Monday, May 14, 2018

When We Called the Insane Asylum Eloise

Gates outside of Eloise Asylum Building - 1940
In 1839, two years after Michigan was made a state, Wayne County bought a 166-acre farm for $800 in Nankin Township in what is now Westland. The land bordered the Old Chicago Road (Michigan Avenue) leading to Ypsilanti and parts west. The purchase included several farm buildings and a log cabin known as the Black Horse Tavern. After a wing was added, the cabin became the new Wayne County Poorhouse housing thirty-five destitute people.

The poorhouse was two days travel by stagecoach from Detroit. The unspoken truth was county officials wanted somewhere to send the dregs of society--vagrants, vagabonds, drunkards, thieves, and brawlers. Soon, the insane and feeble-minded were housed there. The mentally ill were housed on the upper floor of the pig barn chained to the timber framing. It wasn't until 1881 when the asylum's first medical superintendent took over the supervision of the mentally ill and ordered the chains be removed.

In 1872, 157 acres adjacent to the poor house was purchased from the Cady family. Over time, the Eloise complex became a self-sufficient community with its own dairy farm, pig farm, bakeries, a slaughterhouse, a greenhouse, a cannery, a tobacco field, a laundry, a police department, a fire station, and a powerhouse. At its height, the complex housed over 12,000 people with 3,000 people working throughout the grounds.

It wasn't until 1894 that the Wayne County Poorhouse was renamed. The United States Postmaster General approved Nankin Township's petition for a post office of their own. The Postmaster established an order that new post offices have only short names of one or two words not resembling any other post office in their state.

Eloise Dickerson
Recently retired, Detroit postmaster Freeman B. Dickerson was largely responsible for the establishment of the post office in the township. As president of the board, he suggested the post office be named after his four-year-old daughter Eloise. The board agreed and sent her name to Washington D.C., and it was approved on July 20. In what must have been a grand gesture to his only child, had Mr. Dickerson known that his daughter's name would become synonymous with one of the largest mental institutions in the United States, he would have chosen more wisely.

Eloise patients in straight jackets waiting to see doctors.
The Wayne County Poor House became known simply as Eloise. The complex consisted of a psychiatric hospital for the mentally ill and criminally insane, a poor house for the indigent, and an infirmary for tuberculosis victims. The Eloise complex grew to over 902 acres with seventy-eight buildings. The facility was plagued by reports of patient abuse, beatings, neglect, unsanitary conditions, and serious overcrowding--as many as 125 women shared five toilets. The mentally ill had no voice in their treatment which might include electroshock therapy, insulin-inducted comas, and lobotomies.

In 1955, the Michigan Society of Mental Health calculated that on a per patient basis, Wayne County General was the most expensive mental hospital in the world. Farming ceased in 1958. As unused buildings at the complex were closed, most were razed rather than repurposed. Tunnels once used to shuttle patients between buildings were sealed off at access points.

By the 1960s, new theories for treatment of the mentally ill were developing. Psychiatrists began experimenting with brain chemistry treating patients with pills and powders. The problem of mental illness in America grew so large that institutions couldn't house everyone who needed services.

A new approach evolved called deinstitutionalism. Mental hospitals no longer provided long term care but returned patients to society as soon as possible managing their treatment through home care outreach or half-way houses. Those who slipped through cracks in the system made a life on the streets by sleeping in cardboard boxes or living in culverts or under freeway overpasses. Some panhandled for spare change while others railed at the sky and the demons tormenting their souls. Many of these unfortunate people ended up in the criminal justice system. The psychiatric buildings at Eloise were vacated in 1973. Psychiatric care ended in 1977 when the State of Michigan took over mental health services from the county. In 1979, the name of the hospital was changed to Wayne County General.

Between the 1890s through the late 1940s, Eloise had its own morgue and three cemeteries with 7,145 burials of unclaimed bodies--each grave marked by a cement block with a number molded into it. The burials were discontinued in 1948 when the Michigan legislature passed a law to use the bodies of unclaimed wards of the state as cadavers for medical training.

Women's Mental Health in the nineteenth century:

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