Experience of an Inmate at Bellevue Mental Hospital

From "Experiences of an Inmate in a Mental Institution," by Christopher W. Rowe, Jamaica Star, Wednesday, April 19, 1961.

From “Experiences of an Inmate in a Mental Institution,” by Christopher W. Rowe, Jamaica Star, Wednesday, April 19, 1961.

 

In my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, I write extensively of the treatment and experiences Don Drummond likely had at Bellevue Mental Hospital during his numerous stays in the 1960s and his ultimate death there in 1969. I have visited there twice, once unaccompanied, and the sights I saw, the conditions in which the patients were made to live, the facilities and buildings that these people called home were horrifying. I can only imagine the treatment they received, and this was just a few years ago. The conditions during Drummond’s stay were rudimentary at best, and the medications he received are now banned–too dangerous, too deadly. He ran away a number of times on his own, unable to continue with the treatment. It was awful.

The way that the mentally ill were treated during the time of Drummond’s life was cruel. Drummond was spat upon, teased by his own band mates, laughed at, pointed at, and he was called a madman. He was misunderstood. So imagine my surprise when today I scanned the pages of a Star Newspaper from April, 1961 to find one inmate giving his own account of his stay in a mental hospital, in an attempt to be understood, accepted, and expose the conditions inside. The seven-part series ran from April 19, 1961 through April 27, 1961.

The mental hospital is not named, but it is in Kingston, and so we can assume correctly that it is Bellevue. The only psychiatric hospital in the whole country was Bellevue. In the late 1930s, when the following account takes place, Bellevue was not yet named as such, so this article does indeed reference the same facility that Don Drummond was at and three decades prior to his time there. Additionally, the individuals the author reference were officials at what became Bellevue. I have long heard about outdoor “cages” at Bellevue that were used to imprison patients. The following account seems to confirm this in the passage where the author recounts his experience being placed in a “railed room,” a “compartment,” after being hit by a staff member.

I find this account fascinating since it is likely the day-to-day existence that Don Drummond had while a patient at Bellevue, something that until I have found this text, was mere speculation based upon memories. His medical records have long since been destroyed (I was officially told they were destroyed in a hurricane) or officials choose to leave the records buried. In the coming days I will continue to post these accounts, but for now, here is part one, from the Jamaica Star, Wednesday, April 19, 1961, of Experiences of an Inmate in a Mental Hospital by Christopher W. Rowe:

I was arrested in Port Antonio on Sunday, third June, 1934, and placed in custody until the Wednesday, 6th June. I was handed over to the police by my father who presumed that I was acting strangely, but no offense was committed by me. My father is now dead, died on the 2nd June, 1960, and was buried the 3rd, June. I was taken by motor car taxi at the time to the railway where I was placed aboard the train for the mental hospital under escort of a constable. The constable told me that in his possession was a strait jacket, a thing made pull-over fashion with the sleeves on the inside so that a person that is placed in one could not move his arms until it is taken off him. I had the happiness of not being placed in it. We went along all right, reached the Kingston end of the railway and was taken to the hospital by animal drawn hackney carriage buggy. There were buggies at the time in Kingston playing for hire June 6, 1934. (Nowadays the escorts are by police service cars driven by uniformed constables).
My Mistake
On reaching the institution I was taken to the medical office which is the main office it being a medical corps. And there I was examined by the medical superintendent (Dr. R.D. Hewson) which was procedure at the time. The examination took the form of questioning and I in turn answering what I could manage.

I made out good enough but was a bit bleary and was told that as soon as I was cooled down I would be all right. The constable left and I was taken over by an attendant or male nurse (equal to a warder in the prison service) and taken to the ward or hospital compound. The time was about 12 noon.
The administration ward is made up of two wards, one for patients with sores and the other for cleaner patients.

On being taken to the ward or sleeping quarters my street clothing was taken away by the head nurse or chief charge (the senior person in charge of the ward at the time) and I was issued a nightgown made of Osnabergh, a whitish looking material worn in government institutions by both patients of this hospital and prisoners.

All went well until about an hour after admission I mistook an attendant for a police man I know at Half Way Tree even though he the attendant was in khaki uniform. I said something to him and he hit me in my head with a heavy ruling stick he had ruling up a book. About two hits he gave me. I felt groggy and was taken and placed in a railed room, a compartment that you can see outside and likewise can be seen from the outside by others. I was made to remain there until the night shift which was six o’clock.

(The constable for whom I took the attendant and the attendant himself are brothers. The constable’s name is Black and the attendant’s Jackson, sons of the same mother I heard).

The night attendant enquired of me why I was there. I told him I did not know. He opened the door and jerked me and pushed me to the wall, he afterwards slammed the door and went his way.

The next morning I was taken out of the room (temporarily) for it to be washed… I was issued a piece of canvas in order that it could be spread on the floor for the purpose of laying down whether to sleep or rest the legs.

I was after that given something to eat consisting of a bread baked at the general penitentiary and a can of cocoa.

The Diet
The bread is made of cassava mixed with flour and weighs about six ounces about one o’clock I was given a flat pan commonly called a pudding pan, with something to eat comprising the half of a bread (same six ounces loaf cut into) a piece of potato, some liquid matter which must be gravy and a piece of meat grounded or crushed. Five o’clock that evening I was again given another six ounces bread and a can of cocoa very weak and scanty of sugar.

After that we bedded down for the night, I still being in the room with the bit of canvas. The other patients with the exceptions of those that were in rooms were given beds. It being the admission ward it was single iron bedsteads with mattress and blankets the same as in public hospitals with a few canvas cots to make up the required number. The census of the wards called A2 was about fifty and the other A1 about thirty.

Whilst in the room for about four nights I was given one of the canvas cots on being told that my behavior was very much better. I was still given the same diet every morning and evening with changes in the mid-day meal, sometimes rice and other times cocoas with salt fish with the same liquid composition. I was taken out of the room and given an iron bed the same as the other patients in the open ward. The day after being out of the room I was taken to the dosier in charge of the ward (Dr. James) who sounded me and enquired of my feelings and of my behavior from the head nurse (Mr. S.C. Young). He reported favorably.

The doctor recommended that I could smoke if I wanted. I was given a pipe and a bit of tobacco from the store and re-taken to the ward. On going to see the doctor I was given a trousers which was reclaimed after returning. I remained in the admission ward for 20 days from the 6th June to the 26th June. I was issued a pants permanently to wear with the nightgown about three days before being transferred to the convalescent ward which are four in number – O Ward, G Ward, B Ward, and N Ward.

Ferocious
I was transferred to B Ward which was the worst at the time where the patients are more ferocious and bad behaving. This ward consisted of about 200 patients with about six attendants.

A chief charge who wore khaki with red stripes and three small stripes on his jacket sleeves as his office insignia, a second in charge dressed the same with two stripes on his sleeve and to senior staff nurses or attendants with one stripe each and two juniors who only wore ordinary khaki.

This ward consisted of one sleeping ward for about sixty patients and about fifty cells also a railed court where disorderly patients are placed during the day. At nights they are taken out and placed in the cells or if not they are taken to some other tenant wards known as sleeping wards which are known as D Range, Q Ward, E and L and H Wards. Those being tenant wards of B Wards where it’s surplus sleep at nights. In the mornings they are made to return and remain in the ward compound for the day’s routine which consists of tea in the morning, a different thing altogether from what goes on in the A Ward or admission ward.

Here (B Ward) you are given a six ounce bread and a pudding pan of cornmeal porridge – Sunday morning, Monday morning the same Tuesday, a pan of bush tea and the bread same six ounces, Wednesday, same as Sunday, Thursday same as Tuesday, Friday same as Wednesday, Saturday same as Thursday until Sunday again. At times the midday meal consists of rice and peas with salt fish slab fashion.

On Mondays and Tuesdays soup mostly gungo peas with potatoes and a small bit of beef. Wednesdays it would be same as Mondays, Thursdays, salt beef fixed with heavy liquid. Friday is the same as Tuesdays. On both occasions you get a half of bread accompanying the soup.

Saturdays you are given a saltfish water with whatever food kind on hand whether potatoes or yams but this days diet is not relished by any patient no matter how crude he be. It was afterwards abolished.

Unpeeled Food
(The foodstuffs in the admission ward were peeled but not so in the convalescent ward. There they were served cooked in the skin or peel-yams, potatoes and cocoas).

On Sundays we were given the same sort of mid-day diet as that served on Thursdays. The evening diet as it is called, consists of a six ounces bread and a pan of bush tea every day, sometimes ginger is in it and sometimes bush alone which is supplied by the Tender Board same as the rest of the things used. At nights I was made to sleep down at the D Ward or D Range as it was called in the railed room on a canvas cot. I was locked in at about seven o’clock by the attendant on night duty and reopened at six in the morning in order to be on my way to the main ward to be rechecked for the day.

We were allowed to smoke. We were issued a bit of tobacco about three inches long on Wednesdays and Saturdays which we minced up and folded in cigarette fashion with newspaper and smoked. The pipe that was issued to me was retaken from me before I was transferred from the admission ward.

After being in the admission ward for 14 days, I was visited by my sister who was a dweller in Kingston at the time (it is a regulation of the institution for a patient to be allowed visitors after the expiration of 14 days if he has anyone to visit him). She, my sister, enquired of me what I would want.

The head nurse told her that I could be given a pair of soft shoes that in case I was one that meant to kick any other patient I could not hurt him greatly. She left and returned with the shoes, some things cooked by herself and a newspaper, that day’s edition, also a shilling in order to buy cigarettes at the canteen. I was afterwards visited about twice per week by her until discharged.

We kept up our daily routine as already related until I was made to join a party that ate out in the main dining hall.
New Faces
There you see patients from all the other convalescent wards they being as follows – O Ward who sent a party, G Court or G Ward with the same name, and N Ward with all their patients they being the boss of the dining hall.

Here the diets are the same in the majority of those served in the ward with the exception of a few semi private patients who are served sliced bread and jam in the mornings with green tea in cans; in the midday a mixture of custard in a can, the same sliced bread with grounded meat and rice.

In the afternoon they get the same fare as in the mornings. There are a few patients from G Court who are given what is called crushed diet. It being whatever is served to the ordinary patients being grounded in a mill. The cause of it either due to bad stomach or loss of teeth.

Most patients that are transferred to G Court are those that suffer from fits or apoplexy.

The dining hall is attached to the kitchen from where everything is issued for the dining hall. First thing a patient is issued a flat pan afterwards a bread and down the table a big pan is pushed in which tea or porridge (cornmeal) is served by an attendant in the khaki uniform. In the middle day you are served a spoon with your diet not so in the ward. The dining hall is more orderly.

The ordinary diet is called a diet, those for the semi-private patients D diet, and for the G Court patients crushed diet. There is another diet called B diet consisting of a bread cut in half but not served with butter inserted which is served to few of the ordinary recommended by the ward doctor. He is at the main office but visits the wards at times.

Tomorrow—Christopher joins the working party—one of the many groups within the institution.

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