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by Joey Gainey

The following material was provided as a hand-out for the Piedmont Historical Society, August 1999 Meeting. Reference is made in several places to copies of material that made up the rest of this handout. Those images are photocopies of poor quality and not suitable for presentation on the web. To obtain the complete printed handout contact Joseph R. Gainey.

When the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum was created by legislative act on 18 December 1827, there was no other public institution of this sort south of Virginia. The Asylum was a direct result of a concerted campaign led by Col. Samuel Farrow (a Revolutionary War veteran residing in Spartanburg District) and a classically educated Charlestonian of New England extraction named William Craft, Jr. whose previous causes had included the expansion of legal rights for Catholics and Jews and the establishment of the Medical College (now University) of South Carolina. Their crusade was hardly the result of a groundswell of public support for the treatment of the insane. In fact, it received very little attention in the press (What the public and press really wanted was a state penitentiary.) Few people saw the need for the Asylum. The struggle was long and hard. But, Farrow and Craft finally prevailed. Due to misgivings on the part of the Legislature, from the start, the Asylum was grossly underfunded.
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In the spring of 1828, the Asylum opened. Much to the chagrin and consternation of its officers and supporters, no patients were admitted for six months because there weren't any. Due to a lack of patients, the Asylum nearly closed in 1831. Not until 1849 did the number of patients exceed 100 and many were from out of state. The primary reason for this situation was the commonly held perception that sending a relative to an asylum or hospital reflected negatively on a family's reputation. Sending someone there said one of three things to the surrounding community:

1. The family was too poor to care for its own.

2. The family was too shiftless or trifling to do so.

3. The family was both of the above.
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Not exactly the kind of thoughts one wanted the neighbors to have. Unfortunately, this mind set permeated all layers of society. Even the noted author William Gilmore Sims--one of the most enlightened and educated men of the era--declared that the Asylum was "known to be unprofitable, and was believed to be unnecessary."
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None of the Asylum's early officers had any practical experience in the management of asylums. They had to operate by trial and error. In many ways, the Asylum was one grand experiment which many hoped would fail. Initially, the General Assembly appointed a nine man Board of Regents. It drew up the rules to govern the Asylum and submitted them to the Legislature for approval. Also, the Regents appointed a "keeper" of the Asylum (like in zookeeper which speaks volumes about the attitudes of many when it came to the mentally ill) and all other officials and staff. This body was so powerful that the Regents alone could discharge patients when they (not the physicians) felt they were "cured". Early on, they exercised such tight control on every aspect of the day-to-day operation of the Asylum. The Regents even required the superintendents (who supposedly ran the Asylum in conjunction with the "visiting physician") to even submit detailed listings of the possessions of newly admitted patients. (See fig. 1.) Given the meddlesome nature of the Board of Regents and the fact that the earliest superintendents and visiting physicians received no remuneration for their efforts just room and board, it is not surprising that turnover was high. The Asylum had four superintendents in eight years. (One of them was Archibald Beaty who was forced to resign in 1832 amid charges of poor record keeping and general incompetence.) In 1836, John W. Parker became superintendent. He was the first superintendent who also was a physician. Despite the Regents and meager funding, he gradually stabilized and improved conditions at the Asylum. Until 1869, when the Radical Republican regime required his removal, he served the cause of the insane well. The quality of care declined drastically and it took South Carolina nearly a century to recover from the damage done by their minions.
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The Regents initially felt that the best way to overcome the stigma of hospitalization for the mentally ill was by catering to the rich patients who could afford to pay for the Asylum's services. (It didn't hurt the bottom line either.) This fact, coupled with the reluctance of the local commissioners of the poor to raise taxes to pay for the treatment of poor, insane inmates despite a statutory requirement to do so, meant few paupers were admitted at first. However, this strategy backfired. It became apparent that one had to minister to the middle and lower classes to win the hearts and minds of the people. Finally, in 1831, an act requiring the transfer of the indigent insane to Columbia and forcing the state to defray the costs of paupers in the Asylum was passed. A modest--but ever growing--number of paupers and middle class individuals were admitted and welcomed. Slaves were first enrolled as early as May 1829. But, not until the year 1848--in an effort to counter abolitionist propaganda--was a real effort made to admit and treat slaves and free persons of color.
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Contrary to popular myth, the treatment of the insane in Southern facilities equaled or surpassed that of institutions in the North. In keeping with the prevalent theory of the time, coercion was kept at an absolute minimum. Treatment was based upon a concept known as "moral therapy". Its basic philosophy was that patients could be cured by being subjected to a "system of kindness" thereby teaching them self-control and proper moral values and curing their insanity although mechanical restraints, seclusion, and cold showers as well as other remnants of the colonial madhouse were available to deal with the recalcitrant. The physicians of the Asylum were certain of success. One of them optimistically proclaimed that "five out of six would recover if attended to early."
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An order (temporary or permanent) admitted a patient to the Asylum. Upon admission, a patient's medical history was taken and entered in the admissions book. (Until the 1960s, almost all records were maintained in bound volumes.) The amount of information taken (or recorded at least) varies greatly. (See fig. 2.) The admission books are indexed. However, it is uncertain whether or not this index is complete or totally accurate. (See fig. 3.) The Asylum later used a standardized form containing much genealogically valuable information to document admissions. At the bottom of each form is a space for "address of friends". During this era, mental illness still had much of a stigma attached to it. So, Asylum officials came up with a discreet method to address this delicate issue. Note that each patient was assigned a unique number which was used to identify patients in some records rather than a name--especially in those records which were submitted to the General Assembly or otherwise made available to the public. Errors abound. Some numbers are skipped entirely and others assigned to two patients. (See figs. 4 and 5. On fig. 5 note that post-1884 information is covered up. The Dept. of Mental Health when they made these records available in 1985 insisted on a 100 year closure of records to address privacy concerns. Records covering the years 1885 to 1898 while not available on microfilm can be used in person by researchers at the S. C. Dept. of Archives and History, Columbia, SC.) Another record taken at this time was the "physicians' record" which gave a summary of the patient's history and general condition. Included here are several genealogical gems including, the patient's age and religious affiliation. If married, this form also gives the length of time married and how many children the patient has. (See fig. 6.) One of the most shocking items I saw while preparing this program was the physicians' record for the admission of a seven year old boy.
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Once admitted, the Asylum kept daily case histories to monitor progress. or the lack thereof. These records are called the case histories. (See fig. 7) The title of these records is misleading because they are not past histories but chronicle the ongoing course of treatment. Since the case histories record pertinent facts about the patient's condition and treatment on an almost daily basis, they can be quite lengthy. The Asylum kept three overlapping series of detailed case histories and treatment records. By amount of records generated, they are the largest series in this record group. They are nearly complete with only relatively minor groups. (See fig. 8.) Unfortunately for the researcher, the volumes containing case histories are usually unindexed. Filled with archaic medical terminology which often can't be found in modern medical dictionaries, these hastily written pages are often very difficult to read. But, read them you must or you will miss much interesting and enlightening material on your ancestor. Another problem is that when the writer filled the allotted space for information concerning a patient, he simply flipped through the volume until he found what he considered sufficient space and continued his entry. Although the patient's name is given at the beginning of the new entry, usually no cross referencing is made between the two entries. For patients with lengthy stays in the Asylum or numerous problems requiring detailed explanations, it is impossible to determine how often or where the clerk continued a patient's record. The only course of action you have is to look at every page for each volume covering the years the patient you are interested in was at the Asylum.
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The South Carolina Lunatic Asylum also kept registers of admissions and discharges. The format of these records varies from time to time. Sometimes, the records overlap in coverage but contain different information about the same individual. (See figs. 9 and 10.) Runaways from the Asylum are said to have "eloped" and some registers contain daily statistics on this and other aspects of the Asylum's population. Available as well are various lists of patients which are often very specialized in content (such as a roster of "colored women", "white male patients 1876-1879" and those "cured, removed, and dead"). Unfortunately, these lists aren't as useful as one would initially think. Often, they enumerate the patients by surname only (which isn't very helpful if the person you're looking for has a common name or there are more than one patients with the same name). As stated earlier, with the exception of the county by county listing of patients at the Asylum in the 1881-1882 edition of Reports and Resolutions, all published lists of patients at the Asylum identify the patients only by number (See fig. 11) which merely sends one scurrying back to the admission books index to search page by page until the entry identifying the number of interest so you can find out the patient's true identity for there is no listing of patients in order by their numeric designations. Among the other records kept by the Asylum during the last century are daybooks, letterbooks, lists of regents and physicians. All of them are of dubious genealogical value for most researchers.
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There are a variety of major problems with the records of the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum which a researcher must resolve to the best of his/her ability. Certainly, the greatest of these problems is the lack of proper, complete indices for a majority of these records. Closely related to this issue is the fact that patients may have case histories (often with detailed records) for whom there are no admission records and consequently no discernable patient number. Conversely, there are admissions for patients (some of whom remained at the Asylum for years) for whom there are no case histories. Even basic identifying information such as name, age, sex, and color can vary from record to record--even in contemporaneous volumes. Yet the patient number and just enough other information remains so constant that you feel certain that it is the same person. (Sometimes Solomon himself couldn't resolve the discrepancies.) Please remember that different physicians may evaluate a patient in radically contradictory terms, their descriptions of a patient's condition in the case histories and the prognosis for recovery may be as different as night and day. Still, despite these problems, which are formidable enough to stymie the most dedicated researcher, the records of the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum are a resource that should not be overlooked.
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* * *


"From the Archives," South Carolina Historical Magazine 85, No. 2 (April 1984) pp. 163-165.

Contains information about opening of the Asylum's records for research.

McCanless, Peter. Moonlight, Magnolias, & Madness: Insanity in South Carolina from the Colonial Period to the

Progressive Era Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Excellent study.

Reports and Resolutions. Official publication of reports of state agencies including the Asylum.

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