Asylum “Amusements” & The Community

The interaction between the Asylum and the public is a fascinating subject. In my own family’s oral history, before Rose was committed to the Asylum, her children would “picnic up the Jolley Cut” in the late 1800s. The only thing “up the Jolley Cut” at the time was the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane. I had originally thought that the kids were perhaps ogling or taunting the “lunatics”. But after more research on the subject, it seems that perhaps these “picnics” were a more organized affair.

Sign that hung in the Amusement Hall at the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane. Photo taken during my 2010 visit to the Asylum Museum.

Every year, the Medical Superintendent of each of Ontario’s Asylums submitted a report to the Inspector of Asylums and Prisons. These reports include an explanation of the “amusements” provided to the patients during the past year. I’ve extracted this part of the reports for 12 of the years between 1879 and 1896. Viewing them in chronological order offers some insight into the Medical Superintendent’s philosophy on the subject, how the “amusements” evolved over time as the patient population grew from about 200 patients to nearly 1000 patients, and how the public interacted with the Asylum. The reports from 1877 to 1886 were submitted by Dr. Wallace. Reports from 1887 to 1896 are from Dr. Russell. It makes clear that Dr. Russell was a true believer in the curative properties of recreation.


1877 Report from Dr. Wallace

“Amusements” at the Asylum are provided by community organizations – the Garrick Amateur Dramatic Association, the Hamilton Glee Club and the Band of the Hamilton Artillery. (1877)


1879 Report from Dr. Wallace

“Several concerts and readings were given during the winter and were highly appreciated by the patients. Our thanks are due to the ladies and gentlemen who gave their gratuitous services at the entertainments.”

Dr. Wallace, Medical Superintendent, goes on to express the need for a small library for the patients. “150 or 200 volumes of a suitable class of books would not cost much and would form a good beginning of a library, and would be very acceptable.” (1879)


1880 Report from Dr. Wallace

Again, the community provides much of the entertainment at the Asylum.

“The amusements during the year have been more numerous than in previous years, and have bee of a very high order of merit. They consisted of dramatic entertainments, concerts, magic lantern, stereopticon exhibition, and readings. We are under grateful obligations to the professionals and amateurs,who kindly gave their services on those occasions.”

In addition to fortnightly dances, Dr. Wallace reports that, “One of the most enjoyable treats of the season, was an afternoon sail on the bay and lake, and a ride on the street cars. This was participated in by 114 patients of both sexes.” (1880)


1881 Report from Dr. Wallace

In addition to the regular entertainment provided by members of the Hamilton community, and the fortnightly dances held from October to May, “a Musical and Dramatic Club was organized by the officers and attendants of the Asylum, and regular entertainments were given throughout the season with the most satisfactory results.”

The patients at the Asylum finally get a library of over 900 books, a want that “was very much felt by many of the patients.” (1881)


1887 Report from Dr. Russell

Outdoor activities are mentioned in this report from Dr. Russell. “A base ball match for the males and a picnic party for the females was held on the grounds every Saturday afternoon throughout the summer, and were highly appreciated.”

He adds that “a large number were allowed to visit Barnum’s Circus and the Central Fair.” (1887)


1889 Report from Dr. Russell

“The usual weekly dance, with the concerts and dramatic performances were kept up with spirit during the winter. A musical and dramatic club under the auspices of the attendants and employees provided a series of excellent entertainments.” “During the summer baseball for the men and picnics for the women were the principal sources of amusement.

Dr. Russell adds that “a new departure was taken this summer in inaugurating a series of garden parties which were held in the park, prizes were competed for in athletic games, and refreshment of cakes and lemonade served in the open air while an excellent band discoursed lovely music. A platform was erected for dancing in the evening and the park was lighted with Chinese lanterns, giving the whole a charming and fairy-like appearance which was intensely enjoyed by the patients.” (1889)


1890 Report from Dr. Russell

Here, Dr. Russell notes the usual weekly dances, concerts and theatricals during in the winter, and baseball, picnics, garden parties and sports held in the summer months. He goes on to make an argument for the hiring of two new personnel – one “male musical and drill instructor” and one “female music and calisthenic teacher.”

“There is little doubt that music has a soothing, tranquilizing effect on the morbid mind, and wields a powerful influence in arousing pleasurable emotions and directing them in healthy channels. Many of our patients have the finest musical talent, and its development and cultivation is an excellent form of recreation, not to speak of its curative power.”

“Again, a certain residue of our population may be described as in a condition of chronic mental and physical inertia. They do no work and will take no exercise. A system of elementary drill for the men and calisthenics for the women would have a salutary effect in arousing their dormant energies and improve both their mental and physical condition. A small outlay of money in providing instructors for this purpose will, I am sure, be profitably expended, and I trust you will be good enough to second my efforts in this direction.” (1890)


1891 Report from Dr. Russell

In addition to the typical “amusements”, in his 1891 Report, Dr. Russell notes a big change at the Asylum that year. “This year we have taken a new departure in doing away with the airing courts; the patients were taken out every day to the beautiful grove behind the Asylum, and there engaged in a variety of games. I am of the opinion that the airing court, with its high goal-like fence, has a bad moral effect on the insane in developing the convict spirit.”

“As proof of the wisdom of this change, we have only had one successful elopement this year, as against ten last year with the airing courts in operation.” (1891)


1892 Report from Dr. Russell

As a special treat in 1892, “three hundred patients were taken for a sail on the lake.”

At the annual summer event “a splendid programme of sports, including a tug of war between Main Building and Orchard House, was provided; and, besides sports for the women, competitive prizes were offered for best sewing, darning, patching, knitting, crochet and other fancy work; also prizes for the best dressed females in institution clothing.” (1892)


1893 Report from Dr. Russell

The 1893 report marked another milestone at the Asylum, when the ice rink was built on the grounds. Dr. Russell comments that “During the winter the new skating and curling rink proved to be a perfect bonanza of exhilarating sport to officers, attendants and patients alike. A fancy dress carnival was one of the great features of the season which provoked the greatest merriment.”

The summer field trip to the lake brought a tragedy this year. “We took 300 patients out for a trip on the lake, which was greatly appreciated, although slightly marred by one of the number jumping overboard. He was a young man possessed of grandiose ideas as to his ability, and shortly before he committed the act was boasting of his skill as a swimmer and how far he could swim. Before the life boat could reach him he sank. His body was found four weeks afterwards at the Beach.” (1893)


1895 Report from Dr. Russell

In 1895, Dr. Russell reports a new development to the program of sports at the Asylum. “A special feature of our outdoor sports was the encouragement we gave to outside clubs to play with us.”

“By keeping ourselves in touch with the outside world, it did much to dispel that institutional spirit, which hangs like a dark cloud over so many asylums.”

“Strange to say the outside public take a special delight in playing with lunatics, and its influence is reflected in brightening their lives, inspiring them with fresh hopes, and planting the good seed which may bear fruit in returning sanity.”

“Last year our curling club joined the Ontario Curling Association, which gave us an opportunity of competing for the Tankard Cup.”

This document mentions another first for the Asylum. During the annual sports event held in September, “a special feature of the day was the first appearance in public of the asylum brass band, under the leadership of Chief Attendant Thompson. The band played at intervals during the day and did much to enliven the proceedings. The day’s proceeding would up with a dance in the amusement Hall, the asylum orchestra furnishing the music.” (1895)


1896 Report from Dr. Russell

In 1896, Dr. Russell remarks on the changing “fashion” of the games played by the patients of the Hamilton Asylum. “This year baseball has overshadowed cricket as an outdoor sport, but bowling on the green continues to maintain its high reputation, especially among those who have reached middle age. The old game of croquet has revived and was practiced with considerable enthusiasm among the women, and seems to be largely take the place of tennis. There seems to be fashion in games as in everything else.”

He goes on to discuss the need for a larger curling shed for the grounds. “In winter the game of curling on the ice has taken firm root here, among the patients, employees and officers alike, and its enthusiastic devotees can be counted by the score. Our curling shed is altogether too small to accommodate the many would-be players of this most fascinating game. The women, having no other place to skate, charge us with selfishness (and properly so) in monopolizing the ice with the ‘roaring game’. I know of no winter sport so healthful and exhilarating as curling and skating, especially for the insane. In winter it is difficult to find outdoor employment for them and they have necessarily to spend a good deal of their time indoors. A healthful, invigorating outdoor sport of this kind for them is simply incalculable in its results. I can point to many cases that have first exhibited the dawn of returning sanity upon the ice, and as a potent factor in curing insanity I know of nothing to equal it. In view of this experience I confidently appeal to the Government for a grant to extend our accommodation for this purpose.” (1896)


The Asylum and the Community

The “amusements” enjoyed by the patients at the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane for the years 1877-1898 were fairly typical of the time in Asylums across North America. These “amusements” not only created a nice distraction for the patients – they also served to improve the relationship between the Asylum and the larger community.

These 1887 handbills are from the Vermont Asylum for the Insane in Brattleboro. This hospital was holding very similar events as the Hamilton Asylum.


(Images from Asylum reports via Google Books)

(Handbills are part of my personal collections)

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