Live From the Archives:
"Committed: The Unfolding of Human Wreckage"

By Melissa Jacobson

(This article was orignally published in the Martinez, CA Gazette, April 17, 2011)

My eleven year old daughter -- who loves to play basketball any chance she gets -- thinks I'm crazy to waste a sunny afternoon sitting inside the History Center, monk-like, hunched over manuscripts. "It's fascinating to study people of the past" I say while lifting myself off a lawn chair. She aims and shoots a basket. My voice gets louder in order to be heard over the orange bouncing ball. "And, I love to try to figure out why people made the decisions that they did." She stopped bouncing the ball, looked up and I became -- as it turned out -- prematurely excited about my daughter's interest. "These decisions changed the course of people's lives" I shouted. She dribbled over towards me, hugged her ball closely to her chest, looked me square in the eyes and said: "Um, I still think you're crazy. Wanna play a game of PIG?"

The History Center holds county volumes entitled "Record of Insane Commitments" that run from 1881 to 1937. One afternoon, I examined the first volume which covers the dates 1881 to 1907. Each page, as recorded by the County Clerk, documents a Complaint about a person "now in said county… who is insane and by reason of insanity dangerous to be at large and is a proper subject for an insane asylum and prays that such actions may be had as the law requires and that the said insane person may be sent to the asylum for the insane." Following this, a Commitment was pronounced by the Judge after having first, "heard the testimony of two witnesses" who have "frequent intercourse" with the said insane person, second after a personal examination by two physicians who are "graduates in medicine" and who have "made the certificate by law required" that this person is a "proper subject for the insane asylum." Then, the Judge says he is "myself satisfied" that the said person is insane and dangerous to society. The case is summed up by the Judge "finding after diligent inquiry the facts to be as follows; " that the insane person is unable to "bear charges or expenses" of institutionalization and has "no kindred," nor "appointed guardian." Notes were also made documenting whether the insane person had debt, property or money on their person. And finally, the Judge "charged the execution of this order" over to the County Sheriff, who would escort the accused person to the local insane asylum.



These records, though dark in nature, were exquisitely legible. It was easy to make out, in the aged ink of the County Clerk's hand, that the Superior Court Judge presiding over these commitments was none other than "the Honorable Thomas A. Brown," the son of Lafayette's founder, Elam Brown. Also, I noticed on April 4, 1895 the first mention of another notable county figure: "I do hereby charge Sheriff R.R. Veale with the execution of his order." Within minutes of perusing these records it became clear that the Doctors, the Judge, the Sheriff and the County Clerk were routinely the same men processing insanity cases over and over again. This inspired me to wonder how many insanity cases the Superior Court handled each month and who paid for this seemingly pat process of disposing of the insane? Were all of these people really crazy?

In 1883 alone Contra Costa County Superior Court sent twenty people -- one quarter of which were female -- to an insane asylum. During that year, the court hearings were sporadic and only three months were without insanity hearings. It was not uncommon that husbands originated the insanity complaint by filing an affidavit with the court; in one case the Judge noted that "neither the insane person nor her husband are able to pay anything whatever." And, "her husband who is poor has not sufficient ability to pay" yet it is noted later that she "holds in her name 74 acres of swamp land." Notations such as these made me want to know more about insanity commitments in our county and in our state.


Insane Asylums in Stockton (r) and Napa (l)


Contra Costa County people who were committed by the Superior Court to an insane asylum generally went to the State Hospital at Stockton or the State Hospital at Napa. Stockton Hospital opened in 1851 and by 1853 became California's oldest mental health institution. Napa opened in 1875; it was intentionally built to serve the mentally ill because of overcrowding at Stockton. Both hospitals had acreage which was used for orchards, gardens and farming operations; inmates were required to work without pay as part of their recuperation, yet they were also charged for their stay, hospital care, laundry and clothing. During the late 1800's specialists believed that insanity was caused by the pressures of civilization; this is why it was recommend to send people away to a bucolic setting -- for an indefinite time -- to recuperate. If one felt they were ready to return to civilization (ie. sane) then they filed a written petition to the superintendent for an examination and a certificate of sanity would be issued and they would be released. A family member could petition for a discharge -- even if the insane person was still insane -- as long as the family was financially able and willing to care for the mentally ill person. In either case, the County Clerk would be notified and this discharge would be recorded in the back of that year's Commitment volume with citations such as "not insane" or, "recovered." This seemed, well, crazy: How does one "recover" from insanity?

Richard Fox, an historian who studies the California insane, says that the criteria for charging someone with insanity was admittedly loose. A new Lunacy Law in 1897 tried to firm this up after complaints that counties were simply palming off undesirable people onto the state. During the 1870's to 1920's "California had the highest rate of insane commitments in the nation" says Fox. Superintendents of the asylums recognized that "hospitals of the state will continue to be the receptacle for all forms of human wreckage, regardless of law and justice." Here was the answer I was looking for: Basically, anyone who was "troublesome" in the county could be sent to a state asylum indefinitely. Indeed, the state -- not the county -- paid the entire cost, says Fox, of maintaining destitute people. Now I see why the county judge was intent on proving that the committed had no funds.

If these people were not insane, but only troublesome, who were they? Mr. Fox's book, So Far Disordered in the Mind helped me ferret out more answers about the accused. In a section of his book entitled "Route to the Asylum" Mr. Fox mentioned that once an affidavit was filed in court against the alleged insane person, the accused person was then taken by the Sheriff to a county detention hospital. This was my lucky day; the History Center has various volumes of The County Hospital Register that start in 1894 and end in 1949. Curious to see what I would find, I walked down the History Center stacks and picked up a slim volume of Hospital Records that included the same years (1906- 1907) of the Commitment Records I was perusing. There were about 40 people per page, many -- nearly all -- were not born in California but were from Wales, Ireland, France, Portugal and Peru. What rocked my imagination though, was that there were at least two or three people per page diagnosed as "insane." This seemed statistically impossible, yet I quickly remembered what Richard Fox had said about California counties using insanity laws to shovel out "troublesome people -- all forms of human wreckage" from their counties at the expense of the state.

While cross referencing a man named Joseph, who was listed in both the 1907 Records of Insane Commitments and the 1907 County Hospital Register, I unearthed a compelling story. My eyes followed my finger as it crossed the red, grid-lined pages of the hospital records. Joseph was diagnosed as "insane." He was 51 and from Portugal. But nothing prepared me -- as I caught my breath -- to see below his name the name of his wife Mary, aged 34, from Portugal and also diagnosed as "insane." And then, below her name the names of their three children ages 13, 11 and 9; all of whom were born in California. In small print it was also noted, here in the Hospital Register of all places, that they had an estate of $4000. Unable to let this story die, I quickly paced down yet another aisle in the History Center to the county probate records: I struck gold.

This troublesome couple, according to the minutes of the Superior Court Probate, were "mentally incompetent to manage their property." And from the minutes we can see that their property was appraised and sold; guardians were appointed for their three children. This legal process lasted approximately two and one half months, during which time Joseph, Mary and their three children lived at the County Hospital. When the parents were taken to Napa State Hospital, the children remained in the hospital until each one was individually parceled out, over 2 months, to separate guardians. Mary remained at Napa for two and one half years until she petitioned and was discharged with those fateful words: "The said patient has recovered." According to the Probate Register of Actions, I found out that within the month of her return, Mary was back in court petitioning for her money, then her right to be restored to competency and finally for the guardianship of each one of her children. At the time, Napa Hospital touted the curative powers of their "hydrotherapy," but Mary's transformation -- to me -- seemed nothing short of miraculous.

And here was a story, unfolded, about the "human wreckage" that Superintendents of insane asylums routinely recognized. Another case in history, as I tried feebly to describe to my daughter, about how seemingly pat decisions tragically, or perhaps not so tragically -- we'll never know -- affect people's lives.

Special thanks to Richard Fox, author of So Far Disordered in the Mind. Insanity in California, 1870-1930.

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