Treating the Ill

Wellness became an active leisure pursuit among the growing middle- and upper middle classes of the late 19th century. Maintaining good health lead many to bucolic regions where natural springs, clean mountain air or bracing sea water were thought to aid the body and mind. New York State’s mountains and Connecticut’s Gold Coast were such places of escape for wealthy clientele seeking spa accommodations away from cramped city life.  

On the other side of the wellness coin were hospitals for those deemed—or who actually were—sick. Like the spa resorts of their healthy counterparts, sanitariums varied in luxury, treatment and available facilities, depending on the means of the patients. Regardless, they were a place to treat the unhealthy or occasionally as places to keep the unhealthy contained. 

Treatments at sanitariums ranged from simple prescriptions to risky and sometimes invasive medical procedures. The first American sanitarium, located in the Adirondacks of New York, was known to have a strict regimen for its patients which included lots of fresh air and sunlight while also implementing mandatory social activities such as arts and crafts. Other institutions were not as commodious.  

Another notable sanitarium of the time, Waverly Hills Sanitarium, in Louisville Kentucky, was considered the most advanced tuberculosis sanitarium of the time. It was noted for more barbaric practices, including surgically implanting a balloon in tubercular patients’ lungs and blowing it up with air. The results were often fatal.  

Noted New York World reporter Nellie Bly went undercover in New York City’s infamous Blackwell’s Island, a hospital for the mentally ill.  Her serialized report Ten Days in a Madhouse published by the Godey’s Ladies Book in 1887 describes how she was subjected to freezing baths and inhospitable conditions while watching the nurses strangle and beat fellow patients.  

Other sanitariums catered to low-income immigrants or poorer society members. Immigrants, particularly, were vulnerable to abuse within the sanitariums. Nellie Bly reported that many non-native speakers were thrown into sanitariums unwillingly and solely because the nurses or guards couldn’t understand them. Treatment of men and women seem to be similar, although some sanitariums did specialize gynecological procedures which were thought to be the source of illness such as hysteria. 

Institutions, such as the Rosewood Center in Owings Mills Maryland which opened in 1888 and closed in 2009 were notorious for mistreatment of female patients. During the 1930s at Rosewood many women had been discharged from the facility to be placed in private homes against their will in what amounted to de-facto slavery. 

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