The insane asylum next door

State mental hospital in Columbus, Ohio

State mental hospital on Marion St. in Columbus, Ohio

In a letter to my great-grandmother in about 1941, her sister, Emma Davies Sharp Smith, sketched her memories of their childhood home in Columbus, Ohio, where they lived on Marion Street:

It was a dead end st. at both ends – our side dead end was the State Asylum for Insane – burned down when I was about 3 yrs old – Dad had on his blue Army overcoat that next morn when he took me down to see the ruins. In the years that followed we youngsters use to slip thru the fence & play down in the cellars.

Dad was William Morgan Davies, who had served in the Union army. If Emma was three, the year was 1868. The Asylum Projects website confirms:

On the evening of November 18, 1868, the asylum caught fire and was almost completely destroyed. There were three hundred and fourteen patients in the asylum, and six were suffocated by the smoke before they could be rescued.

The “Lunatic Asylum of Ohio” had been in operation for 30 years. It was replaced by the new Columbus State Hospital in a different part of town. The massive building that opened in 1877 accommodated 852 patients, more than double the capacity of the old asylum. The website description concludes:

The hospital remained in service until the late 1980s, despite falling into severe disrepair. It was demolished in 1997….Four patient cemeteries of the Columbus State Hospital still exist.

I’m fascinated by the way a short paragraph in an old letter can evoke a vivid moment that took place over a century ago and can lead me into a strange little history lesson. I wonder how the Davies family felt about living down the street from an institution for the mentally ill. One might think the houses there would be cheap, but Emma writes:

Washington Ave. cut Marion St. in half. We lived in the East side…The two East & West never mingled. The East side was a bit more classy – Ha-Hem.

She remembers the neighbors as a banker, a contractor, a high school superintendent, a wealthy Irish family.

Then the Shedds – large family w/ boys – father worked in bank – cashier – was sent to prison – stole.

Ironically, when William later beat his wife with a horsewhip, he was judged by the family to be suffering from stress due to his war experience, which included three months in the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville. But those mental health issues were years in the future when he stood in his army coat, holding the hand of his three-year-old in the November chill, gazing at the wreckage of the mental hospital down the street.

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This entry was posted in Civil War, genealogy, mental health and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The insane asylum next door

  1. Claire says:

    Wonderful writing !!! So evocative and thoughtful. Thank you Ellen!!!

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