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Monday, June 17, 2013



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 Eastern State Hospital. 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.

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 Williamsburg.

The mission of the Eastern State Hospital 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.

Patient's cell
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

Straight Jacket
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.

Tranquilizing Chair
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 Eastern State’s patients were moved to a new facility only a few miles away from its original site in Williamsburg, Virginia, and it continues to operate today.

In 1985, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation rebuilt a replica of the original hospital on its excavated foundations and it currently operates as a museum.


  1. Wow, they were shocking patients centuries ago as therapy? Oh my! What a sad situation. It would have been so difficult knowing what to do with mental illness and dementia. It's so difficult now dealing with these issues, I can't imagine the decisions that families had to make when they did not get the gentle support they needed for their loved one. Thanks for an informative post, Janet.

  2. I agree, Elaine, some of the conditions and treatment of the patients seemed harsh, but it was also evident that many had great compassion on these troubled individuals.

  3. I'm so thankful we have come a long way in the treatment and care of people with disabilities and mental health issues. But how fascinating that they used a jury of 12 to determine their fate. Was it like a court trial or would they use 12 family members, I wonder. Thank goodness for concerned people like Governor Fauquier to start the ball rolling.

  4. Janet, this is an excellent article. Most of the information I have seen regarding mental health facilities are from the 1800's. Very interesting!

  5. Thanks for stopping by Kathleen and Jennifer.
    I had really mixed feeling as I looked at this exhibit; grateful that they recognized the needs for folks suffering with mental issues, yet frustrated at some of what seemed like barbaric treatment. How difficult, confusing, and frustrating it must have been for families with a member who needed special care.

  6. At first I was, I didn't know that! And then... recalled visiting this exhibit in Williamsburg last year. It's a fascinating subject, sad and frightening.

    Very nicely done! Thank you Janet. You also reminded me how much there is to learn in Colonial Williamsburg and what a treasure it is.

    1. Thank you, Debra. I never stop learning from these fascinating sites in the historic triangle of Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown.

  7. As far back as 1694 the Lord Proprietors of the Carolinas decreed that the indigent mentally ill should be cared for locally at public expense. In 1751 the colonial government similarly recognized the mental health needs of slaves. In 1762 the Fellowship Society of Charleston, SC, established an infirmary for the mentally ill. But it was not until the 1800s that the mental health movement received legislative attention at the state level. South Carolina had the second hospital in the US for mental health, called the SC Lunatic Asylum, built in 1822,with its first patient in 1828. It had the first roof garden in the US where patients could stroll and take in the sun. It had beautiful gardens, lots of wildlife to create a "bucolic" setting, billiard tables, bowling greens, music and dancing, and games.Until the 1950s, the word asylum meant a safe place or a safe haven. Later, because the hospital became a "warehouse" of the mentally ill, "asylum" gained a new meaning. With the creation of psychotropic drugs to actually treat the victims of mental illness, the hospital regained some of its good reputation.
    My first novel, A Perfect Tempest, takes place on the SC Lunatic Asylum grounds where 500 Union officers were imprisoned from October 1864 until they were freed by Sherman's army in February 1865.

  8. Fascinating article, Janet! This is a subject I know next to nothing on, and I appreciate the research you did. Susan, your comments are very enlightening too! I always learn so much from our CQ posts!

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