IN THE BATH.
A few more songs and we were told to go with Miss
Grupe. We were taken into a cold, wet bathroom, and
I was ordered to undress. Did I protest? Well, I never
grew so earnest in my life as when I tried to beg off.
They said if I did not they would use force and that it
would not be very gentle. At this I noticed one of the
craziest women in the ward standing by the filled bathtub
with a large, discolored rag in her hands. She was chattering
away to herself and chuckling in a manner which
seemed to me fiendish. I knew now what was to be done
with me. I shivered. They began to undress me, and
one by one they pulled off my clothes. At last everything
was gone excepting one garment. “I will not remove
it,” I said vehemently, but they took it off. I gave one
glance at the group of patients gathered at the door
60watching the scene, and I jumped into the bathtub with
more energy than grace.
The water was ice-cold, and I again began to protest.
How useless it all was! I begged, at least, that the patients
be made to go away, but was ordered to shut up.
The crazy woman began to scrub me. I can find no other
word that will express it but scrubbing. From a small
tin pan she took some soft soap and rubbed it all over me,
even all over my face and my pretty hair. I was at last
past seeing or speaking, although I had begged that my
hair be left untouched. Rub, rub, rub, went the old
woman, chattering to herself. My teeth chattered and
my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly
I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my
head—ice-cold water, too—into my eyes, my ears, my nose
and my mouth. I think I experienced some of the sensations
of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping,
shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look
insane. I caught a glance of the indescribable look on
the faces of my companions, who had witnessed my fate and
knew theirs was surely following. Unable to control myself
at the absurd picture I presented, I burst into roars
of laughter. They put me, dripping wet, into a short
61canton flannel slip, labeled across the extreme end in large
black letters, “Lunatic Asylum, B. I., H. 6.” The letters
meant Blackwell’s Island, Hall 6.
By this time Miss Mayard had been undressed, and,
much as I hated my recent bath, I would have taken another
if by it I could have saved her the experience.
Imagine plunging that sick girl into a cold bath when it
made me, who has never been ill, shake as if with ague.
I heard her explain to Miss Grupe that her head was still
sore from her illness. Her hair was short and had mostly
come out, and she asked that the crazy woman be made
to rub more gently, but Miss Grupe said:
“There isn’t much fear of hurting you. Shut up, or
you’ll get it worse.” Miss Mayard did shut up, and that
was my last look at her for the night.
I was hurried into a room where there were six beds,
and had been put into bed when some one came along
and jerked me out again, saying:
“Nellie Brown has to be put in a room alone to-night,
for I suppose she’s noisy.”
I was taken to room 28 and left to try and make an impression
on the bed. It was an impossible task. The
bed had been made high in the center and sloping on
either side. At the first touch my head flooded the pillow
with water, and my wet slip transferred some of its
dampness to the sheet. When Miss Grupe came in I
asked if I could not have a night-gown.
“We have no such things in this institution,” she
“I do not like to sleep without,” I replied.
“Well, I don’t care about that,” she said. “You are
in a public institution now, and you can’t expect to get
anything. This is charity, and you should be thankful
for what you get.”
“But the city pays to keep these places up,” I urged,
62“and pays people to be kind to the unfortunates brought
“Well, you don’t need to expect any kindness here,
for you won’t get it,” she said, and she went out and
closed the door.
A sheet and an oilcloth were under me, and a sheet and
black wool blanket above. I never felt anything so annoying
as that wool blanket as I tried to keep it around
my shoulders to stop the chills from getting underneath.
When I pulled it up I left my feet bare, and when I pulled
it down my shoulders were exposed. There was absolutely
nothing in the room but the bed and myself. As
the door had been locked I imagined I should be left
alone for the night, but I heard the sound of the heavy
tread of two women down the hall. They stopped at
every door, unlocked it, and in a few moments I could
hear them relock it. This they did without the least attempt
at quietness down the whole length of the opposite
side of the hall and up to my room. Here they paused.
The key was inserted in the lock and turned. I
63watched those about to enter. In they came, dressed in
brown and white striped dresses, fastened by brass buttons,
large, white aprons, a heavy green cord about the waist,
from which dangled a bunch of large keys, and small, white
caps on their heads. Being dressed as were the attendants
of the day, I knew they were nurses. The first one
carried a lantern, and she flashed its light into my face
while she said to her assistant:
“This is Nellie Brown.” Looking at her, I asked:
“Who are you?”
“The night nurse, my dear,” she replied, and, wishing
that I would sleep well, she went out and locked the door
after her. Several times during the night they came
into my room, and even had I been able to sleep, the unlocking
of the heavy door, their loud talking, and heavy
tread, would have awakened me.
I could not sleep, so I lay in bed picturing to myself the
horrors in case a fire should break out in the asylum.
Every door is locked separately and the windows are
heavily barred, so that escape is impossible. In the one
building alone there are, I think Dr. Ingram told me,
some three hundred women. They are locked, one to
ten to a room. It is impossible to get out unless these
doors are unlocked. A fire is not improbable, but one of
the most likely occurrences. Should the building burn,
the jailers or nurses would never think of releasing their
crazy patients. This I can prove to you later when I
come to tell of their cruel treatment of the poor things
intrusted to their care. As I say, in case of fire, not a
dozen women could escape. All would be left to roast
to death. Even if the nurses were kind, which they are
not, it would require more presence of mind than women
of their class possess to risk the flames and their own
lives while they unlocked the hundred doors for the insane
prisoners. Unless there is a change there will some
day be a tale of horror never equaled.
64In this connection is an amusing incident which happened
just previous to my release. I was talking with
Dr. Ingram about many things, and at last told him
what I thought would be the result of a fire.
“The nurses are expected to open the doors,” he said.
“But you know positively that they would not wait
to do that,” I said, “and these women would burn to
He sat silent, unable to contradict my assertion.
“Why don’t you have it changed?” I asked.
“What can I do?” he replied. “I offer suggestions
until my brain is tired, but what good does it do? What
would you do?” he asked, turning to me, the proclaimed
“Well, I should insist on them having locks put in, as
I have seen in some places, that by turning a crank at
the end of the hall you can lock or unlock every door on
the one side. Then there would be some chance of escape.
Now, every door being locked separately, there is
Dr. Ingram turned to me with an anxious look on his
kind face as he asked, slowly:
“Nellie Brown, what institution have you been an inmate
of before you came here?”
“None. I never was confined in any institution, except
boarding-school, in my life.”
“Where then did you see the locks you have described?”
I had seen them in the new Western Penitentiary at
Pittsburg, Pa., but I did not dare say so. I merely answered:
“Oh, I have seen them in a place I was in—I mean as
“There is only one place I know of where they have
those locks,” he said, sadly, “and that is at Sing Sing.”
65The inference is conclusive. I laughed very heartily
over the implied accusation, and tried to assure him that
I had never, up to date, been an inmate of Sing Sing or
even ever visited it.
Just as the morning began to dawn I went to sleep.
It did not seem many moments until I was rudely awakened
and told to get up, the window being opened and
the clothing pulled off me. My hair was still wet and I
had pains all through me, as if I had the rheumatism.
Some clothing was flung on the floor and I was told to
put it on. I asked for my own, but was told to take
what I got and keep quiet by the apparently head nurse,
Miss Grady. I looked at it. One underskirt made of
coarse dark cotton goods and a cheap white calico dress
with a black spot in it. I tied the strings of the skirt
around me and put on the little dress. It was made, as
are all those worn by the patients, into a straight tight
waist sewed on to a straight skirt. As I buttoned the
waist I noticed the underskirt was about six inches longer
than the upper, and for a moment I sat down on the bed
and laughed at my own appearance. No woman ever
longed for a mirror more than I did at that moment.
I saw the other patients hurrying past in the hall, so I
decided not to lose anything that might be going on.
We numbered forty-five patients in Hall 6, and were sent
to the bathroom, where there were two coarse towels. I
watched crazy patients who had the most dangerous eruptions
all over their faces dry on the towels and then saw
women with clean skins turn to use them. I went to the
bathtub and washed my face at the running faucet and
my underskirt did duty for a towel.
Before I had completed my ablutions a bench was
brought into the bathroom. Miss Grupe and Miss McCarten
came in with combs in their hands. We were told
to sit down on the bench, and the hair of forty-five women
was combed with one patient, two nurses, and six combs.
66As I saw some of the sore heads combed I thought this was
another dose I had not bargained for. Miss Tillie Mayard
had her own comb, but it was taken from her by Miss
Grady. Oh, that combing! I never realized before what
the expression “I’ll give you a combing” meant, but I
knew then. My hair, all matted and wet from the night
previous, was pulled and jerked, and, after expostulating
to no avail, I set my teeth and endured the pain. They
refused to give me my hairpins, and my hair was arranged
in one plait and tied with a red cotton rag. My
curly bangs refused to stay back, so that at least was left
of my former glory.
After this we went to the sitting-room and I looked
for my companions. At first I looked vainly, unable to
distinguish them from the other patients, but after
awhile I recognized Miss Mayard by her short hair.
“How did you sleep after your cold bath?”
“I almost froze, and then the noise kept me awake.
It’s dreadful! My nerves were so unstrung before I came
here, and I fear I shall not be able to stand the strain.”
I did the best I could to cheer her. I asked that we
be given additional clothing, at least as much as custom
says women shall wear, but they told me to shut up; that
we had as much as they intended to give us.
We were compelled to get up at 5.30 o’clock, and at 7.15
we were told to collect in the hall, where the experience
of waiting, as on the evening previous, was repeated.
When we got into the dining-room at last we found a
bowl of cold tea, a slice of buttered bread and a saucer of
oatmeal, with molasses on it, for each patient. I was
hungry, but the food would not down. I asked for unbuttered
bread and was given it. I cannot tell you of
anything which is the same dirty, black color. It was
hard, and in places nothing more than dried dough. I
found a spider in my slice, so I did not eat it. I tried
the oatmeal and molasses, but it was wretched, and so I
67endeavored, but without much show of success, to choke
down the tea.
After we were back to the sitting-room a number of
women were ordered to make the beds, and some of the
patients were put to scrubbing and others given different
duties which covered all the work in the hall. It is not
the attendants who keep the institution so nice for the
poor patients, as I had always thought, but the patients,
who do it all themselves—even to cleaning the nurses’
bedrooms and caring for their clothing.
About 9.30 the new patients, of which I was one, were
told to go out to see the doctor. I was taken in and my
lungs and my heart were examined by the flirty young
doctor who was the first to see us the day we entered.
The one who made out the report, if I mistake not, was
the assistant superintendent, Ingram. A few questions
and I was allowed to return to the sitting-room.
I came in and saw Miss Grady with my notebook and
long lead pencil, bought just for the occasion.
“I want my book and pencil,” I said, quite truthfully.
“It helps me remember things.”
I was very anxious to get it to make notes in and was
disappointed when she said:
“You can’t have it, so shut up.”
Some days after I asked Dr. Ingram if I could have
it, and he promised to consider the matter. When I
again referred to it, he said that Miss Grady said I only
brought a book there; that I had no pencil. I was provoked,
and insisted that I had, whereupon I was advised
to fight against the imaginations of my brain.
After the housework was completed by the patients,
and as the day was fine, but cold, we were told to go out
in the hall and get on shawls and hats for a walk. Poor
patients! How eager they were for a breath of air; how
eager for a slight release from their prison. They went
68swiftly into the hall and there was a skirmish for hats.