Yesterday I took a tour of the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital Collection at St. Joseph’s Healthcare (Mountain/West 5th campus) in Hamilton, Ontario. I had heard rumours of a museum for several years but had been told it was no longer open – then my Grandmother sent me an article from The Hamilton Spectator with the title “Museum has shocking artifacts” from this past August. The article annoyed me because it seemed full of sensationalist stereotypes (ex. it opens with: “They were like jumper cables for the brain. Hook ‘em up, hit the switch and zap!”) but it also explained that the collection was open to the public by appointment and provided all the contact information. After a long series of phone tag messages with the volunteer coordinator, I set up an appointment for a tour.
The trip was well worth the wait: I got a private, 2+ hour tour! The volunteer who led the tour had been a nurse at the hospital for 38 years and had many interesting stories to tell with regards to her personal experiences and familiarity with the collection. The Museum opened in 1981 and has been located in several different buildings on the property. Up until just recently (ie. the past few months) it was located in the 1930s Hickory House – this building, however, was destroyed as part of the renovations that are currently ongoing at St. Joseph’s Healthcare. The Museum has been temporarily moved to the old laundry building at the back of the property but the volunteers are unclear what their future space will be like (much of their collection is still in storage). Ideally, it sounds like they would like to be moved to Century Manor (originally East House), the beautiful building constructed in 1884 that still stands on the property – but this option apparently doesn’t look promising.
The collection (a portion of which is pictured left) features items dating between the institution’s opening in 1876 and 1976. Items currently on display range from kitchen items, patient-made furniture, pharmacy bottles, surgical instruments, patient art, staff uniforms, dental office equipment, dishes, etc. The items are paced in context via relevant photographs on the walls and the multiple photo albums available for visitors to look through. Personally, I was particularly interested in the great interior shots of the wards pre-1900 as well as the kitchens and the farm fields (Mohawk College now stands on the old farm; the student pub building was the root cellar). The Spec certainly seemed to think that the 1940s ECT machine was the highlight, but I was much more interested in the Utica crib.
I was so surprised to see the Utica crib (pictured top right)! I had yet to see one on my travels and had been under the false assumption that it had never made its way to Canada after it was made famous by Amariah Brigham of Utica State Hospital in New York State (based on a French model by Aubanel). When I expressed this surprise to my tour guide, she said that she remembered it being stored under the stairs of one of the buildings when she started (not in use) and had always thought it was a crate of some sort until someone pulled it out. Made out of long slats of wood, the “crib” was designed to immobilize patients in a position which prevented them from sitting or standing up. It was also quite a controversial treatment during its time (roughly 1845-late 1880s). I’m going to have to dig through the Hamilton annual reports to see if there is any specific mention of its use!