The Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Mental Disorded Minds, also known as The Public Hospital in Colonial Williamsburg, is the oldest psychiatric hospital in Virginia and possibly the nation. The hospital was built to treat the mentally ill.
In 1766, Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier was petitioned to build a publically funded hospital to treat mental illness. However, at this time in history, it was seen as one with a ¨disordered mind¨.
This definition encapsulates any reason one could think of, especially one that would make the person incapable of intellectual reason. These people were all said to have a psychological disorder, and there must be a place to put them away from society, as it could be contagious. This also included those born differently and had cognitive disorders, and all were considered dangerous and disruptive.
Most did not have family to care for them or who wanted to care for them. Before mental institutions, they would be placed in jail or homeless. Virginia knew they had to find a place to put these people.
Hence, the construction of the hospital was a safe place for those with mental illness; unfortunately, the first asylums were brutal, and the rooms were equivalent to a small cell, with a chamber pot and a straw mattress.
The hospital was opened in 1773, during a time when mental illness was diagnosed by a jury instead of a doctor. The jury would vote to determine if the person was a ¨criminal, lunatic, or idiot¨.
The first patients were Zachariah Mallory and Catherine Harvey; Zachariah was previously held in the county jail. In 1774, the first nonwhite patient, Charity, a free woman of mixed race, was admitted.
The hospital was initially run by Dr. Benjamin Rush, who believed mental imbalances were caused by brain inflammation. He created the Tranquilizer Chair because they were thought to cleanse patients’ bodies and minds. Dr. Rush believed that fear was the best way to induce sanity; he stated:
“Terror acts powerfully upon the body, through the medium of the mind, and should be employed in the cure of madness.”
The chair was designed to deprive the patient of sight and slow the blood flow to the brain, and they were also given laxatives to release the impurities of the body.
Another treatment was placing patients in the dungeon and forcing them to wear a straight jacket. They were contained, chained, and placed in solitude, and some were even forced to lay in a coffin-like structure ¨Utica cribs¨ that were stacked on top of each other. These cells were built under the hospital’s first floor and reserved those in a ¨raving phrenzy¨.
The treatment of the patients was inhumane at this time during the asylum’s history. Another treatment also included giving a substance that would empty the patient’s digestive tract, as well as bleeding patients to get out the ¨harmful fluids¨.
Patients were placed into ice-cold water baths to make them sane again. The hospital also had an outside area called the ¨Mad Yard¨. Initially, the yard was built for patients to get fresh air and sun. However, it was torn down. However, in 1790, a new yard was made, two of them much smaller and with a 10-foot fence.
The yard became known as the mad yard and did not include any furniture or place to relax while outside. It has been described as similar to a yard at a prison. There was also a cemetery where many patients were buried in unmarked graves.