A Mad World and Its Inhabitants

A Pioneer of Investigative Journalism Goes Undercover in a Mad-House

If you’re a student of journalism history, stop me if you know this one: Not yet twenty-five, returning from a celebrated trip, an American journalist feigns insanity to be committed to a New York City mad-house. After ten days witnessing mistreatment, abuse and fraud, the journalist is rescued by friends and writes an exposé, leading to changes in the way the insane are treated in the state.

That’s the story of Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House, yes. But it’s also the story of Julius Chambers in A Mad World and Its Inhabitants. And he did it in 1872, fifteen years before Bly.

Chambers’s time in the Bloomingdale Asylum would lead to a reorganization within the institution, the release of twelve sane patients, and, eventually, changes in the Lunacy Laws. It would also be a milestone in the history of investigative journalism.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Bloomingdale Asylum (Lunatic), a department of the New York Hospital.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-f859-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

After working for a slew of New York newspapers, traveling around the world as a foreign correspondent, and authoring scores of novels, short stories and plays, Chambers died from pneumonia on July 12th, 1920. On the anniversary of his death, here are a few extracts from A Mad World and Its Inhabitants.

We soon reached the front door, and a key in the hand of the attendant admitted us. From the hallway I was ushered into the sitting-room, an apartment about twenty-six feet long by eighteen feet broad. It contained four windows, but its floor was destitute of carpet, its windows of shades, and its walls of pictures. Its only furniture was a broken centre-table, a pair of Central Park benches, and half a dozen heavy chairs. The strong doors and iron gratings made the sense of imprisonment felt every moment.

This room was called “Liberty Hall,” and served, at a stated hour of a certain day, each month or week, for the reception of the relatives of patients, and beyond this apartment no visitor ever penetrated. Those who, in the presence of an attendant, conversed with their unfortunate friends in this small front room (when this permission has been granted), were, happily, unconscious of the fact that the heavy door leading into the interior of the building returned the object of their solicitude — a son, a brother, or a husband — to the company of men in strait-jackets. Yet they knew all that the general visitor to the mad-house of Dr. Baldric could learn in regard to the patients committed to the charge of his or any similar institution.

It was not to be so with me.

I was not to be treated as a visitor; I was to enter the mysterious region beyond that heavy oak.

The summons soon came; the door swung back upon its hinges. The attendant motioned me to enter.

I stepped into a narrow corridor running the entire length of the building, at the farther end of which I saw a strip of the same pale moonlight through which my guide had piloted me to this unknown region. The hall-way was utterly deserted, and, for the time, quiet as a cemetery. A tiny gas-jet, not sufficient to illumine the corners of the corridor, burned near the ceiling. The tall, mechanical attendant threw open a cell-door, and saying, sepulchrally, “You have number four,” quietly pushed me inside.

The cell was more uninviting than any I had ever before seen, even in the lowest prisons. It was not more than six feet in width by nine in length, and was without any furniture, save a small iron cot with a straw mattress. It was only faintly illuminated, when the door was open, by the dull light from the hall; and, as there was no transom over the door, I realized in an instant that the cell would be utterly dark as soon as I was locked up for the night. The walls were rough-finished and whitewashed, and their dreariness chilled my heart. I should have rejoiced at the presence, even pasted flat against the walls, of the cheapest daubs in the shape of pictures. However unlikely I was to hang myself, I could not expect framed works of art swinging from nails in the wall. Yet, for any poor wretch who might have cared to indulge either his fancy or his curiosity in that direction, the absence of the cord and the nails need not have discouraged him; all he needed to do was to crowd his head through the large openings in the iron lattice-work of the windows, and then kick the cot away from his feet. But the latter mode had a decided favor in the heart of the suave Dr. Baldric, because the most vigorous investigation would have failed to censure his institution for a suicide through such instrumentality.

The window was a poor affair; without glass, grated by iron bars, and so high from the floor that to look out of it one must stand upon the cot.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Julius Chambers.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-7ce3-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

With one ray of hope, I turned to put my hand upon the door-knob, but, to my surprise, I found that the inside of the door was smooth, and, when closed, would be flush with the wall. I had never before imagined how essential to the proper appearance of a room were the knobs of its doors. The last apparent medium of communication with the outside world was gone!

The floor had been scrubbed in anticipation of my occupancy, and I discovered, upon removing my shoes, that it was still damp; and the odor of chloride of lime, which had been mingled with the water, was so offensive that it made the quarters untenable to any man whose sense of smell was not totally destroyed.

I saw or realized these facts, as the door stood ajar, in much less time than it has taken me to recall them.

No means were ever resorted to which proved so effectual in breaking the will, destroying hope, and inspiring madness, as solitary confinement in a cell whose walls or ceiling were bare of a single object to direct the thoughts or the attention of the unhappy prisoner. The dungeons of feudal Germany, revolutionary France, or inquisitorial Spain, were no better calculated for these results than was the cell in which I found myself immured.

The attendant ordered me to hasten my undressing and to get into bed.

Never having, in all the course of my wanderings, occupied such a room, or slept in such a bed, I protested earnestly against the injustice of compelling me to catch cold; but the polite young man listened with perfect indifference, and responded by telling me not to keep him waiting.

As I undressed, the attendant took up each article of dress as I deposited it upon my cot, and finally carried them all into the hall. The door closed with a slam, and the bolt shot into the lock.

The fact that there was no chair in the cell upon which to lay my clothes annoyed me at first, but I consoled myself now that they were to be hung up somewhere in a closet. Imagine my feelings, then, when I found that my clothing was to undergo another search; and, if I may judge from the condition of my apparel on the following morning, and from the inspections which I saw made on the garments of others who arrived during my stay, every pocket was turned out, and every inch of coat-lining carefully thumbed over.

I confess to having heard, with no small degree of interest, as I lay in my cot, the conversation between the attendant Twombly and the individual who assisted him. Various remarks were made regarding the absence of the cuff and shirt buttons, highly disrespectful toward Dr. Quotidian. They might be summed up in the remark of Twombly, as he dropped upon the floor the last piece of hope, “The doc has made the first rake.” I was sorry to hear such insinuations, but concluded that it would be a thankless task to defend the absent physician, and that possibly, after all, they knew him better than I did.

My clothes were then flung upon the damp floor of the hall, and left there all night.

I am thus explicit in describing this final searching process, to show how completely a patient is at the mercy of the employes of this institution, without money, pencil, postage-stamps, or paper.

A dose of quinine was soon after brought me, but I declined with thanks. I never liked the drug.

Then followed a night whose horrors, even to the minutest particulars, can never be forgotten. To me, even now, it is a shudder-inspiring recollection.

Left alone in the cell with my secret and my thoughts, I rose in my bed and gazed out through the grated window, in order to get a last breath of fresh air. The night had now grown cool, and a light breeze, blowing up from the Hudson River, refreshed me. The trees surrounding the yard into which I looked destroyed all the direct rays of the moon. There were no lights in the other wing of the building. The sky overhead contained a few scattered stars, and I can truly say that never before did they awaken within my breast so much simple, soothing pathos.

Regretfully, but of necessity, I at last sought my cot. The straw bed was hard and uncomfortable. I would have welcomed the floor of a trading-post in the Itasca country, or the lively hospitality of any roadside inn of Andalusia. The sheets were of the coarsest and strongest sail-cloth, and in the darkness the only guarantee that I had of their cleanliness was dampness. The water in which they had been washed had been tinctured with carbolic acid, than which, if a more stifling odor exist, I should like to have it named. The sickening smell of chloride of lime and carbolic acid sought out my nostrils, whether I buried my head under the bedclothes, or inhaled the air of the room. The window, directly above my face, seemed the only comfort left me; but at intervals a gust of the night air swept in upon me, and, although agreeable in itself, soon gave me a violent headache.

Though tired and sleepy, it seemed impossible to become reconciled to the strange surroundings. I lay thinking for more than an hour, during which time all the future details of the scheme were gone over in my mind.

At last drowsiness overcame me, and I slept.

Exactly how long I was unconscious can never be guessed. Midnight had evidently passed when I was suddenly awakened by a demoniacal yell that for the moment fairly unnerved me.

The place! the hour! the darkness!

Among the ladies I saw one whom I knew to be the wife of a prominent Brooklyn gentleman, and the mother of an interesting family. I knew her to be a lady of undoubted character — universally beloved. Temporary mental hallucination, induced by severe illness after child-birth, had caused her to be sent to “the best asylum in the land,” where a high price was paid for her board. Her malady exhibited itself only in a refusal to eat, under the conviction that the food she took would prove poison to her husband and children. These facts I then knew, but what I was afterward to learn was that her treatment by the nurses was so brutal as to reawaken pictures of the Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria. It was impossible for her to communicate with her relatives. Her husband was only permitted to see her at long intervals, and, when he did, Dr. Quotidian or a nurse stood by his side and intimidated her into silence. The most startling fact was that direct influence was brought to bear upon this lady’s husband by Mr. Rodney Rondaway — through personal visitation and by letter — to induce him to continue her in the asylum. She soon recovered, but was detained in that place for eight long months.

Only a few specimens of the abuse and indignities she suffered can be stated in these pages; but, to such well-meaning ladies as care to establish what is here written, I may state that I have the consent of the late sufferer and of her husband to furnish their address and to say that such visitors will be heartily welcome.

This lady, accustomed to all the refinements of the social world, was repeatedly struck in the face by a nurse named Jane Eaton. On one occasion both her eyes were blackened, because, as Eaton expressed it, “she looked as if she wanted to listen to what me and Trotter was a-sayin’.”

This lady was ordered to bathe in the same water used by “Old Aunt Maria,” as a very frowsy woman was called; and for refusing was bound down in bed, on her back, for five days. And, when she beseechingly implored Dr. Quotidian to know why she was so placed, he smiled at her, as he had to me when listening to my appeals for reading-matter, and said: “You are so weak that there is danger of your fainting away and dying at any moment, and you are placed thus because we want you ready on your back when you die.” A more ghastly or brutal jibe than this was never made to the lowest specimen of humanity. The doctor, as we know already, was inclined to be witty, but lacked sadly in judgment as to what constituted good taste. He doubtless meant that the lady would be already “laid out,” if she died strapped down upon her back. The lady was also treated to the drowning process to make her eat. She was held under water in the bath-tub by the nurse Eaton until, in each instance, she was almost suffocated. During each interval, as the nurse brought her patient to the surface, she used the following language: “Will you eat, now, d — n you?”

The letters which this lady wrote to her husband and relatives were always torn up before her eyes. The doctors told the visitors that she was not able to write, consequently not in a condition to be seen. She was frequently thrust, alone, into a dark room and locked up from four in the afternoon until seven the next morning. On one occasion she was begging not to be left alone for so long a time, and in her eagerness thrust out her hand to prevent the closing of the door. Her wrist was purposely and cruelly jammed between the door and the casing, mutilating it, and leaving it torn and bleeding without means of assuaging the pain. I have seen her maimed wrist. She was pinched, and shaken, and dragged about. This lady, wife, and mother, was on many occasions, at the caprice of the brutal nurses, driven before her keeper through the halls and corridors to the bath quite naked, and in that condition shoved and thrust about with such violence as to bruise and tear her flesh, yet the pain was as nothing compared to the dreadful humiliation of such treatment to a modest, virtuous woman. Among the instruments of torture was a very short vest of coarse muslin — a sort of abridgment of the straitjacket — which was at other times strapped tightly upon her naked body by these fiends in the shape of women, after which, thus disrobed, and with her arms strapped behind her, they would tie her up to a post in the middle of a large room, a mark for their jibes and vulgar language — without even the power of hiding her face in her hands — while the leather thongs sunk into her flesh. The perpetrator of this infamy was the nurse, Jane Eaton; yet she is to-day the favorite employee of the institution. “Miss Eaton is firm, but kind,” said a young doctor of the institution. “We couldn’t do without Jane.”

And now, most dreadful of all, I have to relate an instance of the manner in which this lady was maimed for life. Time did away with the bruises and the scratches, but this poor sufferer will carry to her grave the marks of Jane Eaton’s brutality. One afternoon, after several days of perfect sanity, the strange hallucination returned. The lady-patient refused to eat when food was brought to her. The nurse, Eaton, went to the cell-door and screamed to the other attendants, “Bring the iron spoon, and a couple of you come here.” Then she turned to the sufferer, who did not dream that a spoon could be made a horrible instrument of torture, and said: “I’ll soon teach you never to say to me again that you will not eat.”

The two nurses soon entered, one bearing an iron spoon. The two brutes held the trembling woman, while Eaton, having thrown all her weight upon the sufferer’s under-jaw, forced her mouth open, and began to plunge the sharp-edged spoon down her throat. It will seem beyond credence when it is read that the roof of the lady’s mouth was broken through, that the tonsils were cut off, and that the pillow and the nurse’s arm were bathed in blood. Those who, like myself, have seen this poor creature’s throat, and the ghastly, crescent-shaped holes in the roof of her mouth, will agree with me that Jane Eaton’s name should be pilloried by the side of Nana Sahib, of Cawnpore, and Achmet-Agha, fresh from the shambles of Batak.

It may be considered strange that her husband and friends would permit this lady to remain in such a dangerous place, but she could not go home, and she was so frightened she did not dare tell of it in the nurse’s presence. When suffering from the effects of unusual cruelty, they were not allowed to see her — were told she was worse. At last, with great difficulty, her husband took her away, determining to have her home well or ill, when she was found to be without the least trace of mental disease, and is to-day a respected member of society.

Yet, when, six months later, in the company of several ladies she visited the asylum to demand the discharge of this woman, Eaton, she met with no success or consideration. Dr. Quotidian received the delegation, and, after inspecting the lady’s throat said, shudderingly, “It is, indeed, too bad.” But, at the hour this edition goes to press (October, 1876), Eaton is still handling the spoon and dispensing the strait-jacket.

Will scoffers still say that this searching newspaper investigation should never have been made? Let the men or women who make this criticism — or the venerated editor of the Evening Post, who abused me so roundly — cross Fulton Ferry with me and visit the lady who has suffered all these awful wrongs at the “best asylum in the land.” Until they have done this, let them hold their tongues!

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