Fascinating Archive Documenting the Production of a Patient-Published Newspaper at the New York City Asylum for the Insane, 1882-1883. INSANE ASYLUM.

Fascinating Archive Documenting the Production of a Patient-Published Newspaper at the New York City Asylum for the Insane, 1882-1883

An archive of galley proofs and mock-ups (some with manuscript corrections), manuscript articles (40 pp), and subscription requests for Volume I, Number 1 of The Moon, as well as two detailed letters related to the paper's content and production, two letters and several newspaper clippings on a related controversy over treatment of patients at the Asylum, and additional ephemera from the Asylum's director. Nearly all material in very good condition or better; itemized list available on request.

The February, 1883 issue of Printers’ Circular and Stationers’ and Publishers’ Gazette reported with interest that the residents of the New York City Asylum for the Insane had begun to publish a newspaper. Although they acknowledged that several other asylums had done the same (“as a means of diverting the diseased minds of unfortunate inmates"), the editors felt this one deserved special notice. While similar publications had been "sugar-coated" and kept the source of the publication a secret, this one did not. Its masthead bore an attractive wood engraving of the asylum, and its name, The Moon, served only to draw attention to the "lunatic" status of its contributors. Moreover, “it is a well printed sheet, the presence of a large number of practical printers in the asylum ensuring good typographic work.”

The Moon was the brain-child of Dr. Alexander Macdonald (1845-1906), a Toronto-born psychiatrist who had earned both medical and law degrees at NYU and quickly risen through the ranks working in New York City public hospitals. In 1875, he was appointed Medical Superintendent of the New York City Asylum for the Insane on Ward's Island, and there he set to work making changes to both hospital management and living conditions for patients. He had substandard and uncomfortable furniture replaced, ordered better and healthier food, abolished manual restraints, and increased funding for patient enrichment programs—one of which was to be the publication of a newspaper. The archive includes two 1882 letters to Macdonald from Thomas D. Maitland, a patient who had worked as a professional stenographer, and whom Macdonald seems to have tasked with developing The Moon's editorial content. Maitland assures Macdonald he is up to the task and details his own ambitious ideas for the paper, among them reporting on "any remarkable cures effected, and every improvement and success achieved, comparing such cases with those of a similar character in the history and reports of other institutions" and "items of interest of all the outside charities in the city and state." He also articulates an interesting reason for being transparent about the publication's origin:

In consonance with an idea which you are represented as having expressed to some of the reporters of the large dailies, it will be a good feature of the paper to keep up the notion of editorial insanity. This will afford an immense leverage on our side when criticizing the outside world through lunatic glasses, and under this cover of the editorial sanctum very sharp double entendres can be perpetrated with impunity and laughed at, which if uttered from a solemn standpoint would be offensive.

To the best of our knowledge, the first (and only) issue of The Moon was never actually completed, despite Dr. Macdonald having given several interviews to publicize the forthcoming publication (resulting in subscription requests from around the country). Some form of advance issue was evidently sent out for review, but we have located no holdings of that, or of any issue of The Moon. The reason for the project's failure may lie in a controversy that hit the press in late 1882, after a patient claimed in court that he had been held captive in the asylum despite being sane, while MacDonald argued strenuously that he was a danger to society. The patient won his release, and the case had a significant negative effect on public perception of the Asylum and its leadership. Shortly afterward, Thomas Maitland made a similar claim, and he, too, was released. The loss of his leadership may have been the reason The Moon never reached fruition, but we can only speculate. The materials gathered here indicate that the paper reached a late stage of production, and that several other patients were hard at work on it –as evidenced by the typesetting work and articles written in several different hands.

The tone of The Moon is generally witty and self-deprecating. In one column, the editors demand that correspondents who are not regular inmate of Insane Asylums must accompany their communications with satisfactory proof of their insanity, unless such proofs are manifest in the communications themselves. No further evidence will be required from correspondents forwarding poetry. Another item notes that new signs have been erected on the border between the Asylum grounds and the Homeopathic Hospital next door, reading No patients allowed to leave these grounds. “It is said,” reports The Moon, “that through a mistake in measurement the boards were not made sufficiently large. The word 'alive" had to be, consequently, omitted at the end of the notice.”

With a combination of facetious commentary and serious journalistic intent, the extant content (both printed and manuscript) of The Moon includes an explanation of the subscription terms and planned publication schedule (monthly, on the date of the full moon), a history of asylum journalism, an article on the moon's effect on animal behavior, a (critical) review of a book by an inmate of a another asylum, an explanation of the paper's title, and descriptions of the Asylum's print shop, theatrical program, and workshops.

Collectively, the materials in this archive offer rare insight into the thoughts and creative talents of asylum patients and will inform future research on asylum journalism and the debate over institutionalization and quality of care for the mentally ill in the nineteenth century.

Item #20043


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