Asylum on the Hill
History of a
Healing Landscape

Katherine Ziff
(Ohio University Press)
Construction began on the Athens Lunatic Asylum in 1867. The building was set on a 150 acre hill just outside Athens, Ohio overlooking the Hockhocking River. It was completed in 1874, financed by the state under governor Rutherford B. Hayes at a cost of $621,000 in 19th century dollars --- probably $20,000,000 in today's money.

That the politicians of the time were willing to spend so much on yet another nut-house says much about the innocent Victorian belief in the curative power of public institutions. (It also might have been fed by the desire of the good burghers of Athens to have their own in-house governmentally sponsored financial hole, with its constant needs for food, building materials, and manpower. It's not too distant from the contemporary cant that a brand-new prison will bring prosperity to an otherwise depressed area. With the balance sheet in mind, the psychic cost to the community becomes immaterial.

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The Athens community asylum was part of a nation wide experiment in psychiatric treatment from the late nineteenth Century. It was known as "The Moral Treatment." The thesis was put forth by a Dr. Thomas Kirkbride --- along with Dorothea Dix, among others --- who argued that mental illness could be cured, "that physical punishment and restraints should be abolished," that "routines and diversions" could be set up for patients in a "restful and supportive setting."

The setting of the Athens Lunatic Asylum was certainly bucolic. The original 150 acres --- soon expanded to over a thousand --- was planted with hundreds of trees, flowering bushes, and shrubs. There were walkways --- even a "Lover's Lane" --- and extensive landscaping and terracing. There was a large garden to be cultivated by the patients, which included corn, cauliflower, peas, spinach, tomatoes, and oyster plants (for those, presumably, who missed the fruits of the sea).

The asylum itself was massive, with two great wings staggered out to the east and to the west from the body of the building. It was built in such a way to insure extensive light for the quarters and fresh air for all. There were over 500 rooms for patients, and they were small so that future administrations would resist the temptation to crowd patients together in the same small space.

Patients came to Athens from all over the southeast part of Ohio. One could be forcibly committed if friends, the family, or the sheriff's department got a supporting certification from a family doctor ... with the concurrent approval of a local judge. Symptoms, according to documents dug up by Ms. Ziff, included "mania, mania with epilepsy, monomania, paresis, melancholia," and "five subcategories of dementia [and] imbecility." We now know that "manias" could be triggered by childhood trauma, injury, and destructive family patterns, but the doctors of the day had their own DSML. They listed sixty-nine possible causes of lunacy, including fevers, sunstroke, "apoplectic attack, menstrual derangements, change of life, lactation, pregnancy, syphilis, masturbation, intemperance, inhalation of nitrous oxide, opium eating" and "bathing while overheated." Indeed, in those days, one could run off the tracks merely in "fording a cold creek while menstruating."

The golden days of the Athens Lunatic Asylum were from the time of its opening, 1874, until the mid-1890s. After that, politics --- plus a series of scandals, not to say national financial "panics" --- took off the glow. Times of ice-skating on the lake, meals served in large, spotless dining halls (with a conservatory for freshly grown flowers) were soon overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of new patients, many sent in from overcrowded asylums in the larger Ohio cities. The mad will always be with us ... and in ever increasing numbers.

Plus, there was the usual state political fiddling around. Doctors and staff, friends to the state legislators, were appointed ... including one P. H. Clarke, who was, it was reported, "habitually addicted to the immoderate use of opium and intoxicating drinks," with charges by observers

    that he has frequently been found in his private office in a drunken stupor or sleep, with a bottle of intoxicating drink on a table by his side; that he has been found beastly drunk in his private office at the unseasonable hour of two o'clock at night; that he has been known to take beer bottles from the storage drug room late at night to his bed chamber ... that he has frequently gone into the wards in a stupid and staggering condition, his breath smelling of whisky.

Beastly drunk! Reminds us of John Lennon's doctor who "came in / stinking of gin / and proceeded to lay on the table."

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Time was unkind to this glorious asylum and its equally glorious grounds. The twentieth century with all its wars and foibles and endemic double-binds created enough psychological tensions for the good folk of Ohio to grow lunacy aplenty in every little village and farming community. More, it was found that pretty trees and flowers and good food were not enough to abate the clients being shipped off to Athens. State funding went in other directions, buildings deteriorated, and recurring scandals, plus a flood of senile dementia cases, served to demolish the good will of doctors, patients and staff alike.

Then there were the methods of treatment introduced towards the middle of the new century, crude treatments perhaps designed to reduce the overflow. The Nobel Prize winner E. Moniz of Portugal popularized "transorbital lobotomy," and a Dr. Walter Freeman moved about the country from asylum to asylum with his expertise on the "ice-pick" style of operations, coupled with ECT (shock therapy). The director for the years 1955 - 1962 wrote a report emphasizing the fact that the mortality rate from lobotomies was less than five per cent, and so the good Dr. Freeman was on hand twice a year to pick at the new patients that Athens wanted to get rid of. Until the new psychotropic drugs came along, the lobotomy was seen as a key way to get the patients out of the public way and back on the streets again.

--- Lolita Lark
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