THE FIRST MENTAL HEALTH FACILITY IN
Did you ever wonder who took responsibility for, or treated, the mentally ill during the Colonial era?
At that time, either family members or the parish church oversaw their care. However, if the individual could not be controlled, and if they were thought to be harmful to themselves or a menace to others, they were often jailed or sent to a poorhouse.
While there was a hospital in Philadelphia run by the Quakers that established a wing for the treatment of the mentally ill, Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia was the first public facility in the colonies that was built solely for the care and treatment of individuals suffering from mental illness.
In 1766, Francis Fauquier, the Royal Governor of Virginia, first proposed to the House of Burgesses that provisions for a legal confinement should be made available for the mentally ill where they could be cared for and attended by physicians. Apparently the proposition was not acted upon, and it continued to weigh heavily on him since he brought it up again at the next House of Burgesses in 1767. His continuing compassion for those suffering from mental disorders eventually led to the establishment of the
. The House of Burgesses
passed a law to establish the hospital in 1770, and the following years,
Benjamin Powell was contracted to begin the construction. Eastern State Hospital
Prior to the creation of the hospital, a person who was mentally ill was judged by twelve citizens as to whether they were criminal, insane or mentally defective. Rather than being diagnosed and treated by a physician, these individuals were either cared for by family members, the local parish, or put in the Public Goal in
The mission of the
was to treat and
discharge patients considered curable and to incarcerate those individuals
considered dangerous. When the hospital first opened in October of 1773, a
Court of Directors, selected from the gentry, oversaw admissions and discharges,
and made the policy decisions for running the facility. James Galt, who had no
medical training, was appointed keeper and head administrator of the hospital.
His wife, Mary, was assigned to be the matron for the women. Dutch Physician
John de Sequeyra attended the patients when they were admitted and on a weekly
basis. Additionally, several slaves provided the labor required to care for the
inmates. Eastern State Hospital
Patients were kept alone in a prison-like-cells with only a mattress, shackles and a chamber pot. The windows were barred to prevent patients from escaping. However, since it was believed they could be cured, patients would often be released after only a few weeks or months being assessed as being fit enough to return to their families or society
invented in the late 18th century
From 1781-1786, the hospital fell into disrepair as a result of the Revolutionary War. In the following decade the hospital was refurbished and grew in size, and fences were added at each end to provide exercise yards for female and male patients. An electrostatic machine, used to shock patients out of their illness and tranquilizing chairs were added. Over the years the hospital began utilizing new techniques in the care of the mentally ill.
The hospital’s expansion was interrupted during the Civil War, but by 1875 The Eastern State Hospital owned 225 acres of land, including a 170-acre farm and had an inmate population nearing 500.
In June of 1885, the original 1773 hospital was destroyed by a fire, judged to have started from recently added electrical wiring. A hospital was rebuilt on this site, but by the 1930’s its patient population had grown to almost 2,000 and there was no more land to expand on the present site. This is the same period when Colonial Williamsburg was being restored so a move in location on the outskirts of the city became necessary. By the late 1960’s all of
’s patients were moved
to a new facility only a few miles away from its original site in Eastern State , and it continues to
operate today. Williamsburg, Virginia
In 1985, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation rebuilt a replica of the original hospital on its excavated foundations and it currently operates as a museum.