Behind the Double Doors


‘WELL,’ I said finally, ‘this doesn’t start at all like the work Sam has been talking about. I don’t know anything about insanity, and I never was in an insane asylum in my life — yet — How am I going to tell whether these people are sane or not?’

The old gentleman listened to me placidly, patting the tips of his fingers together and smiling gently. He was, as usual, having his own way. My last objection disappeared, as the others had. ‘I’ll get you an alienist; he will take care of that end of the affair,’ he murmured softly.

Then the benevolent despot returned to the copper business, and I began investigating something I knew nothing about—an asylum for insane criminals.

This is perhaps too abrupt a preface. The Governor of New York had requested the Superintendent of Prisons to appoint a committee to investigate the state prisons and make constructive recommendations for their improvement. Adolph Lewisohn had been made chairman of the committee, and I had agreed to act as its counsel.

Just at this time, a series of sensational charges was filed against Dr. Ross, the Superintendent of Dannemora State Hospital. This hospital is one in which are confined prisoners who have become insane after sentence. The Governor had just referred the matter to this newly appointed committee and had requested it to investigate the charges.

The young lawyer who made the complaint that formed the basis for these charges came in to see me the next morning. He had some young men with him, who, to my disappointment, when they came in later, turned out to be, not ex-inmates and witnesses, but scribes for the metropolitan press.

‘I hope,’said the lawyer earnestly, ‘this is not going to be a Star Chamber proceeding. I mean,’ he added hastily, ‘I think the press should be allowed to see the witnesses and hear what goes on. These charges are against a public officer and a public institution. The public is entitled to know how it is run.’

Having satisfied him on this score, we later began hearing witnesses.

For about a week, we had ex-inmates and the wives and relatives of inmates. The stories they told were very distressing. They filled columns of the city papers. The food was atrocious: bread made practically without yeast through some unaccountable economy; bread full of maggots; bread which did not rise, hard, flat, uneatable, made by insane inmates, ignorant of the very rudiments of baking; decayed fish, and an unending line of impossible soups; hash, which had all the left-overs of previous meals; food eaten under compulsion of hard words; ‘needles,’ administered with hypodermics, to make the unruly sick and tractable through physical weakness; brutal guards, details of whose conduct were given; unprovoked assaults, ending in death or permanent injury; sane men held over their time — that is, after their prison sentences had expired. These and other charges of similar character were made. The hospital, many witnesses asserted, was full of patients ‘as sane as you are,’ held simply to gratify grudges of the Superintendent, or to prevent their talking if the inmates came out. One particular picture was that of the imbeciles and idiots, with minds too far gone to care for themselves, neglected, filthy, sleeping in beds too vile for words, and herded in a leaky cellar, where they stood in three or four inches of water when there were visitors, or on the very rare occasions of public inspection by the State Hospital authorities, who went through the establishment always with the offending Superintendent at their heels, terrifying into silence persons who might otherwise make complaint.

It was all very gruesome. What if it. were true? Here was a hospital for insane convicts. It was in a very remote location. Sane visitors, other than on the occasional visits of relatives of inmates, were infrequent. Its population was largely of very poor people without friends. In such an atmosphere, with the opportunity for ill-treatment, might it not be true that the attendants and guards would succumb to a brutalizing life and be guilty of the conduct described? Time and again, the witnesses declared, the doctor and the attendants would retort to those threatening complaint: ‘Who will believe you? You are crazy and you are a crook, too. We can do anything we want to.’

Then would follow a story of ‘ doubledoor’ punishment for the complaint. ‘Double doors’ were the rooms where the intractable patients, or sane men who resisted brutality, were confined for punishment—solitary confinement in a dimly lighted room, without bed or furniture—nothing but a dirty mattress on the floor. When, at rare intervals, the patients in these rooms were permitted to take the air of the hospital yard, they went, we were told, in strait-jackets, with their hands tied behind them.

The long-distance picture given of the institution was far from pleasant. It was, moreover, unrelieved by any word of defense. The much-charged Superintendent did not appear. He wrote us that the war had left him short-handed and prevented his leaving his post; that he assumed that the investigation would ultimately be at the hospital; and that, when the time came, he would make his reply at the institution itself.

So, with much misgiving, one day early last July we started on our way to the hospital. An accommodating member of the committee met us with his car at Saratoga, and gave us a delightful trip on good Adirondack roads by Lake George and Keene Valley, ending with a quiet night at his Loon Lake camp. The next morning saw us making an early start for Dannemora. By ‘us’ is meant the alienist, the stenographer, and our host of the committee. The lawyer whose charges were the cause of our labor was to meet us at the hospital.


Dannemora is a beautiful site for a fine summer hotel: Swiss scenery, clear air, nearby hills and rolling farm-lands, with Lake Champlain in the distance. But Dannemora means to the New Yorker one thing, — the prison, — by custom the abiding-place for hardened offenders: a prison called Siberia by the under-world. Our car passed its high forbidding walls, turned into a driveway at an adjoining building, and stopped under a porte-cochère. A man in the white uniform of the hospital, wearing glasses, who greeted us, turned out to be the much-charged Superintendent. Our labors had begun again.

In its entrance, it was not unlike a city hospital, where you go to see Simpson who has had his appendix out. The usual shiny immaculate floors, an office or two, with girl stenographers making quite the usual hum. White-clad attendants were missing; men in blue coats with brass buttons were here in their stead.

As I learned afterward, our insane criminals read the newspapers, and, I may add, with a quite natural preference for the Hearst dailies. For weeks the inmates had read the lurid stories which their former prison associates had furnished to the press. The great day had now come. The investigation was in their midst. The lawyer who had made the charges, who had become their champion, who might be their liberator, was among them. Already he had clients there. Writs of habeas corpus had already been issued for some of them at his instance. More might follow.

So when we entered the first reception-hall, which is a large nearly square room, with the usual highly varnished hospital floors, we found its four walls closely lined with a hundred men, dressed for the most part in faded bluedenim suits. Each, it seemed, was holding a letter in his hand.

A murmur rose from them as we entered. They were eager-faced, expectant, excited.

’I told them,’ the doctor said, ‘that the committee was coming and that any of them who wanted to be heard would have a chance.'

The men stood at their places near the walls while we passed around the room. We collected letters, which came like autumn leaves in Vallombrosa. Those who had no letters gave us their names and numbers. It was a babel of confusion.

’Be sure to call me; I will tell you about the Seali murder. I am 346.'

‘I am ten years over my time,’calls another, ‘and they won’t let me out. Give me a chance, will you? Listen to me, for God’s sake!’

‘ You will be given your chance,’ we told them; and we collected the letters and passed to the next pavilion. There more patients and more letters met us. Scores of queer faces, some excited, some dull; men young and old were there: black and white, Italians, Jews, Poles, Irish, and nondescript. All were dressed in hospital, prison-made clothes, with prison-made, shapeless and heelless shoes. Still another hall followed, and we started upstairs.

‘Take us to the double doors,’ demanded the barrister.

‘If you mean the isolation corridor, that is where we go next,’ said the doctor.

More keys, more waiting attendants and doormen. Then we found ourselves in a corridor, with narrow rooms on either side — rooms with high ceilings lighted by a single barred window, perhaps fifteen feet from the floor. Each room had two sets of doors; the outer door in most of them was open. The inner door had in it a small window about the size of a man’s head. I give the size in this crude way, for there was a head at most of the windows. Such faces! We could see by the strained facial muscles that these men were shouting at us. We could see rather than hear them. They too wanted a hearing.

I went to one of the windows. ‘Not too close,’ said the attendant, ‘with this one.’

The next one seemed calmer. The eyes had the dull glitter of a snake. The face was impassive. ‘ I owe my position as superintendent to this man,’ said the doctor. To my inquiry, he added quietly, ‘He killed my predecessor, Dr. North. The doctor had tried to encourage this man by giving him some carpenter work to do. He stabbed Dr. North through the back with a cold chisel.’ The story was told simply and briefly, and we passed on.

More comments followed. ‘This man down here was a celebrated train-robber in his time. His feats were romances in the newspapers twenty years ago.’ — ‘This is Bill Green; he was once a prizefighter. You may remember hearing of his escape from Sing Sing. He bent the bars with his hands. Do you want to see the committee, Bill? No? All right.’ — ‘ This is Habeas Corpus Russell. He got out about three writs a year for quite a while. He got his last one from New York City, where he subpoenaed all the prominent people he could get hold of, who were conspiring to keep him in the hospital. He was his own lawyer. He had, I remember, ex-Governor Odell on the stand. He asked him why he did n’t get reëlected. The Governor asked the judge if he had to answer it. The Judge smiled and said it was a fair question if Odell knew the answer. A minute later the Judge decided a question against Russell. Then Russell turned on the judge and said, “Then you too are one of these scoundrels who are trying to hound me to prison for life.” The hearing stopped right then and there, and Russell and I and the keeper took the afternoon train for home.’

This next case is interesting. ‘ Here is a real artist’; and we saw a perfectly made model of a locomotive and a fullsized guitar made of white-paper pulp, both exhibited with much pride.

‘Now,’ said the doctor, ‘I am taking you to a ward in which I take particular pride.’

The door opened. The big room was full of what had once been men — creeping, grimacing, shaking, mumbling, palsied imbeciles, dull-faced idiots,— wrecks of men, no longer capable of attending to their simplest physical wants. Yet they were clean. The pavilion in which they were grouped was as immaculate as a first-class hospital in the city.

‘Let us see where they sleep,’ said the barrister suddenly.

We were then ushered into a room full of cot-beds. ‘Pull any one of these to pieces, you please,’ I said to the barrister; ‘look at the bed and the mattress, and I will do the same with another bed. See if we can find what was described to us by witnesses in the city.’

Somewhat shamefaced, he returned after a time and said, ‘These beds seem to be all right.’

The inspection of the kitchen and dining-room followed. They turned out to be clean, the food wholesome, and the kitchen seemed to have everything that could be wished for — and rarely found — in a first-class restaurant. What we found, to be sure, was entirely at variance with the sordid picture with which the witnesses had favored us in the city. At this, however, I was not greatly surprised. One of the newspapers had tried a ‘beat,’ and while I was laboriously listening to these sad stories of bad beds and worse food, it had sent a reporter unannounced to the hospital itself. He had come back and told me that from his inspection he thought the hospital was better from every aspect, except its curious inmates, than two in which he had been a patient himself, and as to which he had no complaint.

Unlike that of the reporter, our visit had, of course, been expected. The food on the table at dinner might have been specially prepared for our inspection. The larder might have been specially filled, and the bad old stuff secreted — though we looked for it. So I tried the patients on this matter shortly afterwards.

‘John,’ I said sympathetically, to one of the apparently more sane patients, ‘do you mean to tell the committee that the stuff we have just seen on the table for dinner is what they make you eat right along.’

‘Yes, sir,’ he answered eagerly.

‘This is a perfectly good sample meal?’ I inquired.

‘Yes, it is like that right along,’ he assured me.

Two other men gave me the same answer.

I hazarded a question: ‘If you were free again and back in the city, would n’t the dinner you had to-day taste about right?’

The sad eyes lighted for a moment. ‘You’ve said it,’ he replied quietly.

When we had finished investigating the food, we went to the basement and looked for the leaky cellar where, we had been told, the imbeciles and idiots stood when visitors came. This, too, had disappeared like magic. We looked for water like a thirsty traveler in the desert, and found none. The beds for these imbeciles had been examined. How any sane person could, year after year, take care of these objects, and not become insane too, I am unable to imagine.

Professional interest and training in the case of the doctor gives a point of view which laymen can hardly be expected to share. I remember that, as we passed through the imbeciles’ ward, the doctor remarked casually, ‘ We nearly had an epidemic of influenza here a few days ago. We caught it just in time. The “flu” in a ward like this would have made a heavy mortality record.’

I must be forgiven for the thought which came to my mind with the doctor’s words.

As we were making our inspection of the building, the hospital yard was full of patients at play. A ball-game was going on, and we watched it through the windows. The players had all the zest of real ball-tossers. The patients on the whole, however, were less interested than could be desired. Some sat back looking listlessly at nothing. A few watched, but none seemed to regard baseball as other than a necessary nuisance. This indifference, I presume, is one of the sure signs of insanity

The dinner call came, as we watched. The men left the yard and, as they left, we went into it. When empty, it was as bleak and cheerless as the average playground in a public school. As we were walking through it, suddenly a square box, about the size of a cigar-box, came down on the earth almost in front of us. One of its sides flew invitingly open, and this side of the box lay flat on the earth. We looked up. The box was attached to a cord, the cord to a pole, and the pole was in the hands of a cheery fellow whose smiling face grinned at us through the bars of his window. ‘This,’ said the doctor, with some enthusiasm, ‘is the best rat-trap in the world, made by an insane man, too. That fellow catches more rats with his box and his fishing-pole than we can get with all the rat-traps we have. If he had brains enough to get it patented, there ought to be a fortune in it.’


After our inspection, we started looking over the letters, calling witnesses, listening to complaints. The greater part of the time was spent in investigating alleged murders and assaults. In the meanwhile, the alienist, Dr. Brill, was looking for sane persons wrongfully detained.

The murder charge was against one of the keepers — a middle-aged, quietlooking, thick-set fellow named Pat. Ward, who had been in the hospital nearly twenty-five years. The coroner’s verdict had been self-defense. I began, I admit, with a prejudice. Twenty-five years with insane criminals is, I thought, a brutalizing job. It is an isolated and remote locality, and restraints are few. The coroner is probably a local friend of the keeper in a place where a convict has no friends.

This prejudice became somewhat dislodged as we went through the isolation corridor where the dangerous patients are detained. The doctor had been tolling us of the care which was used in searching these patients on their return from exercise in the yard. ‘ Most anything that can be made into a weapon somehow gets smuggled back into the cell,’ he said; ‘and then, look out.’

When we came back to his office, he opened two drawers of his desk: they were filled with rude weapons. Pat Ward picked up from among them a window-weight, with a piece of cord attached to it. ‘I got this here,’ ho said quietly, ‘on the side of the head.’ The parted hair still showed the scar. ‘The window-weights were all taken out after that,’ the doctor said.

Here was an old piece of a hinge, rudely sharpened on one side, and with a piece of cloth wrapped around it for a handle. ‘This is another of mine,’ said Ward. ‘I got this in the back. It is kind of dull, though. If this fellow had had the chisel that Reichman had, when he killed Dr. North, he would have had me sure.’

Here was a long wire nail set in a wooden handle. The doctor handed it to the lawyer. ‘This we got away from a client of yours, whom you are trying to get out on habeas corpus. He stabbed another patient with it. That is why he is in the isolation corridor now.’

Testimony was not lacking to convict Ward, and from one to three other attendants, of murder or murderous assault. The trouble was that no two of these stories were alike. They came from perhaps the least credible class of witnesses that can be found. Here, for example, is a pasty-faced Frenchman, He tells a connected story. Who is he? Before coming to the hospital, he had served years in various French and American prisons, for offenses ranging from blackmail to burglary. His last conviction resulted in a twenty-year sentence. He was a confirmed bad character, with a diseased mind.

Here is another — a witness whom I remember very distinctly. I took his testimony in the doctor’s office. As the attendants went to get him, I noticed that the doctor was arranging the desk at which I sat. A paper-knife went into one of the drawers, a paper-weight followed, the large glass ink-well was taken away. When the patient came in, three attendants placed themselves, one at the back of his chair, one near the window at my left, and the third somewhere in the offing. All this for a big, powerful, smiling-faced negro. After he had told his story of how Ward had murdered Scali, and had gone back with his retinue, I picked up the book which has the record of Bill as a man and as a case. The photograph on the cover had the same smiling face. Bill’s smile was all on the cover. The story of his life was a continuous record of violence, from the murder which put him in prison to the attempts at murder which put him in isolation in the hospital.

Ward sat phlegmatically silent, as witness after witness told his story. He showed emotion twice. First, when Dr. Ross put on the record a most emphatic endorsement. ‘Ward is one of my best men. He is experienced; he has good judgment; he is absolutely dependable and fearless. We have over five hundred insane criminal patients here. We have a small number of officers and attendants. When trouble comes, or is near, I can rely on Ward to take responsibility. None of these acts charged against Ward could have happened without my knowing about them. I vouch for everything he has done since I have been in charge.’

He showed emotion the second time in the course of my examination of him as to the death of Scali, which was one of the murder charges. Ward’s story had been simple. Scali, an ablebodied young Italian, had made a disturbance at dinner-hour in the diningroom. Ward had taken him out. The corridor door had been opened with Ward’s key and locked again. When he and Scali were alone in the hall beyond, a murderous assault by Scali on Ward had occurred, the moment the corridor door was locked. A struggle had ensued, ending with the fall of the men on the stone floor, the keeper’s heavy body on top. Scali had died the next day of internal injuries.

‘Did you kick Scali in the course of this fight?’ I asked.

‘ I have been here twenty-five years, ’ said Ward. ‘I never have kicked a patient. To hear this man talk you would n’t think I had a friend in the place. I have, and lots of them, too. I wish you would hear some of these patients. I will call a hundred if you will listen to that many.’

The suggestion was adopted. A long line of patients of all kinds and conditions came to vouch for Pat Ward. Their endorsement ran from ‘He is all right,’ ‘The best in the bunch,’ to ‘Like a father to us.’

One particularly emphatic elderly Jew aroused my further curiosity. Perhaps he had a motive. ‘Don’t you think Ward might help you to get out of here?’ I inquired.

‘Maybe,’ said the patient cautiously; adding, ‘would they send me back where I came from?’

‘I suppose so,’ I said, ‘if your time was not up.’

‘My time was most up when I came here,’ he replied. ‘I was in the deathhouse at Sing Sing. If I went back, do you suppose they would give me the electric chair?’

There was obviously one patient, at least, who had a good reason for staying where he was, and who had no grievance at not getting a transfer.

One of these unusual character witnesses for Ward had a quite different opinion of Dr. Ross. ‘ Why,’ he assured me, with terrible earnestness, ‘ he is the vilest monster on God’s footstool. He had consumption when he came here; he sucked blood out of me and two other patients, to make himself well, He puts electricity to burn our feet at night. He’—But the story of the doctor’s wrong-doing is too long.

‘Yes,’ the doctor said, when I told him about it; ‘this man was a farmer and I had him working on our farm until a few months ago. That is too dangerous now. I have to keep him inside the walls. There is always a chance that one of these outside workers will find some kind of a weapon, bring it in, and plant it in the yard. Then he or somebody else gets it when the opportunity comes, and then something happens.’

For a hospital superintendent, with a wife and two children, who had succeeded to an office made vacant by the murder of his former chief, to take such precautions against a similar fate seemed not unreasonable.

One ever-present grievance, which colored the testimony of witness after witness, had in it a tragic pathos, difficult to put in words. Imagine yourself sitting opposite a man, who talks with tears in his voice, and often in his eyes, in tones husky with despair, born of hope deferred and sickness of heart.

‘I am ten years over my time. I did my bit in Clinton for four years. I had only six months and ten days to the end of my term. I got a little excited one day in the prison, had a little trouble, and they sent me here; and I have been here ten years over my time. They won’t let me go. I am sane, I could go straight. They won’t give me a chance. They want me to die here. I’ve paid the State for what I have done. I’ve paid twice. I’ve got no friends. For God’s sake, do something for me. I am sane, you can see I am. Make them let me go.’

Consider the Superintendent from the despairing mind back of these angry eyes. Here was this doctor, a man who could say the word ’Go,’ who could open the doors and make the one-time prisoner free, and who said, ‘No, you must stay.’ What sentiment toward him other than resentment and hatred could be expected? In the patient’s place, would we have felt otherwise? Protecting the interests of society, that vague impersonal intangibility, by saying ‘no’ to some of these pleading human voices, is surely no agreeable duty. May the time come soon when human wisdom shall be better able to minister to the mind diseased, and not merely give the maladies names, — names which are but new additions to the vocabulary of science and of despair!

The next morning, I conferred with Dr. Brill, who had worked late into the evening examining patients. ‘Did you see the list of patients we were told in New York were sane and unlawfully detained? ’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘ Did you find any of them sane?’

‘Not one,’ he replied. ‘The records,’ he added, ‘are in better shape than I should expect, for there are not enough doctors here. The war has taken away two assistants, and Ross has been getting along with too little help and trying to do draft-board work himself. The food is better than in most hospitals. The place is clean, well ordered and equipped. The patients are physically in good shape and they seem to be well cared for. The patients in the isolation ward do not get enough chance at exercise. They need a new and separate pavilion for these cases. Dr. Ross has asked for it. We ought to help him get it.’

The rest of the day was filled like the one before, with sifting charges — a day filled with strange witnesses, queer stories, vivid incidents: interviews with the man whose sister wanted him out, but whose wife’s life would be in danger from his delusions if he should be released; interviews with the rich insane wife-murderer, so mean that he sold his daily newspaper to his fellow inmates after he was through with it, while his relatives, unsuccessful in having him declared civilly dead, wearily waited for something to happen to unloose his fortune.

In the evening, the automobile took us to the night train at Plattsburg, and our work was over. As the car left the hospital, and the grim neighboring walls of the big Clinton prison grew grayer and darker in the distance behind us, the beauty of the evening hills came as a healing balm. We had left behind us a human Sargasso Sea, filled with hulks, — a living graveyard, — filled with still floating derelicts. We had seen the last phase of crime from which all the tinseled romance had long disappeared, where punishment had ceased, where society, still preserving and caring for the wrecks of her offenders, patiently waited for the end to come.

All over the United States, institutions for like purpose are maintained. Along with our prisons, our penitentiaries, our workhouses, our reformatories, with the chain-gangs of the South, go these hospitals. They are hospitals for a class distinguished clearly from the insane of our asylums by the habits, aptitudes, and inclinations, acquired and indelibly marked upon these inmates by lives of crime. Lost in most of them is that subtle something by which in the others, the merely insane, inhibitions born of habits of right living so often continue and function, by some subconscious process, after the mind has failed.

These hospitals present the prison problem in its hardest and most forbidding aspect. Woven into the problem of crime, and an inextricable part of its complexity, are insanity, feeblemindedness, and the tangle of new names invented by science for describing mental abnormalities, defects of will, diseases of character, which make diseases of conduct. In these institutions are shown to-day the needs that form the basis of those slow-moving reforms which require new classifications of prisoners, new standards of responsibility, new duties of continued custodial care, instead of the short periods of misplaced and blind punishment, disapproved by scientific knowledge.

How shall we meet feeble-mindedness, insanity, defects of will, before they express themselves in criminal offenses? How shall we, later, separate the prisoners who have at least the mental basis for reform from those who have not? How shall we take from prison industry the handicap which to-day so often slows down its machinery to the snail’s pace of the feeble-minded? These are basic and vital problems, both of the prison and of the social organization which makes prisons and prison hospitals necessary.

The problems are not new. The thing which is new should give us hope. It is the slow but steady growth of an enlightened public sentiment, which recognizes these problems in their true significance and seeks wisdom for their solution.