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Photo by William Notman
Daniel Francis investigates the practice of visiting asylums and penitentiaries as entertainment in nineteenth-century Canada.
On her way home to Belleville from a visit to Niagara Falls in the summer of 1853, the writer Susanna Moodie paused on the outskirts of Toronto to make a tour of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum. As she dismounted from her carriage in front of the high-domed central wing of the recently opened building, she spied several male patients who were out stretching their legs. They looked at her, she wrote in her memoir, Life in the Clearings, “with an eager air of childish curiosity.” Once she had entered the asylum, it was Moodie’s turn to gawk.
At first her impressions were positive; she observed “no appearance of wretchedness or misery in the ward; nothing that associated with it the terrible idea of madness I had been wont to entertain.” But when she climbed to the upstairs wards occupied by the “more frantic inmates,” her feelings changed. Visitors were not allowed to stroll through these wards; they could only observe the scene through glass doors. “The hands of all these women were secured in mufflers; some were dancing, others running to and fro at full speed, clapping their hands, and laughing and shouting with the most boisterous merriment. How dreadful is the laugh of madness!” Comforting herself with the conventional religious pieties, Moodie made her escape. “We had seen enough of madness, and the shrieks from the outrageous patients above, whom strangers have seldom nerve enough to visit, quickened our steps as we hurried from the place.”
What was Susanna Moodie doing wandering the corridors of a mental hospital like some visitor at a zoo? That, I think, is our appalled, modern reaction. But as Janet Miron illustrates in her new book, Prisons, Asylums, and the Public: Institutional Visiting in the Nineteenth Century (University of Toronto Press), Susanna Moodie was not an insensitive voyeur. Quite the opposite. For much of the nineteenth century, public visits to asylums and prisons were not only allowed, they were encouraged. During its first year of operation alone, the Toronto asylum received fourteen hundred visitors. Some of these were friends and relatives of the patients, of course, but many others were sightseers, curious to learn about these new institutions that were widely hailed as sure-fire solutions to mental disease and criminal deviance.
Joseph Workman, the Toronto asylum’s medical superintendent, was conscious of the fear and prejudice that characterized popular views of mental illness. He was a firm believer in allowing visitors to stroll the halls and grounds of his hospital so that they might see for themselves that nightmare images of violent, hysterical lunatics were not true. In Mrs. Moodie’s case, his openness may have backfired. Nonetheless, Workman was determined to counter popular misconceptions of madness and to dispel any notion that sinister things were going on behind the walls of the asylum.
Our modern view of prisons and asylums has been conditioned by what they became: institutions of confinement where people who had violated the norms of society were isolated and “rehabilitated.” It is difficult for us to imagine a time when they were hailed as humanitarian reforms that their founders and administrators were proud to show off. As Miron points out, the walls of these early institutions were porous. The inmates/patients may not have been free to leave, but visitors were free to come and go. Joseph Workman was not alone in putting out the welcome mat. “The Asylum is full from morning to night of people to see friends and people to see through the institution,” wrote another Ontario “mad doctor,” the London asylum director Richard Maurice Bucke. Like Workman, Bucke believed that the public had a distorted idea of the asylum, viewing it as “an immense prison, full of all sorts of horrors.” He thought that people needed to see first-hand the great work of healing that was going on there. To this end, Bucke groomed the grounds of his asylum so that visitors might feel they were visiting a park or a garden, and he included outsiders in a variety of social occasions at the institution, where they freely mingled with the patients.
Prisons were by their nature less accessible, but they too were open to visitors to a degree that would be unthinkable today. The warden of the Kingston Penitentiary, which opened in 1835, reported that “no concealment has ever been practised in carrying on the affairs of the Penitentiary, to which admission is freely given to all strangers desirous of witnessing its internal economy, nearly sixteen hundred of whom have visited the Establishment during the past year.” The Pen even collected an admission fee and used the money to defray the costs of operation.
Miron argues that institutional tourism was not voyeuristic, an embarrassing historical episode best forgotten. Rather it was a mainstream activity that served important social functions. Most visitors had a genuine interest in the prisons and asylums, which were considered to be symbols of economic progress and moral improvement. They believed it was their role to monitor what was going on to confirm that the institutions were being well run and that inmates and patients were not being abused. For their part, administrators sought the validation that public visiting gave their institutions; it was a way to prove that there was nothing inhuman or illegal going on within them. In other words, there was a role for the public in the operation of the institutions, a role that has pretty much disappeared today—when, in the name of privacy, penal and mental health institutions occupy the margins of society beyond the public’s gaze.
What did inmates think about the appearance of visitors in their midst? Miron goes to some trouble to seek out sources that answer this question. Not surprisingly, she finds that reactions were mixed. Some of the incarcerated seemed to welcome the distraction that visitors offered, the opportunity to break through the isolation of institutional life. Others were unsettled by the experience of being on display and felt it betrayed their privacy. In general, public visitation was accepted as a useful, even necessary part of asylum and prison administration.
Early in the twentieth century, attitudes changed and institutional visiting ceased. Miron suggests that this was because the institutions themselves had lost their reformist cachet. By the end of the nineteenth century, mental hospitals and prisons had failed to live up to the expectations that had been held for them. Overcrowded and underfunded, they became holding tanks for the chronically ill and the criminal. Administrators, embarrassed by this failure, no longer wanted the public sticking its nose in. And the public had lost interest anyway in institutions that no longer seemed able to resolve pressing social problems. “The ‘golden age’ of prisons and asylums had passed,” writes Miron, and the public did not like to be reminded.
Today public visitation plays no role in the operation of our penal and mental health institutions. But Miron’s book shows that we should not condescend to the past by dismissing the practice as shameful or exploitative. Our large mental institutions closed because they were so ineffective, and our prisons have failed to meet the challenge of rehabilitation. We have little reason to feel superior to Susanna Moodie and her fellow visitors. As Miron concludes, “the distance between [the institutions] and greater society would grow with the end of visiting, and their interiors would become virtually unknown to the general public.” This is surely not a good thing.