Date of Award


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Departmental Honors


Sociology, Social Work, and Anthropology


Statement of Purpose

"Insanity is a subject which touches our civil rights at so many different points, that it may be said to have a place in every problem involving human responsibility." -John Ordronaux, New York State Commissioner in Lunacy, 1878.

Mental illness can reduce even the strongest person to a state of helplessness. The way in which a society treats individuals with mental illness provides a window into what that society most values - what behaviors it approves, what people it sees as most valuable, and how much society is willing to sacrifice to help those who may or may not be able to contribute something in return.

In the history of the United States, numerous attempts have been made to systematically treat mental illness, and each has failed. Each new treatment of mental illness has been a reaction to the failure of previous attempts and the then changed social climate. In post Revolutionary War America, the mentally ill largely stayed in their own communities, kept at home or held in prison (Rothman 2002:43). In the mid-19th century, the role of the government in the everyday lives of Americans was expanding, and community leaders, stunned by the brutality of the living conditions the mentally ill, fought to create a system of asylums to more humanely and successfully treat the mentally ill (Rothman 2002:76). In asylums, patients would be removed from the community that had failed to care for them previously. In the following century, the asylums deteriorated into little more than human-warehouses. Overcrowding, a lack of funding, and desperate and abusive attempts at treatment plagued the system (Erickson and Erickson 2008:27-29). By the 1970s, American confidence in the effectiveness of government had dwindled considerably, and America's asylums were closed and abandoned (Erickson and Erickson 2008:25-30). The asylums had become authoritarian and oppressive, so treatment again was shifted to the community. But by removing the state's power to control the treatment of the mentally ill - a power that had been so horribly abused - large numbers of mentally ill Americans ended up again in prison or living on the street (Erickson and Erickson 2008:25-26). Today, community leaders are once again proposing new methods of treatment to deal with mental illness.

If we can better understand the strengths and weaknesses of past attempts at treating mental illness, we may be able to achieve more success in the future. The post Civil War period was a time when the modern United States was taking shape. American psychiatry was still relatively new, and the system of insane asylums across the United States were still new and their managers optimistic. The New York City Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in the second half of the 19th century was the second largest asylum in the country, and the largest to treat both chronic and acute patients (Walker and Seaton 1888:40-42). Like the city around it, the asylum housed patients from across the globe and from every level of society. The asylum was the center of national struggle between two competing branches of the psychiatric thought, and the target of a milestone in investigative journalism.

This paper is a historical and demographic portrait of the New York City Lunatic Asylum during this period.

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Faculty Mentor

E. Helen Berry

Departmental Honors Advisor

Christy Glass