Tales from the Infirmary

When I was studying for my MA in Popular Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, I worked as an intern at the Wood County Historical Center and Museum. The museum is located on the site of the county’s former infirmary or “poor farm.” Built in 1867, the infirmary was a repository for the county’s cast-offs — the homeless, the downtrodden, the sick, the elderly, orphans, and of course, the mentally ill. The museum is located inside of the old infirmary building; a really neat sprawling building with three wings. I was hired to help develop an exhibit in an outer building called “The Lunatic House”, which was built in the 1880s especially to house mentally ill residents. I did a lot of research in old local newspapers for the exhibit, and was fascinated with what I found. It wasn’t unusual to find articles proclaiming “(insert local resident’s name) IS INSANE,” with an unflinching account of their descent into insanity. The honesty and amount of disclosure can be pretty stunning. People really did view mental illness as a community issue, and felt good knowing that the infirmary was there to care for local unfortunates. Treatment styles changed over time however, and local cases were eventually sent to larger state asylums. Institutionalization was pretty much the de facto “solution” for most of the 20th century — today, we’ve still got that, but we’re getting back to more local, community-oriented responses as well. Yesterday’s “lunatic house” is today’s group house.

It is also interesting to note that people had a pretty liberal definition of “insanity” at this time. Epileptics, drug/alcohol addicts, the autistic, and those with Down’s syndrome were often lumped in with schizophrenics, and those suffering from various psychoses, etc.

Anyway, here is a blast from the past…a past when women had “owners.” And please visit the Wood County Historical Center the next time you’re in northwest Ohio!

From the Wood County Sentinel, Nov. 13, 1884

insane women

Infirmary Superintendent Farmer
Wants the Owners of Two
Lost Women to Come
and Get Them

“I have two women at the County Infirmary,” said Supt. Farmer to the SENTINEL Tuesday, “that if the recording angel hasn’t any better record of them than I have, are certainly lost.”
“Explain,” said the SENTINEL.
“Well, sir, there’s two of them and they either can’t or won’t tell where they came from, who their friends are, or whither they are found, and candidly, I don’t believe they give the right names either.
I’ll designate them No. 1 and No. 2. About four weeks ago No. 1, after wandering all over the county reached Perry and the Trustees of that township brought her to the Infirmary. She is crazy, of course; rather violent at times; so much so that yesterday I had to confine her in a cell to prevent injury. Even in her sane moments she is guarded in her talk; very reticent and refuses to give me the slightest clue so that I can search for her friends if she has any. All she says is her name is Sarah Smith, and that she lived last winter in Detroit. She is smart and active; about 50 years of age, and her hair is very white – doubtless from trouble – and she sadly says she has no friends mliving. She had about $9 in money on her person when found wandering in her crazy way from house to house in Perry township.
Who is the other?
“Essie P. Warren, she says her name is, and she is an opium eater of the most confirmed kind. She was sent to the Infirmary from Bowling Green last Monday, where she was found wandering under the influence of the drug from house to house along the street, frightening the women and children and talking politics to the street loafers. She is not insane further than the effects of the opium. The poor woman appears to have seen better days and to be very intelligent, uses good language in her talk. She claims to have been born in Virginia and raised in Maryland; says she came here from Huron county, but knows nobody there. She is about 40 years of age, dark complexion, very heavy head of dark hair, comely looking, but evidently strong willed. She seems to be well acquainted with different localities in this state, but so far has studiously avoided giving any clue to her home or friends. They are puzzlers and no mistake,” and the kind hearted Superintendent hurried off.


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