The Northampton State Hospital was opened in 1858 to provide moral therapy to the “insane,” and under the superintendency of Pliny Earle, became one of the best known asylums in New England. Before the turn of the century, however, the Hospital declined, facing the problems of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate funding. The push for psychiatric deinstitutionalization in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in a steady reduction of the patient population, the last eleven of whom left Northampton State in 1993.
With the Government Documents staff, SCUA has digitized the annual reports of the Northampton State Hospital from the beginning until the last published report in 1939. The reports appeared annually from 1856 until 1924 and irregularly from then until 1939.
A Brief History of the Northampton State Hospital
During the first half of the nineteenth century, asylums were a growth industry in the United States. Fulfilling both a progressive hope that humanitarian principles and Enlightened reason could resolve even the most refractory social problems and a desire to control “deviancy,” reformers opened dozens of asylums to deal with issues ranging from criminality to poverty, the blind, orphans, and the mentally ill. Following theorists such as the Frenchman Philippe Pinel, the English Quaker William Tuke, and the Philadelphian Benjamin Rush, physicians rejected incarceration and harsh treatment of the mentally ill, advocating for a “moral therapy” centered on an intimate doctor-patient relationship and individualized care, often accompanied by structured labor, religious exercises, and regular entertainment to keep the mind occupied in productive pursuits.
When it was opened in 1811, the McLean Asylum in Somerville, Mass., became the first hospital of its kind in New England, and after laws were enacted in Massachusetts in the 1830s mandating the separation of the mentally ill from prisons, others soon followed suit. Samuel Woodward’s Worcester Insane Asylum (1832), the Boston Lunatic Asylum (1839), and the Taunton State Hospital for the Insane (1851) were noted as centers for moral therapy, each growing rapidly after its founding. The Northampton Lunatic Hospital was opened in 1858 in the moral spirit of Tuke and Rush, designed to accommodate approximately 250 patients on its bucolic campus.
The most significant figure in the early history of Northampton was its superintendent from 1864 to 1885, Pliny Earle, who was both a leader in American psychiatric circles and a transitional figure in therapeutics. A native of Leicester, Mass., and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Earle had almost twenty years of experience in asylums in Pennsylvania and New York when he answered the call to Northampton. Reflecting an increasing pessimism in medical circles about the possibility of ameliorating mental illness, Earle dismissed the high rates of cure reported by some institutions by noting that patients who suffered from recurrent illness were often counted as having been cured at the end of each episode.
The population of Northampton State Hospital continued to swell until by 1900, it housed 600 patients in overcrowded conditions. Increasingly, the hospital housed only the destitute, the isolated, and those deemed incurable, and conditions declined precipitously. With the Comprehensive Mental Health and Retardation Services Act of 1966, Massachusetts moved haltingly toward a new model for care of the mentally ill, centered around deinstitutionalization and the development of community mental health centers. The state reform schools were ordered shut in 1969, and the Mental Health Reform Act on 1970 added restrictions on the admittance of new patients to state mental hospitals. The last eleven patients left Northampton State in 1993.
Digitized by Librarian Leonard Adams, the following annual reports of the Northampton State Hospital (previously State Lunatic Hospital at Northampton) reflect the evolution of mental health care in the Commonwealth from its opening in 1858 until the eve of the Second World War. Pliny Earle’s annul reports were widely regarded in the profession as a model to emulate, including detailed information on operations, expenditures, patients admitted, transferred, “recovered,” “improved,” and released, often with extensive commentary on conditions of mental health care provision in the state, as well as details of the daily routine at Northampton. Although the names of individual patients are not presented, summaries of gender, race, ethnicity, and religion are sometimes available.
As a state institution, the Annual Report of the Northampton Lunatic Hospital and Annual Report of the Trustees of the Northampton State Hospital were issued as public documents. The originals are housed at the Five Colleges depository and are catalogued in the UMass Amherst Online catalog.
See: J. Michael Moore, The Life and Death of Northampton State Hospital (Northampton, 1993).
Northampton State Hospital Annual Reports