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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hamilton Insane Asylum - written by Wilma Seville


Hamilton Insane Asylum

Hand written letter  from Ministry of Jails and Asylums
Dated March 17, 1876

 Psychiatric Care of Yesterday

Imagine yourself living 144 years ago, confused, not thinking “straight” and people looking at you as if you are “different”.  Your mood swings like a pendulum, sometimes so excitable, sometimes so depressed that you cannot even lift yourself out of bed.   There is nothing that you can do to save yourself from this seesaw of life.

Alternatively, picture yourself coming to foreign shores (Canada) trying to adjust to a new language, new culture, and not always welcomed by those who lived there.

Alcohol was easily accessible. A person wishing to “fit in”, may have thought that this would be the way to find comradeship and acceptance.

There were many reasons that people were unable to cope; alcoholism, family problems, mental health issues and the lack of support through social systems.

In order to meet this need, in 1867 petitions were presented by the Congregation Union of Canada to establish a place of detention for the drunkards of the Province.

According to statistics, one in every 397 people in Ontario were deemed to be of unsound mind and needing proper treatment.  Many people classed as insane were kept in Ontario jails.  As alcoholism was a major problem in those years, members of parliament were pushing for an Asylum.

A site was chosen in 1873, and construction on the Main Building (Barton Building) was begun in l874.  It was in the vicinity of Hamilton, Ontario. It consequently became known as the Hamilton Asylum.  .  The Main Building, now demolished, opened on March 1st, 1876, as the Ontario Asylum for the Insane.

Patients were often sent there from other hospitals, such as Queen Street Mental Health in Toronto.  The inhabitants were required to work in the fields to grow the fruits and vegetables for the hospital, at Hickory Farm to feed the animals which would later becomes their food, to wash the clothing of hospital patients and staff and to do the housekeeping . They also worked at making furniture and one can see examples of their work in the museum. Massive chairs, solid oak, wide arms, were so heavy that any patient in a violent state, would have a hard time to pick it up and hurl it. A very practical solution.

Many of these people were abandoned by their families and the hospital became their home and normal way of life. The patients and the nurses basically did all the manual work of running the hospital. Doctors and nurses worked shifts of 12 hours and also lived in the hospital.

Occupational Therapists taught the patients to work with their hands making baskets, doing rug hooking, working with wood, making felt animals and other practical items. 

Work done by the patients, taught by Occupational Therapists on staff

In the early years, the focus of the psychiatric hospital was on the care of patients.  The thrust towards  rehabilitation came later.  Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) was introduced in North American after 1945 as a treatment for schizophrenia. ECT is still used today for extreme cases of the disease and as a last resort.

Early  E.C.T. machine

Tragedy struck five times at the Asylum.due to fire.  In the early days, a horse drawn fire engine staffed by volunteers was used. To learn more about these fires, please visit the Museum.

It was a favourite pass time on the weekends, for Hamiltonians to trudge up the hill and gape at the "lunatics" who lived in the hospital. According to my guide Mary Ann, the residents of the hospital used to put on quite a show  - in a sense, laughing at them!

Not only treatment and work went on here over the years, but also sports such as ice skating and curling, both for patients and staff.  The teams played against other Hamilton leagues. There were also dances. from time to time, and entertainers came in from the community some times.

To be a nurse in those days meant quite a different thing than it does today.  For an example, nurses had to carry lamps or lanterns when attending their patients as the rooms were unlit.  Nurses and attendants had their rooms on the wards in the early part of the century.  Before the 1920's, straw ticks (mattresses) were in use.  To make the beds, one had to reach into the straw to fluff it up.  Mice could sometimes be found nesting in the straw.  Nurses also were responsible for cleaning the wards.  Wooden floors had to be swept, waxed and polished with heavy block brushes pushed by the patients.  A Sunday job was to polish brass door plates, handles and doorknobs.  Nurses also washed windows and took garbage (wet and dry) daily to the garbage room in the basement. Nurses served all the meals from large aluminum pots.  They also were responsible for counting the cutlery after each meal to make certain it all was accounted for.  No one left the dining room until this was done! To prepare a sterile tray involved collecting the required equipment and placing it in a large oval bed bath tub.  It was then covered with water and boiled for twenty minutes on the gas stoves in the ward kitchen.  This information on nursing practice at that time was gleaned from Mary Ann
McNamara, Graduate of HPH Nursing School and Museum Volunteer.

Major sedatives used in the 1900's for treatment were heroin and morphine.

As a point of interest, Dr. J. Wallace, Superintendent of the Hamilton Insane Asylum assessed the mental state of Louis Riel and judged him to be sane. As a result, he was tried and hung.

There is so much history in this museum that it is worthwhile to make an appointment to come to Hamilton to see the different artifacts and methods of treatment.

The current collection housed in the Museum was originally started by a Maintenance Man working at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Mr. Joe Kinsella.  Due to his interest in preserving the past, many items of note are to be found in the Museum.  It is an indispensable resource as an educational tool in the teaching community.  It preserves the history of psychiatric care and treatment in Southwest Ontario, with emphasis on capturing the events and essence of early life at the Ontario Asylum for the Insane.

The hours of operation are Tuesday and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m,., by appointment only.  To schedule a tour, please contact Volunteer Resources at             905-522-1155 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            905-522-1155      end_of_the_skype_highlighting      , Extension 35561.

This article has touched only on a small part of the history of this venerable old hospital


  1. A lovely little read. Very informative.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment. I found it very informative myself to visit the Museum.