do not advocate hostile investigations. Nevertheless, the whole truth should be obtained regardless of whom it hits or hurts. The spirit of improvement, not prosecution, should control. Though hospital officials, and others able to throw light on the situation, should be subjected to rigorous examination, under oath, investigators should strive to bring out and emphasize facts which will lead to a permanent improvement of conditions, rather than to give undue prominence to the more spectacular evidence of abuses. Inquiry into the condition of the patients themselves should be the prime consideration. This line of investigation will inevitably lead to the uncovering -- where they exist -- of the lesser evils of careless, extravagant, or, in some instances, dishonest management of funds.


Inasmuch as hospitals for the insane are the closest of "close corporations," it is essential that the investigators and the hospital officials (including Trustees or Managers) should meet with an honest desire to improve conditions permanently. They should not meet, as they have done so often in the past, with the selfish desire to "white-wash" and thus fool the public into believing conditions better than they are. Such reports of investigations as I have read support my contention that members of the medical staff of a hospital for the insane are prone to offer excuses, rather than give reasons for such abuses as are disclosed by the examining authority. And these excuses are usually so plausible as to defeat, in many instances, the purposes of an investigation. For generations, doctors working among the insane have had to hide facts, until, finally, convincing evasion of fact has become with them an unconscious art. I do not mean to say that the officials in question deliberately and habitually lie in order to deceive the public. But I do say that, having for years been forced by apathetic representatives of the public to work with crude equipment and inadequate support, these men have fallen into the weak habit of looking at problems of hospital administration from a disheartened and apologetic point of view. Given a wrong point of view, the rest has been very simple, for so few laymen know what earnest and unremitting effort might accomplish in this field that the plausible and veiled excuses of hospital officials are commonly accepted as coin of full weight.

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