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Life In The Asylum (1855)

 Life In The Asylum, Part I

Published in The Opal,  January 1855, A Patient’s Publication Produced at the State Lunatic Asylum, Utica, N.Y.

The Opal was published by the patients at the New York State Insane Asylum in Utica during the 1850s. It contained comments on current events, literary essays and book reviews, poetry, and descriptions of events at the asylum, including the dramatic and musical productions of the patients themselves.

This flurry of cultural activities was itself part of moral treatment. Such a therapeutic approach would become unthinkable just a few decades later. After the Civil War, institutions became larger, more impersonal, and more focused on protecting society than on helping the confined individual patient. Activities like a literary magazine would later be seen as both unnecessary and costly.

The Opal was printed at the asylum on the same presses that produced the Journal of Insanity. Authors were never named, but sometimes initials were provided. The journal, published monthly, had a tone that was learned and fairly highbrow. Copies were sent in trade to other publications in order to build up the library at the asylum. Its readership was probably limited.



DEAR FRIEND: — You ask me to give you life in the Asylum. It does not differ much from life out of the Asylum. Pray take my eye and view the hall I enter, as visitor. Passing from the entrance to the great building, you are ushered into a long dining-room, which is lighted through a verandah of equal dimensions, overlooking the central square of the building. Projecting wings run backward, and a rear building, containing the printing-office, bakery, &c., forming a square. You see busy men and women passing to and fro. It is in the centre building you stand, from which are also two side wings. A door is unlocked, and you enter the ladies’ apartment — a long hall, over two hundred feet in length, and perhaps sixteen in breadth, is before you. A bow window down at the end lights this apartment. Ladies are seen gliding to and fro from rooms which open on either side. You will be kindly offered a place on one of the nice settees, and a group surrounds you; kindly words of greeting meet you; all are busy, as in a home parlour — some with book, — some with needle — all look happy, in neat and becoming attire. The rich and poor meet here without livery or pride, each maintaining true self-respect; for each is content and helps to bear the burthen of the other. To the spirit of goodness is allotted the highest seat. Grace here abounds.

Our Heavenly Father hath spread a bounteous table for his poor, through the government of a free people, on whose banner is written equal rights and equal privileges. The seat of justice is in one hand of liberty, the eagle, courage and strength in the other, looking up, with piercing eye, to the Ruler of nature, who in His strong chariot rolls, dispensing light and life o’er all His realm. His blessings to the just and the unjust flow — raising the fallen — protecting the lowly — opening paths through the desert — leveling mountains. He walks over the waters, skims through the air, proclaim the royalty of man on earth. His dominion is shining with the lustre of divinity within these wails; for here reason is called up; yes, crowns are given to those who have been bereft by stern decree. It is a benign air we breathe in this State hall. We feel subdued; for law and order prevail, yet we feel it not, for there is in every face a willing subjection to kind physicians’ care.

Let us stop at this open door. We enter the boudoir of a lady, elegant in manners and intellectual in conversation. She is surrounded by the luxuries of taste and industry, in her varied works of skill we are beguiled to pass an hour, which only seems too short. We have received a refining incitement, and we would linger longer, but must pass on to mother genius. A little lady with pen to poetize; books and pictures adorn her room, lending an influence to her magic spell — a quiet spirit, we will not long disturb; thence pass on. Birds begin to sing with cheering note, responding to cheering voices, who have called them up, and we too join the voices gay of yonder room, where a lady fair, and enbonpoint, is making merriment with a little court around her. She is plying her needle in such fantastic shapes — so comic is her pen-wiper, you cannot help but buy it. Here are dolls for the baby, pincushions for the toilet. It’s all the work of benevolent impulse; the lady works for the good of the house, and her happy face beams with goodness.

Some doors are shut; no one enters without a knock; for each one is mistress of her own apartment, and may live in solitude or company, according to her mood. We reach a niche, midway the long hall, and seat ourselves on its comfortable lounge. A window opens to our view a beautiful lawn in front of the building, beyond it the valley of the Mohawk. But we are drawn within doors to the prospect of the “Opal Library,” and here is the mind fed from the purest literature of the past and present age; and here we must commend the authorities laid open for strengthening reason and purifying the heart. Medicine divine is most conspicuous; Bibles, with able commentators; religious charts and encyclopedias; the best sermons of the best divines, those who go to the fountainhead of earthly power in the divine will revealed from heaven, — Hobart and Spring, Wesley and Watson, Edward and Alleine, are side by side; — the best of poetry from Cowper, Young, Milton, Tennyson, &c.; — a few of the best selected tales of fiction. No parent need fear to feed his child’s mind from the “Opal Library.”

We wander on, drawn by the strains of music, and we enter, the parlor door, to be regailed by the sweet songstress seated there. In the interval we look around, sofas invite to repose, pictures catch the eye, a folding door opens to a party of ladies assembled to sew: they are all preparing for a fair. Oh what beautiful works are open to us here! We cannot leave the hall, and readily join the group, and with hands and heart take our part. We stay for the morrow. Adieu. Dear A., I will, on the morrow, give you another view of life in the Asylum.


DEAR FRIEND: — I can’t get out. The lock and key of St. Power is over me. I came here yesterday a visitor, and I gave you what a visitor’s eye takes in of life in an Asylum. “The eye,” says a modern Transcendental, “sees what it brings.” — “To Newton, or Newton’s dog Diamond, how different the universe!” Yesterday I saw a bower of bliss. Who could refuse to be happy here? So many comforts, such beautiful occupations, such good company! But, today — the poetry of Asylum life has faded before the near vision of stern reality. Yet, it is a gala day and all are engaged in preparation for its exhibition. It’s like the day of a party at home. Robes of pink and blue are seen floating in one room — mantua-makers are fitting in another — here are plumes and flowers congregating and nod to each other o’er ladies’ caps and bonnets — vases are filling with the flowers of nature from the green-house — bouquets are admired in the stand. The looking-glass is consulted, and fashion with taste appealed to — in its power woman rules.

Now comes the power of man, with his scaffoldings and hammer sounds. I try to pass his boundary and my fate is declared. The master, man, makes me a lunatic in these walls. He will not let me pass his door. I declare myself a free woman; he pays me no heed, but hammers in his nail the stronger and the louder. I am not insane — yes; but in Rome we must do as Romans do, and here insane I must be; it’s my only prerogative — I call for my attendant, and her key gives me the freedom of an hour to range amid the flowers of Asylumia. There were brilliant exotics arranged for me to view; but I am not free, I cannot see Paradise to-day. I would not be a slave. Give me the will to choose and the mind to perform my allotted work. My task is given me by master minds, who have not consulted mine, for I would have a key to unlock the door from Asylum-life. What bitter feeling is engendered by the fact, “I can’t get out!” I see no beauty in these flowers ranged before my eye — its demon throws an ebony hue over them. I turn to the free air without, it brings to my ear appeals to get out. I would set the poor captives free. I look for a champion knight. The Doctor is the champion knight here, and his process is one of bitter pills. I would walk beyond these bounds. You must ask the Doctor. The Doctor! I did not come here to be ruled by the Doctor. I came here a visitor. It was very pleasant to bow to the Doctor’s smiling attention yesterday; to obey as a patient his mandates of to-day is another matter. I am insane now; a host of demons are to be quelled into a reasonable submission. For this I seek in my own room a physician’s help, who holds a key over all state powers. To him is given the bow of deep submission, the noise and tumult of demons subside, and in quiet self-possession I am free. True, the wall of sense is around me, but it falls before the master’s touch, and the spirit power. No miracle is this, but a stern command has been obeyed, and in deep submission — the spirit of love has been imparted to the performance of duty. It has set the prisoner free to enjoyments which sense and heaven alike bestow. Again we see. Reviewing the beauty of yesterday, we seize it — in our acceptance, find reason’s gift restored. Again, with my eye I ask you to view the life within the hall, and be caught with me in the fact of preparation. I am in the toils of a lady of industry, with needle and with brush, with pen and pencil scarce note the hours in their flight.

Seven o’clock. — The hall is lighted, the ladies dressed, the platform over which I walked insane this morning is now an inviting parlor, with carpet spread and curtains of blue festooned around. Underneath one of their graceful folds is a seat prepared for the goddess of sweet sound, and the piano keys invite her skill. She is arrayed in green, and looks like a bright flower perched within. Her fashionable basque has caught my eye and suits it well. A lady can see nothing but a pretty dress. I grant that power to the sex, and prize it. Say what you will, sirs, of the dress, behind it lies many a bright thought. It is an idea; there is poetry in dress, and philosophy too, but this will be the subject for another day. I now take the seat of a spectator, and in rows of seats arranged in front of the scene find my place; a red curtain is before me, a strain of music is heard, the curtain rises, and the green lady with guitar in hand regales our eye and ear.

The actors appear, and in different scenes exhibit and satirize life out of the Asylum. The insane who live by borrowing, the benevolent who insanely lend, were exhibited in the Pettigrew scenes. There was an allegory personifying the village gossip, and the fantastic dress of the actors made it a crazy performance, and many like it we have figured in among the gossips. Housewifery and its cares, with the plague from Paddies to puddings, were well depicted. Music and dance closed the scene, the curtain falls, and Dr. M. gives poetic thanks, which all admire. We close another day of life, bringing together its good and ill. Kind sympathy in the social feeling of the hall has been imparted from those drawn here from scenes of life where lock and key is out of sight. They cheat us, in the semblance of liberty, and I this night retire to rest. I shall sleep in the semblance of sanity. Adieu till the morning.


The morrow after the exhibition is like the morrow of the party, ladies look jaded at the breakfast table, but a discussion soon begins to open all eyes and give vivacity to expression, for the merits of the different actors and the different dresses are brought into eloquent discussion. The hall, a scene of disorder, must be put in the accustomed state. The business of the day is to work and to gossip in deep criticism. Evening comes for rest, and it is the eve of a Sabbath day. All the hum of business and pleasure recedes for a quiet social gathering in the parlor. A lady visitor is with us, not to play the cheat as I have, but to regale us with reason’s power for a while. It is a pleasure to be in this sway — quiet is the condition it brings us to enjoy, and what more fitting than this mind to end a day, a week, and with it I say to thee, Good night! A***s.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): A. (1855, January). Life in the asylum. The Opal. Retrieved [date accessed] from

Republished from: Disability History Museum,

2 Replies to “Life In The Asylum (1855)”

  1. Wesley Fortney says:

    It always amazes me to find these pieces of treasure buried in the unsavories of history. A person ostracized, imprisoned, and tortured by cultural bulldozers posed as saviors, and this woman fully comprehended the reality, her own expected reactions, and the ridiculousness with which her captors operate. Their perception of themselves is brilliantly laid out with a smorgasbord of literary devises that demonstrate the futility of her own position and intellectual conclusions.

  2. jared says:


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