The Essex County Receptacle for Idiots and the Insane at Ipswich

Dorothea Dix, Memorial To The Legislature of Massachusetts (1843)

Excerpts from Visits to Ipswich

“Gentlemen — I found, near Boston, in the jails and asylums for the poor, a numerous class brought into unsuitable connection with criminals and the general mass of paupers.

“I have visited the prison (in Ipswich) several times; visited the almshouse once. In the latter are several cases of insanity; three especially distressing, situated in a miserable outbuilding, detached from the family-house, and confined in stalls or pens.

My first visit to Ipswich prison was in March, 1842. The turnkey…pausing before the iron door of a room in the jail, said: “We have here a crazy man whose case seems hard; for he has sense enough to know he is in a prison and associated with prisoners. He was a physician in this county, and was educated at Cambridge. The turnkey told him my name; and he broke forth into a most touching appeal that I would procure his liberation by prompt application to the highest State authorities….Shortly I received from this insane person, several letters, from which I venture to make a few extracts. They are written from Ipswich, where is the general county receptacle for insane persons. Long since pronounced incurable, and his property being expended, he became chargeable to the town or county, and was removed, first to Salem jail, thence to Ipswich jail as a more retired spot, where he would be less likely to cause disturbance.

“The last visit to the Ipswich prison was the third week in December. Twenty-two insane persons and idiots; all suffer for want of air and exercise. The turnkey, while disposed to discharge kindly the duties of his office, is so crowded with business as to be positively unable to give any but the most general attention to the insane department. Some of the subjects are invariably confined in small dreary cells, insufficiently warmed and ventilated. Here one sees them traversing the narrow dens with ceaseless rapidity, or dashing from side to side like caged tigers, perfectly furious, through the invariable condition of unalleviated confinement.

I cannot but assert that most of the idiotic subjects in the prisons in Massachusetts are unjustly committed, being wholly incapable of doing harm, and none manifesting any disposition either to injure others or to exercise mischievous propensities.

I ask an investigation into this subject, for the sake of many whose association with prisoners and criminals, and also with persons in almost every stage of insanity, is as useless and unnecessary as it is cruel and ill-judged.”

The 1854 Commission on Lunacy

Dorothy Dix’s plea did not fall on deaf ears. Created by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1854, the Commission on Lunacy was given the responsibility of determining the number of idiots and insane people under the protection of the Commonwealth. Lunatics who were not convicts were found in seven jails or prisons, “notwithstanding their entire unfitness for such purposes.”

The Report on Insanity and Idiocy in Massachusetts found that there were 2,632 lunatics and 1,087 idiots with a total of 3, 719 people in Massachusetts who needed care custody and protection by family or the public. It recommended that a new State hospital be erected, and that the law of 1836, ordering the creation of county receptacles be repealed.

Massachusetts institutions accommodating the insane in 1854
Massachusetts institutions accommodating the insane in 1854

Excerpts from the 1855 Report on Insanity and Idiocy in Massachusetts

Essex County Receptacle for the Insane at Ipswich

“Except at Boston and Ipswich, there are no suitable apartments provided for the idiots and the insane persons, not furiously mad, in connection with any of the Houses of Correction in the State. The receptacle at Ipswich has more room, better accommodations and is in every way better suited to the wants of the patients than that at Cambridge. Under the excellent management of Mr.Worcester, the system of connecting an insane establishment with a prison has the best opportunity of success. Yet even there where all the accommodations probably intended by the law are provided and the whole administered with kindness and discretion it is plain that the plan is inadequate to meet the wants of those who are brought in subjection to it.

The present head of the house has had much experience in watching the insane but his attention is primarily given to the House of Correction, which with almost nine hundred convicts in course of the year must be the principal interest of the establishment, and his attention must be given only secondarily to the insane department.

Excepting him, there is no corps of officers and assistants trained for the employment and by their taste, study and habit competent to guide and control the insane. There is an absence of the means of occupation and amusement, which should be offered to this class of patients, and which are considered necessary, and are found in hospitals prepared for them. And yet this establishment is of a higher order than can be expected of any county receptacle connected with a House of Correction.

The Ipswich jail on Green Street
The Ipswich jail on Green Street. It was demolished in 1933 to build a new High School, which is now the Ipswich Town Hall.

The receptacle for lunatics at Ipswich in Essex County is connected with the House of Correction and under the same roof, yet it is entirely separated from the prison by the centre building which contains the dwelling of the superintendent and family, the offices connected with the establishment, and by the kitchen and eating room for the patients. A closed brick wall also prevents all access from one to the other. The yards are at the opposite ends of the building; that of the prison is surrounded by a high brick wall and that of the lunatics by a high fence so that no communication can take place between them.

1872 map of Ipswich
1872 map of Ipswich

The lunatic department is a single wing three stories high, besides the basement. The internal arrangements of the several stories are similar to those usually found in the wings of lunatic hospitals. There is a hall in each sixty three feet long twelve feet wide and ten feet high running the entire length with lodging rooms on each side These rooms are ten feet long and six feet wide and of the same height as the hall. There is a large window at the end of each hall and a smaller one in each lodging room all with iron sashes and glazed with seven by nine glass. The doors are all thick and heavy and fastened with strong locks.

Besides these rooms there are several strong rooms or cells in the basement story for the excited and furious patients. These have grated windows like those of a prison and some of them are provided with strong shutters to prevent the violent inmates from breaking the glass, and to furnish more effectual security against any attempts to escape. There are also very heavy doors which are secured with bolts and locks to resist the destructive efforts of the furious.

Besides these means of security there are provided hand straps, mittens, and muffs etc. to restrain those who need them, and these are occasionally used. There are eighteen rooms in each story and also bathing rooms and water closets sufficient for each sex in the building. The whole is warmed by hot air furnaces in the basement and imperfectly ventilated by Emerson’s apparatus. There is an aperture for the passage of air from the lodging rooms to the halls and the air ducts open from the halls to the ventilators. There are yards or airing courts for the patients contiguous to the building and also several acres of land connected with the establishment on which some of the men work in the summer. Some of the women are employed in the kitchen and in doing some of the other work about the establishment.

There were forty nine male patients in two of these halls and nineteen females in the other. As there were only thirty-six lodging rooms in the male wards and two of these were occupied by the attendants, it was necessary that fifteen of these rooms only six feet by ten should receive two lodgers each, and in the female ward it was necessary that two rooms should do the same.

Throughout the whole establishment neatness and order prevail. There were three attendants to take the charge of those sixty-eight patients, one in each hall. All these patients were orderly and quiet at the time of visitation. Although the whole forty-nine male patients were then crowded into one hall, on account of the temporary cleaning of the other, yet there was no disorder no apparent discontent. They were mostly old cases and demented. Yet there were some whose diseases were not of very long standing and were probably susceptible of restoration under proper remedial influences.”

Sources and further reading:

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