Sanitariums of Westport

Sanitariums first opened as facilities to treat tuberculosis, or contain those suffering from it, but also became popular for treating and housing those with addiction diseases such as alcoholism and those with mental diseases. Westport was the site of two sanitariums during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  

The Westport Sanitarium under the supervision of Dr. Frederick D. Ruland first opened in 1891 at the corner of Post Road East and Compo Road North. Prior to being a sanitarium, the property had been the lavish home of State Senator Richard Henry Winslow. Compo House. Also known as the Winslow Mansion, the house was built in 1853 and in 1859 the annual fireworks display on the property even brought president Millard Fillmore to Westport. Nine-years after the Westport Sanitarium opened, in 1898, Dr. David Walter McFarland opened McFarland’s Sanitarium in Greens Farms. Both private institutions treated “nervous diseases” such as insanity and were listed as places to be “cured of liquor, tobacco and drug habits” in directories of sanitariums between 1904 and 1906. 

Both men belonged to the Connecticut Society of Alienists, a term for physiatrists at the time, and supported reform in legislation about the “care and restoration of those nervously unbalanced.” Dr. McFarland served as president in 1910 with Dr. Ruland as treasurer. 

Both facilities also had their share of notable cases. In 1910 The New York Times published an article regarding Mrs. Amelia Bloch of Dr. MacFarland’s Sanitarium who fatally strangled another sanitarium patient by the name of Miss Fouchere while the nurses where not looking. A similar story depicting another mentally unstable sanitarium patient is that of Amy Dockstader in 1939. After her husband’s death she began having mental breakdowns one of which caused her to set Compo Inn on fire. She was later admitted to Westport Sanitarium. Her story was picked up in newspapers around the nation. Another notable patient was Karl Anderson, a famous Westport painter. He passed away in Westport Sanitarium in 1956 at the age of 82 due to a cerebral hemorrhage. 

Although neither institution has a strong known history of patient mistreatment both were named in legal cases regarding false imprisonment and negligence.  In 1906 Dr. Ruland of Westport Sanitarium was charged with the “restraint”–meaning false imprisonment–of William S. Allen for 6 years. Allen was admitted to the facility for insanity in 1896 by family members and was treated there until 1903. It was determined by the court that Dr. Ruland was not guilty of the crime of false imprisonment because as a sanitarium patient, Allen’s mental condition required his temporary removal from society.  

A full-scale investigation was launched in 1923 when Mrs. Annie Sheeby died at McFarland’s Sanitarium and “bore bruises and marks.” Dr. McFarland was exonerated when records showed that she was among the most violent patients at the facility and her injuries were self-inflicted. Twelve days later however, McFarland struck a physically disabled man but faced no charges when the man recovered. 

Westport Sanitarium Co. was again accused in 1942 of negligence, breach of contract and fraudulent representations by Edith Perlstein, whose husband was committed and hung himself. Though she sought damages the court ruled in favor of the Sanitarium stating, “no action lies for damages resulting from death due to breach of contract.” 

In 1953 the Supreme Court of Connecticut received a case regarding the potential false imprisonment, battery, and assault of Charles Felix in Hall-Brooke Sanitarium. The defendant claimed that he was taken and held at Hall-Brooke without consent or good reason. Felix also claimed to be beaten and subjected to unwarranted shock treatments. The verdict was that Hall-Brooke be absolved from false imprisonment charges since the patient was admitted under emergency commitment by Dr. Rogowski, a specialist in mental diseases. The judge also disclaimed his allegations of abuse since there was no evidence of such restraints and ultimately the decision was made in favor of Hall-Brooke. 

The rise of legal litigation and increase in public awareness through newspaper articles eventually made government oversight mandatory. In the late 19th century, for example, the city of New York had appropriated $1,000,000 more per annum—the greatest sum to date– for the care of the insane after reported accounts of mistreatment. After the global conflicts of World War I & II post-traumatic stress disorder among servicemen began to be studied and the treatment of mental illness grew into a highly specialized field. 

By the 1950s the tuberculosis epidemic had diminished, as modern medicinal practices became common. Sanatoria around the U.S. shut their doors. The Westport Sanitarium accepted patients up until the late 1960s when it was bought by Dr. Walter Langendorf founder of Evyan perfume. The entire site would be leveled for a public park in the 1970s. Many of the occupying patients at that time were transferred to nearby hospitals. In some cases, previous Sanitoria were made into hospitals themselves, such as the Hall-Brooke Sanitarium of Westport. Hall-Brooke was later absorbed by St. Vincent’s and stands today as a level II trauma center. 

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