Are You Insane? Common Reasons to Be Admitted to the Hudson River State Hospital

We can probably all agree that we live in some pretty chaotic times. The past few years have given us everything from a worldwide health crisis, political and racial tensions, to what appears to be another major war overseas. So, it comes as no surprise that folks are feeling stressed; more people are suffering from depression and therapists are in high demand. Thankfully, with advancements in mental health care and medicine, there are many ways to receive treatment and therapy now. A century ago, that wasn’t the case. In fact, conversely, there were more reasons to be institutionalized than there were treatments that would result in patients being released.  

Curious people searching for patient records from the Hudson River State Hospital mistakenly call us here in the Local History Room all the time, hoping that we might have some juicy records hidden away. While we do have some Annual Reports of the HRSH, these booklets do not contain any patient names or conditions. Some of these reports give lists of reasons why people were being committed. In the list pictured off to the right, we can see some “causes for insanity” that would find people institutionalized in the year 1899: anything from poor morale, to sexual excess, to old age. You could be having a bad day because your friend died or your business failed. If you look down to where it says, “change of life” you’ll notice that it only shows women being admitted for this reason, most likely menopause.    

Interestingly, when somebody had a nervous breakdown or went insane in the late 19th and early 20th century, the local newspapers didn’t shy away from including the details in the daily papers. While searching through the newspapers, I accidentally stumbled on the case of a local actress named Margaret Shayne. Margaret had lived on Ferris Lane here in Poughkeepsie with her mother and sister, and she was suffering from being overworked in the film business. She was checked into the asylum sometime around 1917, and apparently she managed to swallow a knife from the dining table not long after she arrived. One of the nurses had noticed the knife had disappeared, but the issue was dismissed. It wasn’t until three years later, when Margaret became very ill, that an operation in 1920 had determined that she had managed to swallow another knife and two spoons (or two forks depending on which newspaper you read) during her time there. Margaret would die at the asylum not long after the surgery. 

After discovering this, I wondered what other cases I could find in the newspapers that described people being deemed insane, and heading to the HRSH. In 1899, Thomas Whorton, who lived on Main Street, entered the police station and begged Poughkeepsie’s finest to protect him from the witches who were tormenting him. He claimed that it was witchcraft that was causing him to hear voices coming up from the ground. Before he was carried away to the asylum, he cautioned the officers to “keep a sharp lookout for the witches on upper Main Street.” Besides witchcraft, there was also the issue of “religious mania” as it appears in the newspapers, or “religious excitement” as it appears in the hospital’s annual reports, where people would get so caught up in their religious beliefs that it would make them insane. For example, a man named Thomas Lennon, a Catholic, in 1890 got so excited over a debate on parochial schools that he was committed to the hospital. Mr. George W. Vanderburgh interrupted the sermon at a church in Matteawan (now Beacon) in 1893 with what was deemed an episode of religious mania. He shouted “incoherent and senseless speeches” at the Reverend, and as a result, he was sent to the HRSH.  

Is it possible that basketball could make you go insane? (Maybe that’s why they call it March Madness?) In 1902, a 22 year-old named Wilfred Conklin was sent to the asylum for injuries sustained during a basketball game. It was believed that the treatment that the hospital could provide would result in a “perfect cure.” Perhaps one of the saddest cases we found was that of Mrs. Mary Bartley, who had been trapped in a terrible flood in Matteawan. She lived right next to the Fishkill creek and was almost washed away by the rising of the water levels. She clung onto whatever she could and was drained of all of her energy before finally being rescued. She survived the flood only to suffer from extreme shock and became insane as a result. She died a few days later at the asylum. 

Now of course there were people who entered the hospital for a short stay and were then released back to their normal lives, but the newspapers rarely mention these stories. Perhaps because the families were already embarrassed enough with the news that had been made. Or perhaps stories of recovery were not nearly as gossipy (and therefore print worthy) as stories of decline. So if you do feel like this modern world of ours is affecting your mental health, remember there are all kinds of random reasons to go “mad,” and it doesn’t really matter what time period you are living in. Based on the list of reasons for entry into the hospital in 1899, many of us would find ourselves there today, if it wasn’t already partially converted into a shopping center. So find a good book to read, a good therapist to talk to, a good cup of tea (or whatever you like) to drink, and breathe.  

“Thirty-Second Annual Report of the Managers of the Hudson River State Hospital” – 1899 – 362.11 H – LH Collections
Poughkeepsie Journal – 19 Apr 1890, 15 Mar 1899, 30 Jan 1893, 25 Mar 1902, 21 Apr 1902
Sunday Courier – 21 Nov 1920 

01 – A postcard of the Hudson River State Hospital. LH Collections
02 – A postcard of the Hudson River State Hospital. LH Collections
03 – Article from the Poughkeepsie Journal concerning Basketball injury in 1902.
04 – Article from the Sunday Courier concerning actress Margaret Shayne in 1920.
05 – Image of the list of causes for insanity from the 1899 report. LH Collections
06 – Image showing a hallway inside the HRSH. LH Collections
07 – Image showing patients from the HRSH picking peas. LH Collections