Saturday, September 15, 2012

Guest post from D.E. Johnson, author of DETROIT BREAKDOWN

I'm delighted to welcome D.E. Johnson, whose new novel DETROIT BREAKDOWN, Book 3 in the Will Anderson Series, was recently published.  In this entry of the acclaimed series, Will Anderson is called to the vast Eloise Insane Asylum outside of Detroit, a city once known as the Paris of the West, where a friend is a patient and now a murder suspect. Certain of his friend's innocence, Will begins an investigation that requires him to become an inmate. While Will endures horrific conditions in his search for the killer, his partners follow the trail of a murder suspect that will become a desperate race to save Will's life. Library Journal gave Detroit Breakdown a starred review, calling it " . . . one of the hot new historicals." 

Please join me in welcoming D.E. as he offers this look at his research into the infamous Eloise Asylum.

Why you won’t find women named ‘Eloise’ in Detroit
Even though the hospital has been closed for thirty years, Eloise still strikes terror in the hearts of men and women in Southeast Michigan. Since 1894 that name has been synonymous with madness. Located outside Detroit, only a few miles from the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Eloise Hospital served as Wayne County’s asylum and poorhouse in one form or another since 1832, when it was founded as the Wayne County Poor House. The facility was expanded throughout the Nineteenth Century to contain the asylum, and in 1903 further expanded for a tubercular sanatorium. From there, the hospital did nothing but grow, eventually swelling to seventy-five buildings on 902 acres, and having as many as 10,000 patients and inmates at one time, with over 2,000 staff members. Eloise had its own farm, cannery, bakery, employee housing, police and fire departments, amusement hall, and train and trolley stations. At one point its sixteen kitchens were serving 30,000 meals daily. Eloise functioned until 1981, when it closed for good. (The psychiatric facility closed in 1979.) More than 7,100 people are buried in the Eloise cemetery in graves identified only by a number.

At Eloise, the patients who were able worked for their dinner. The farms, cannery, bakery, and kitchens were manned (and womanned) by residents, in what would now be considered occupational therapy, but was then considered simply a necessity: the facility had to be self-sufficient because of chronic underfunding.
Why “Eloise?” In 1894 a post office was established at the Wayne County House (as the poorhouse was then known) because of the large volume of mail coming and going from the facility. The U.S. Postal Service required a unique—and short—name for the office, and after dozens of rejected attempts, the President of the Eloise Board suggested his four-year-old daughter’s name for the post office’s title, which was accepted. Had he known that “Eloise” and “insanity” would become synonymous, he likely would have suggested another. While the name wasn’t officially adopted by the various facilities on the grounds until 1911, it immediately became the unofficial term for the hospital.

Eloise was a relatively modern facility, as these things go. They were one of the first to adopt radiation therapy for tuberculosis and got good results with many of the patients. Unfortunately, therapies for the insane for most of its history are hard to classify as modern today. (Of course, that’s not just Eloise. You could find the same treatments at virtually any asylum.) In the early days, “treatment” was essentially immobilization. The patients would be chained to the wall, day in and day out. Therapy was not on the card. An insane asylum’s purpose was to protect society from the mentally ill, with no thought of those incarcerated.

Things changed during the “Progressive Era” (1890s – 1920s). The United States had a social awakening, which showed its hand in many of the advancements of the day, particularly in public responsibility for the less fortunate. This included the mentally ill. Psychiatric treatments began in earnest and ran a gamut of approaches, including electrotherapy (not to be confused with electroshock therapy). Electrotherapy worked by stimulating nerves with a low-level electrical pulse, which typically produced a tingling sensation. Depending on the school of thought, electrodes could be attached to the head or other body part, or the patient could be partially immersed in water that carried a low level electrical current. Electrotherapy isn’t particularly pleasant, but neither is it cruel. The first real shock therapy involved transferring a patient rapidly between a steaming hot bathtub and a freezing tub. The shock would often cause patients to pass out.

In the early Twentieth Century, psychoanalysis became the new fad, as Freud’s theories gained widespread acceptance. Psychiatrists were hired by the Eloise Hospital administration and enjoyed some success with the patients. Later, the story turns darker, as electroshock and prefrontal lobotomies took center stage. Eloise was at the forefront of these therapies, as they were with most “promising” new treatments. It’s easy today to judge them for employing these cruel techniques that caused radical and irreversible harm to the patients, but at the time they were at the forefront of innovation. The surgeons who performed the lobotomies genuinely thought the operation would result in a better life for the patient, and went forward with the best intention.

It’s always a danger to measure history by today’s yardstick. Experience has shown us that the lobotomy was a bad idea, and that electroshock therapy, applied as it was, did more harm than good. But just as with medical authorities today, these doctors were doing the best they could with the information available to them at the time. While it won’t do a bit of good for the patients who suffered at their hands, the doctors deserve at least our understanding. (And woe to you if you don’t expect the same scrutiny to be applied to our medical techniques today. In the future, some of our tried-and-true therapies—including radiation, I’m certain—will be viewed as cruel and barbaric, perpetrated by primitive hacks barely advanced from the barbers of the Middle Ages.)

So what is Eloise Hospital’s legacy? Now only four buildings remain. Three are derelict, one, the Kay Beard Building (formerly “D” Building, which served as Eloise’s administration building from 1925 -1981) serves as the office for the Wayne County Senior Citizens Services. The office occupies a small portion of the main level, leaving the vast majority of the facility empty. The other buildings—the firehouse, dynamo, and bakery—are standing but are uninhabitable.

People of a certain age who drive by the Kay Beard Building remember the patients, often children, who would gather at the fence to get a glimpse at the world outside Eloise’s walls. They remember the strange noises, sometimes human, sometimes animal, often-times indiscernible as either. They remember the relatives who were locked away behind those walls, sometimes never to be seen again.
But mostly they remember that name, the name that has always run chills up their spine—Eloise.

Thank you, D.E. To find out more about D.E. and his novels, please visit his website.

No comments: