Today’s Idyllic Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
The Northern Michigan Asylum (also known as Traverse State Hospital) opened its doors in 1885 and by the time it closed in 1989, it had affected 50,000 patients, approximately 20,000 employees, and more than 250,000 visitors. Throughout the century the asylum and its inhabitants witnessed hardships as well as tremendous societal and medical changes. The Northern Michigan Asylum withstood and even thrived during the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Overcrowded wards were exposed to deadly epidemics and diseases such as typhoid, smallpox, diphtheria, influenza, syphilis, tuberculosis, polio, and epilepsy. Between 1885 and 1989, approximately 14,000 patients died due to these and many other illnesses that are now treatable and even curable.
The gorgeous old asylum…
During the asylum’s one hundred years, doctors used many well-meaning but mostly ineffective and often cruel therapies for patients. Psychotropic drugs were not invented until the 1950s, which means that patients in the early years of the asylum were offered no curative drug treatments. Opium and morphine were the only drugs available, and they were used in small amounts primarily as sedatives for agitated patients. Between 1885 and 1920, “the moral treatments” of kindness, exposure to beauty, and voluntary work were considered the primary therapy for all patients. Restraints were strictly forbidden, and sincere attempts were made to incorporate every comfort and pleasantry into asylum life, with the purpose of inducing patients’ recovery. There were pianos or organs on every floor, nightly sing-alongs in the dayrooms, and well-used fireplaces in the cottages. Freshly cut flowers, provided by the asylum greenhouses, were supplied to the wards year-round. Therapeutic patient treatments included going to picnics, local fairs, and circuses, and playing shuffleboard or croquet on the asylum lawns. Though they may sound idealized, these kindnesses were carefully planned treatments based on the Kirkbride plan and the “moral treatments” dutifully implemented by Dr. James Decker Munson, the first superintendent of the Northern Michigan Asylum. Munson believed that voluntary work would benefit the patients by giving them a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Patients engaged in work ranging from building furniture and fruit canning to farming and flower-growing.
I tell ya, THOSE were the days! Being insane sounds like a non-stop vacation. I could definitely live out my days like that. But if you sense that life at the ol’ asylum is going to take on a much darker tone in tomorrow’s MFDJ – you’re psychic!
Unlike many old Kirkbride buildings which have been demolished, Traverse Hospital is one of the poster children for redevelopment. Obviously, I wish I’d gotten to see it before it was redeveloped, but it’s great to know that it’s going to be around in the future. There are historic tours too that take you into the creepy tunnels beneath the complex – maybe I’ll get up there to take one this summer?