CNN Food and Health

From shackles to compassion

Unique museum traces the history of treating mental illnesses

October 30, 1995
Web posted at: 12:45 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Jeff Levine

WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia (CNN) -- There was a time when mental patients in the United States were put in chains. That era has been carefully recreated in a unique museum in colonial Williamsburg.

In 1773, the new public hospital in Williamsburg became the first institution devoted to mental patients in Great Britain's North American colonies. Museum educator Brenda LaClair says that the patients in the new hospital were sent there for "bizarre (behavior), and striking fear in their neighbors."

The hospital was more of a prison than anything else, but in that medically naive time, even that was an improvement.


"This was a step away from the jail and from distinguishing mental illness from criminal behavior," explains hospital historian Shomer Zwelling.

Perhaps what is amazing is that in spite of the cruelty and torture inflicted on these patients, some actually got better. The philosophy here was that people chose to be insane and needed to be convinced otherwise.

Restraining devices, like a "protection bed" -- a coffin-sized box with heavy screen on the top and sides -- played a major role in treatment. And Zwelling insists that a so- called "tranquilizer chair" is not quite as terrifying as its straps, head-restraint and attached "chamber pot" make it appear.


"I thought looking at the picture and looking at the chair itself that this was a chamber of horrors kind of experience," he says. "But when I sat in it, in fact, it's very soft." (118K AIFF sound or 118K WAV sound)


The Williamsburg hospital developed a more modern approach in the 19th century under the direction of Dr. John Minson Galt. Under Galt, patients were treated with kindness and lived in relative comfort. They were encouraged to take up activities like music.

Galt tried hypnosis and even a primitive form of group therapy -- but ironically, he died in an apparent suicide.

"He'd been at this work for 20 years," Zwelling says. "He was really considerably frustrated at that point."

The original hospital in Williamsburg burned in 1885, before the development of psychotherapy or effective drugs to treat mental illness. But no matter what the era, the problem remains the same.

"We're always chasing the Holy Grail of trying to cure or essentially modify the illness," says Dr. Kenneth Gorelick of St. Elizabeth's Hospital, "and we never have the tools to fully do so."

But at Williamsburg, the tools did evolve from shackles to compassion.


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