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The California Mad-House.
On my first visit to the State Insane Asylum, at Stockton, I was struck by the beauty of a boy of some seven or eight years, who was moving about the grounds clad in a strait-jacket. In reply to my inquiries, the resident physician told me his history:
"About a year ago he was on his way to California with the family to which he belonged. He was a general pet among the passengers on the steamer. Handsome, confiding, and overflowing with boyish spirits, everybody had. a smile and a kind word for the winning little fellow. Even the rough sailors would pause a moment to pat his curly head as they passed. One day a sailor, yielding to a playful impulse in passing, caught up the boy in his arms, crying:
"'I am going to throw you into the sea!'
"The child gave one scream of terror, and went into convulsions. When the paroxysm subsided, he opened his eyes and gazed around with a vacant expression. His mother, who bent over him with a pale face, noticed the look, and almost screamed:
"'Tommy, here is your mother - don't you know me?'
"The child gave no sign of recognition. He never knew his poor mother again. He was literally frightened out of his senses. The mother's anguish was terrible. The remorse of the sailor for his thoughtless freak was so great that it in some degree disarmed the indignation of the passengers and crew. The child had learned to read, and had made rapid progress in the studies suited to his age, but all was swept away by the cruel blow. He was unable to utter a word intelligently. Since he has been here, there have been signs of returning mental consciousness, and we have begun with him as with an infant. He knows and can call his own name, and is now learning the alphabet."
"How is his health?"
"His health is pretty good, except that he has occasional convulsive attacks that can only be controlled by the use of powerful opiates."
I was glad to learn, on a visit made two years later, that the unfortunate boy had died.
This child was murdered by a fool. The fools are always murdering children, though the work is not always done as effectually as in this case. They cripple and half kill them by terror. There are many who will read this Sketch who will carry to the grave, and into the world of spirits, natures out of which half the sweetness, and brightness, and beauty has been crushed by ignorance or brutality. In most cases it is ignorance. The hand that should guide, smites; the voice that should soothe, jars the sensitive chords that are untuned forever. He who thoughtlessly excites terror in a child's heart is unconsciously doing the devil's work; he that does it consciously is a devil.
"There is a lady here whom I wish you would talk to. She belongs to one of the most respectable families in San Francisco, is cultivated, refined, and has been the center of a large and loving circle. Her monomania is spiritual despair. She thinks she has committed the unpardonable sin. There she is now. I will introduce you to her. Talk with her, and comfort her if you can."
She was a tall, well-formed woman in black, with all the marks of refinement in her dress and bearing. She was walking the floor to and fro with rapid steps, wringing her hands, and moaning piteously. Indescribable anguish was in her face - it was a hopeless face. It haunted my thoughts for many days, and it is vividly before me as I write now. The kind physician introduced me, and left the apartment.
There is a sacredness about such an interview that inclines me to veil its details.
"I am willing to talk with you, sir, and appreciate your motive, but I understand my situation. I have committed the unpardonable sin, and I know there is no hope for me."
With the earnestness excited by intense sympathy, I combated her conclusion, and felt certain that I could make her see and feel that she had given way to an illusion. She listened respectfully to all I had to say, and then said again:
"I know my situation. I denied my Saviour after all his goodness to me, and he has left me forever."
There was the frozen calmness of utter despair in look and tone. I left her as I found her.
"I will introduce you to another woman, the opposite of the poor lady you have just seen. She thinks she is a queen, and is perfectly harmless. You must be careful to humor her illusion. There she is - let me present you."
She was a woman of immense size, enormously fat, with broad red face, and a self-satisfied smirk, dressed in some sort of flaming scarlet stuff, profusely tinseled all over, making a gorgeously ridiculous effect. She received me with a mixture of mock dignity and smiling condescension, and surveying herself admiringly, she asked:
"How do you like my dress?"
It was not the first time that royalty had shown itself not above the little weaknesses of human nature. On being told that her apparel was indeed magnificent, she was much pleased, and drew herself up proudly, and was a picture of ecstatic vanity. Are the real queens as happy? When they lay aside their royal robes for their grave clothes, will not the pageantry which was the glory of their lives seem as vain as that of this tinseled queen of the mad-house? Where is happiness, after all? Is it in the circumstances, the external conditions? or, is it in the mind? Such were the thoughts passing through my mind, when a man approached with a violin. Every eye brightened, and the queen seemed to thrill with pleasure in every nerve.
"This is the only way we can get some of them to take any exercise. The music rouses them, and they will dance as long as they are permitted to do so."
The fiddler struck up a lively tune, and the queen, with marvelous lightness of step and ogling glances, ambled up to a tall, raw-boned Methodist preacher, who had come with me, and invited him to dance with her. The poor parson seemed sadly embarrassed, as her manner was very pressing, but he awkwardly and confusedly declined, amid the titters of all present. It was a singular spectacle, that dance of the mad-women. The most striking figure on the floor was the queen. Her great size, her brilliant apparel, her astonishing agility, the perfect time she kept, the bows, the smiles and blandishments, she bestowed on an imaginary partner, were indescribably ludicrous. Now and then, in her evolutions, she would cast a momentary reproachful glance at the ungallant clergyman who had refused to dance with feminine royalty, and who stood looking on with a sheepish expression of face. He was a Kentuckian, and lack of gallantry is not a Kentucky trait.
During the session of the Annual Conference at Stockton, in 1859 or 1860, the resident physician invited me to preach to the inmates of the Asylum on Sunday afternoon. The novelty of the service, which was announced in the daily papers, attracted a large number of visitors, among them the greater part of the preachers. The day was one of those bright, clear, beautiful October days, peculiar to California, that make you think of heaven. I stood on the steps, and the hundreds of men and Women stood below me, with their upturned faces. Among them were old men crushed by sorrow, and old men ruined by vice; aged women with faces that seemed to plead for pity, women that made you shrink from their unwomanly gaze; lion-like young men, made for heroes but caught in the devil's trap and changed into beasts; and boys whose looks showed that sin had already stamped them with its foul insignia, and burned into their souls the shame which is to be one of the elements of its eternal punishment. A less impressible man than I would have felt moved at the sight of that throng of bruised and broken creatures. A hymn was read, and when Burnet, Kelsay, Neal, and others of the preachers, struck up an old tune, voice after voice joined in the melody until it swelled into a mighty volume of sacred song. I noticed that the faces of many were wet with tears, and there was an indescribable pathos in their voices. The pitying God, amid the rapturous hallelujahs of the heavenly hosts, bent to listen to the music of these broken harps. This text was announced, My peace I give unto you; and, the sermon began.
Among those standing nearest to me was "Old Kelley," a noted patient whose monomania was the notion that he was a millionaire, and who spent most of his time in drawing checks on imaginary deposits for vast sums of money. I held one of his checks for a round million, but it has never yet been cashed. The old man pressed up close to me, seeming to feel that the success of the service somehow depended on him. I had not more than fairly begun my discourse, when he broke in:
"That's Daniel Webster!"
I don't mind a judicious "Amen," but this put me out a little. I resumed my remarks, and was getting another good start, when he again broke in enthusiastically:
The preachers standing around me smiled - I think I heard one or two of them titter. I could not take my eyes from Kelley, who stood with open mouth and beaming countenance, waiting for me to go on. He held me with an evil fascination. I did go on in a louder voice, and in a sort of desperation; but again my delighted hearer exclaimed:
"Old Kelley" spoiled that sermon, though he meant kindly. He died not long afterward, gloating over his fancied millions to the last.
"If you have steady nerves, come with me and I will show you the worst case we have - a woman half tigress, and half devil."
Ascending a stairway, I was led to an angle of the building assigned to the patients whose violence required them to be kept in close confinement.
"Hark! don't you hear her? She is in one of her paroxysms now."
The sounds that issued from one of the cells were like nothing I had ever heard before. They were a series of unearthly, fiendish shrieks, intermingled with furious imprecations, as of a lost spirit in an ecstasy of rage and fear.
The face that glared upon me through the iron grating was hideous, horrible. It was that of a woman, or of what had been a woman, but was now a wreck out of which evil passion had stamped all that was womanly or human. I involuntarily shrunk back as I met the glare of those fiery eyes, and caught the sound of words that made me shudder. I never suspected myself of being a coward, but I felt glad that the iron bars of the cell against which she dashed herself were strong. I had read of Furies - one was now before me. The bloated, gin-inflamed face, the fiery-red, wicked eyes, the swinish chin, the tangled coarse hair falling around her like writhing snakes, the tiger-like clutch of her dirty fingers, the horrible words - the picture was sickening, disgust for the time almost, extinguishing pity.
"She was the keeper of a beer-saloon in San Francisco, and led a life of drunkenness and licentiousness until she broke down, and she was brought here."
"Is there any hope of her restoration?"
"I fear not - nothing short of a miracle can, retune an instrument so fearfully broken and jangled."
I thought of her out of whom were cast the seven devils, and of Him who came to seek and to save the lost, and resisting the impulse that prompted me to hurry away from the sight and hearing of this lost woman, I tried to talk with her, but had to retire at last amid a volley of such language as I hope never to hear from a woman's lips again.
"Listen! Did you ever hear a sweeter voice than that?"
I had heard the voice before, and thrilled under its power. It was a female voice of wonderful richness and volume, with a touch of something in it that moved you strangely - a sort of intensity that set your pulses to beating faster, while it entranced you. The whole of the spacious grounds were flooded with the melody, and the passing teamsters on the public highway would pause and listen with wonder and delight. The singer was a fair young girl, with dark auburn hair, large brown eyes, that were at times dreamy and sad, and then again lit up with excitement, as her moods changed from sad to gay.
"She will sit silent for hours gazing listlessly out of the window, and then all at once break forth into a burst of song so sweet and thrilling that the other patients gather near her and listen in rapt silence and delight. Sometimes at a dead hour of the night her voice is heard, and then it seems that she is under a special afflatus - she seems to be inspired by the very soul of music, and her songs, wild and sad, wailing and rollicking, by turns, but all exquisitely sweet, fill the long night-hours with their melody."
The shock caused by the sudden death of her betrothed lover overthrew her reason, and blighted her life. By the mercy of God, the love of music and the gift of song survived the wreck of love and of reason. This girl's voice, pealing forth upon the still summer evening air, is mingled with my last recollection of Stockton and its refuge for the doubly miserable who are doomed to death in life.