The Pennsylvania State Archives recently received a donation of 108 letters from Harrisburg State Hospital. I had the good fortune to meet the donor and get the letters ready for research, but not before I read through them myself!
The letters date between 1879 and 1887, when the institution was known as the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital and were mostly written to staff by inquiring family members of patients. A big chunk of the letters was written in December 1882 and discuss holiday visits and Christmas presents sent to patients (usually clothes, fruit, and nuts). Many of the letters were written to Dr. Margaret Cleaves, a pioneer physician and researcher in the treatment of mental illness who was the head of the hospital’s Female Department at the time.
These letters represent a unique collection in the State Archives’ holdings for a few reasons. Being a state archives, most of our disability-related records were created by government staff members. These letters written by family members of patients document a different perspective on Pennsylvania’s disability history that is less clinical and more emotional. The letters also reveal what questions writers frequently had for their institutionalized family members such as “is she becoming more reconciled?,” “has she a good appetite?,” “is she very troublesome?,” and “is there is anything she needs for comfort?” One writer asked “if not remiss, to be remembered kindly” to his mother- he did not have enough money to travel to Harrisburg to visit her. Having these new perspectives in our records helps us represent more voices and highlight the importance of family in the history of disability in Pennsylvania.
The typical 19th century narrative on mental institutions is one of neglect, loneliness, and despair. Published works like Nellie Bly’s expose’ on New York’s Blackwell Asylum were the norm, frightening the public with terrible abuses and suffering that occurred behind institutional walls. While it is true that many patients did suffer terrible abuses and injustices while institutionalized (Harrisburg State Hospital was no exception), this collection of letters also reveals patients benefitted from caring and talented staff who were able to improve the lives of their patients noticeably. Letters written after family visits often remark on the improved conditions of patients and request that they be sent home as soon as possible. One letter writer happily wrote that Dr. Cleaves’ treatment did his relative “much good” and admitted that “I am satisfied also and don’t begrudge the money that it cost me” to send her to the hospital.
Institutions like Harrisburg State Hospital received tens of thousands of letters like these over the decades, but most have unfortunately been long since destroyed. The State Archives is very lucky to have received this small collection of letters and we hope that it will help researchers get a better idea of what life was really like for Pennsylvanians with intellectual and mental disabilities in the 19th century.
The Pennsylvania State Archives is home to the largest collection of archival material from Harrisburg State Hospital, with thousands of records dating from its foundation in 1845 to its close in 2008. To view a complete finding aid of records and visit the State Archives, please visit our website at this link: https://archon.klnpa.org/psa/?p=collections/classifications&id=584.