Monroe County Insane Asylum
Like most of the mental institutions built during the mid-19th century, the Monroe County Insane Asylum in Rochester, New York, began with good intentions and altruistic motives. In 1826, the Monroe County Alms House was created to house and care for the area’s growing poor and indigent population. At this time, the mentally ill poor were grouped together with the non-mentally ill poor. Impoverished people from Monroe County suffering from various hardships all lived together at the Alms House, with the stated purpose of the Alms House being to take care of “the raving maniac, the young child, the infirm old man, and the seducer’s victim” (“Rochester State Hospital”). A penitentiary was also built on the same grounds. While the intentions of the creators of these facilities were no doubt noble, having all of society’s “undesirables” sequestered away in one location without attention to their very different individual needs and problems was less than ideal.
At this time the mentally ill at the Alms House did not receive specialized treatment, being rather lumped together with everyone else, but this would soon change. By 1857, amid changing societal attitudes toward the mentally ill that began leading to the creation of residential home for the mentally ill across the country, the directors of the Alms House decided to add a special wing that was specifically dedicated to the mentally ill. While still considered a part of the Alms House, the wing was given its own name- the Monroe County Insane Asylum. This separation of course also benefited the other, non-mentally ill inmates of the Alms House, particularly the children, since some of the mentally ill patients were considered violent. The wing for the mentally ill soon became overcrowded, with the mentally ill patients living for a while in cramped and deplorable conditions. A few years later, in 1862, the number of Alms House residents being admitted into the mental asylum wing had increased so significantly that they now required their own separate building. The establishment of the large new building helped to improve conditions dramatically. (26)
Life at the Monroe County Insane Asylum
For the first decade or so of its existence, the Monroe County Insane Asylum earned a positive reputation, becoming known as a place where the mentally ill were treated humanely and with dignity. The first superintendent of Monroe County Insane Asylum, Dr. Lord, was considered to be a kind and gentle person who treated the patients very well. Patients were intentionally kept busy, active and occupied, which was thought to be therapeutic. The patients developed a sense of purpose and usefulness, and were distracted from their troubles, by engaging in housework around the asylum, as well as landscaping and farm work on the surrounding grounds. An emphasis was placed on a plain but nutritious and wholesome diet, as well as physical exercise. They were also allowed and encouraged to participate in more entertaining pursuits and hobbies, such as crafts, artwork, dancing and music. Instruction was even given in intricate textile arts such as weaving and embroidery, and this seemed to significantly benefit some of the patients. During this time the asylum was also known to be neat, orderly and an overall pleasant to live.
By the 1870’s the Monroe County Insane Asylum began to be plagued by the problems that were increasingly common at the well-intended mental institutions across the nation. As it became more and more socially acceptable for the mentally ill to be sent to residential asylums instead of locked away in family attics or basements, the asylums grew proportionally more crowded. Monroe County Insane Asylum was no exception, and so by the 1870’s had grown overcrowded and decidedly less pleasant. With too many patients for the staff to handle, gentle and humane treatment and individual attention was no longer the norm, and the patients at the asylum came to sometimes be treated more like prisoners than well cared for residents.
Changes in 1890
In 1890, after a few decades of increasing interest in long-term treatment for the mentally ill, New York State passed the State Care Act, which allowed for the establishment and financial backing of state-funded mental institutions. Under this act, the State of New York offered to purchase and operate the Monroe County Insane Asylum. The state purchased the asylum for $50,000 in 1891 and renamed it the Rochester State Hospital. At this time, Eugene Henry Howard, a graduate of the University of Buffalo Medical Department, became superintendent of the asylum. He remained in his supervisory role at the asylum for 35 years. After the purchase of the asylum, the state spent additional funds in order to renovate and expand the hospital, in order to provide space for more patients and to help counteract the overcrowding issue. Over the ensuing years, the hospital regularly added more beds- and where necessary, buildings- but expansion could not keep up with increasing patient numbers. The hospital continued to face overcrowding issues at various times throughout much of its existence. (27)
The Rochester State Hospital has been in continual use over the years, serving the more serious mental health needs of the Rochester area. In the 1970’s it was renamed once again, from the Rochester State Hospital to the Rochester Psychiatric Hospital. The psychiatric hospital still exists today, as a large state-funded treatment facility, which continues to offer residential treatment for both adolescents and adults. The local sheriff’s office also has a forensics department on the premises. (28)
The Remember Garden
While the original intentions of the founders of the Monroe County Insane Asylum, and similar institutions around the country, were lofty, there was a definite ugly side to such places. The Alms House and later the asylum provided a home and care for many of Rochester’s most vulnerable citizens- the poor, the mentally disabled, and those abandoned by their families of all ages. The Monroe County Insane Asylum was a safe haven for many, but even within this safe haven the poor and mentally ill was without status or power. When the residents died, they became nameless, anonymous and probably went un-mourned.
In 1984 a large mass grave was discovered in Highland Park in Rochester, New York, when a bulldozer which was being used in a terracing project uncovered very old human remains. The mysterious grave was marked by a single large stone, without any inscriptions or names. Researchers soon discovered that the dead men, women and children who were buried here in this large, anonymous grave, were most likely patients from the Monroe County Insane Asylum who died in the 19th century. More than 700 individuals were buried in this mass grave, in simple and cheap wooden coffins, with no records being kept of the dead.
In 2004, a living garden memorial called the Remember Garden was created at the site of the mass grave. The garden was established in order to honor the dead and provide them with the dignity they were denied at the time of their deaths. The garden is maintained by DePaul Community Services, and is crisscrossed by peaceful paths and benches where one can sit and reflect while surrounded by lilies, lilacs, pansies, shrubs and trees. The Remember Garden is a place to come and quietly reflect while paying respects to those who died at the Monroe County Insane Asylum so many years ago.
The dead were those unfortunate enough to be born with mental illness or disability or in some cases something as minor as a seizure disorder, which at the time was enough to classify someone as mentally ill. While the Monroe County Insane Asylum and similar institutions represented a step in the right direction, there was still a long way to go in treating the mentally ill with dignity and humanity. 19th century residential mental institutions were certainly more humane than simply locking away the mentally ill in a basement and pretending they didn’t exist, but were nonetheless limited in many ways. The patients were still seen by many as less than human and lacking individual worth or value, as evidenced by the way they were treated after death.
The Remember Garden is intended not only as a place to honor these specific dead, but also as a place to reflect soberly on the history of mental health treatment, how far it has come, and how much there is left to do. Another major purpose of the Remember Garden is to motivate visitors to help remove the stigma attached to mental illness. The graves are no longer unmarked, instead decorated by a simple plaque asking visitors to remember those poor souls who died at the Monroe County Insane Asylum so long ago. While the founders, doctors, nurses and superintendents at the Monroe County Insane Asylum and other such institutions did the best they could with the knowledge they had at the time, the Remember Garden reminds us that life for the mentally ill in the 19th century was uncertain and difficult. (29)