A Janus-Like Asylum: The City and the Institutional Confinement of the Mentally Ill in Victorian Ontario

By Wright, David; Day, Shawn et al. | Urban History Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

A Janus-Like Asylum: The City and the Institutional Confinement of the Mentally Ill in Victorian Ontario


Wright, David, Day, Shawn, Smith, Jessica, Flis, Nathan, Urban History Review


Introduction

The history of mental health and psychiatry has witnessed tremendous popularity among scholars. The literature is vast, and constitutes, alongside the history of public health, one of the most popular fields within the history of medicine. We now have detailed histories of most of the principal mental hospitals in nineteenth-century and twentieth-century Canada and the United States, as well as general surveys of lunacy legislation and the formation of the psychiatric profession. Since the late 1970s, an important theme in the history of mental health has been the quantitative examination of patient populations of the famous, and for some infamous, Victorian mental hospitals. Academics have debated the demographic composition of these controversial institutions, with detailed examinations of specific populations, including the aged, women, Aboriginals, and the developmentally disabled. (1)

Within this literature, there has been a small but vibrant corpus of articles on the geographical background of patients, and particularly on the degree to which the situation of the asylum affected the likelihood of institutional confinement. Some research on American asylums, led by Hunter and Shannon, has subscribed to the distance-decay argument (whereby rates of admission closer to mental hospitals were higher than those counties or areas farther away). (2) By contrast, literature on British asylums, pioneered by Chris Philo, has argued that there was little discernable locality effect. (3) Yet, despite the fact that the first generation of asylums in Canada were almost always constructed on the edge of the principal provincial cities, there has been a relative absence of a sustained debate with the Canadian literature on the geographical background of patients, apart from observations, from time to time, on the apparently large number of immigrants in Canadian institutions. (4) This paper seeks to realign the discussion of the geography of admissions from one proving, or disproving, Jarvis's law, by examining the degree to which urbanization, and urban living, may have played a part in the confinement of the insane. Or to put it another way, in keeping with this special issue, what was the relationship between the Victorian city and the evolution of the public mental hospital?

The paper will begin in a qualitative vein, demonstrating that the urban-ness of the public mental hospital has been a point of some degree of ambiguity. On the one hand, the asylum had significant civic symbolism, as one of the most expensive and illustrious institutions of Victorian Canada. Rather than being out of sight, these mental hospitals were visible and prominent institutions that held public interest, generated scrutiny, and fostered local myths. For better or for worse, they were important edifices in the economic and cultural makeup of urban communities. In addition, the dramatic growth in the size of the asylums (and their cost to taxpayers) led to an ongoing discourse about their goals, success, and conditions. On the other hand, the asylum--in its idealized form--was an attempt to recreate (if in rather awkward institutional form) the idyll of pre-industrial rural living. Purposefully set in ample farmland, just outside the boundaries of urban centres, the placement of the mental hospital was predicated, in part, on drawing mentally disordered persons outside of the frenetic pace of industrial society, of creating an asylum from urban industrial life. Mental hospitals were thus Janus-like--looking forward to an exciting metropolitan future and yet, at the same time, looking back to a romanticized rustic past. (5)

The second part of the paper will adopt a quantitative approach to answering a basic, if unresolved, question in the historiography of mental health: to what extent was the Victorian asylum--socio-demographically speaking--an urban institution? Focusing on the rise of the mental hospital in Victorian Ontario, and in particular the background of over seven thousand patients admitted to provincial lunatic asylums from 1841 up to and including the census year 1881, it will reveal that, far from being receptacles of primarily local, urban dwellers, the mental hospitals continued to receive a remarkable number of mentally ill from rural regions of the province.

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