two years & four months in a lunatic asylum – rev. h. chase

We (society) trivialise and disrespect the history of asylums and their patients horribly, by turning them into a freak show for cheap thrills. Happily there are organisations like Asylum Projects that so stuff that do stuff that is both cool and compassionate.

The Reverend Hiram Chase did not enjoy his time at the New York State Asylum in Utica.

But after leaving that place, and mingling again with the world and with my friends, the very thought of the subject sickened me, for I desired to think and talk as little about the matter as possible.


The book was published in 1868, three years after the septuagenarian was an inpatient. Inmate. Basically, he was sent there by the church, because stress broke him.

My mind became more and more excited; friends came from a distance to comfort me, but all was in vain ; little things were magnified to mountains; I knew that I was unmanned, and could not tell why ; I imagined things took place that never existed ; my mind took a strange turn; I imagined I was the worst of beings, and that thousands must suffer on my account.

Delusional psychosis? He retained insight though.

I soon became exceedingly restless; wanted to be constantly on the go; wanted to be constantly doing something, and hardly knew what. I felt in a great hurry to have something done. It is true that I knew at the time what I wanted to do, but when I attempted to do it, I would either find opposition by some one or a strange inability to do what I wanted done.


I groaned much; my appetite now entirely failed; I did not want to eat for days. Sleep entirely left me, and a night seemed an eternity.

Unsurprisingly, he wore out his wife’s patience. He was committed bye two doctors whom he never forgave.

I was torn from home without my consent; was to be shut up with raving maniacs, and probably to die with them. I saw how cold and unfeeling men could be when a little power was given them.


The Utica crib, used to confine patients.

An intelligent and logical man, he knew his mind was beyond his control, but that his awareness and memory were intact. Nonetheless, he went peacefully, much as he disagreed with the committal. He explained admissions, patients, treatment, legalities etc with full lucidity. He also showed enormous compassion for his fellow man, no matter what their social status was. His book was largely intended to protest on behalf of the voiceless. He saw that too many people were committed with inadequate reasons, and then mistreated even if their health improved. Unlike the peevish author of the last book in this genre, Rev Chase was empathetic (within the context of the time) (no revisionist crap here tyvm).

Could the beams of these prison houses speak out, and could the stones cry out of the walls of some of those upper back halls in the asylum at Utica, the revelations of the woes and sufferings of humanity would so shock and astonish the outward world, that instead of classing this institution with the humane and benevolent institutions of the country, it would be classed with those ancient bastiles which have furnished a history of the most cruel and bloody tragedies ever acted under the sun!

He didn’t see a familiar face for ten months. In the same vein as Nelly Bly (though for much longer), he approached things with stoicIsm, resolving to do whatever was necessary in order to survive. Mostly this meant staying out of trouble, giving in to bullies when he couldn’t avoid them.

Moments of unintended levy occur throughout:

Chess, checkers, backgammon and dominoes, were the principal games played in the asylum, but in none of these did I take any interest; indeed, I never learned to play them. I think if all these games could be confined to lunatic asylums it would be just as well for the world.

His ideas for reform start with a more rigorous admissions procedure, to ensure that only ‘raving maniacs’ went in, thus reducing overcrowding and poor care. He remarked upon the fact that people of all ages with epilepsy shouldn’t have been there.

Another freebie (Gutenberg, Internet Archive etc), the book is an engaging read and another sad portrayal of the history of lunatic asylums. All in all, a good read and recommended (especially at that price).

… though it may be humiliating to spread abroad the knowledge that I have been an inmate of a lunatic asylum, yet, if by publishing this sketch, the people in general shall become better informed of the true character of asylum life, and thereby prevent the suffering of some poor, unfortunate victim to mental disease, I shall be amply compensated for all my humiliation.

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