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Rhode Island. State Asylum (1844-1917)



  • Existence: 1844-1917

Historical Note

Like the poor and the sick, the mentally ill remained the responsibility of Rhode Island's cities and towns until well into the nineteenth century - though the distinctions between indigence, poverty, and insanity were hardly acknowledged. Until the middle of the century, "asylums" were places that had housed the poor, the unemployed, and the poor insane. In Providence, the privately funded Dexter Asylum opened in 1828 to care for the sick and feeble. In 1839, Cranston’s Town Council voted to purchase the Rebecca Jencks estate in what is today Wayland Park at the foot of the present Meschanticut Valley Parkway, and use it as a poor farm. Only in 1844, with the promulgation of a law "to incorporate the Rhode Island Asylum for the Insane" (January Session, 1844) did "asylum" become associated specifically with the insane. Three years later, in 1847, Butler Hospital, reputed in its time to be one of the most progressive institutions in the nation for the treatment of the mentally ill, opened its doors.

It was not until 1867 that the state General Assembly struck a joint committee to look into the feasibility of establishing a state asylum for the insane. In its 1868 report to the General Assembly, however, the committee explained that it had been necessary to broaden the inquiry to include "a thorough investigation and review of the whole subject of pauperism." The committee concluded that state action regarding the insane should properly be taken "with reference to its natural connection with pauperism." Beyond this, the committee also proposed that crime, too, bore a relationship to their investigation, as "Insanity, pauperism and crime are evils which breed upon each other." Rhode Island. Acts, Resolve and Reports, Report of the Joint Committee on the State Asylum for the Insane. Report on the State Asylum for the Insane. Appendix #7. January 1868. 10pp

The patients at the State Asylum were poor and, at times, believed beyond help, as is reflected in the evolution of names for the asylum. Initially it was to be called the State Insane Asylum; in 1869 the Asylum for the Pauper Insane; and in 1870 the State Asylum for the Incurable Insane. In 1885, to relieve the cities and towns of the burden of supporting their insane poor, the General Assembly adopted a resolution that the State Asylum for the Insane should serve also as a receiving hospital for all types of mental disorders, acute as well as chronic, thereby merging the two, giving over the Asylum to “undesirable” elements, the poor, the incurable, and the foreign-born. See Rhode Island Acts, Resolves and Reports. Board of State Charities and Corrections. Seventeenth Annual Report. Public Document Appendix n.9 May 1886: pp. xv-xvi.

The State Asylum continued to operate under that name until 1917 when the Board of State Charities and Corrections was replaced the State Public Welfare Commission. Under the commission the asylum was renamed the State Hospital for Mental Diseases.

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