Bellevue Mental Hospital

Jamaica 2013 762

It is the week of Halloween and I see advertisements everywhere for haunted houses, many of them “insane asylums” with silly images of fake butchered patients at the hands of saw-wielding zombies as Marilyn Manson plays in the background. I can’t help but think of the real life insane asylum that is part of ska history, Bellevue Mental Hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, home to trombonist Don Drummond during the last years of his life and periods throughout his life. While Bellevue was never a site of such horrific butchering as will likely be portrayed in haunted houses, it is still haunted with inhumane treatment and horrifying scenes, as I witnessed when I visited the interior of this hospital last February. The photo above is a patient’s artwork on a boarded up, abandoned building located on Bellevue grounds.

First, let me share a little about Bellevue’s history, which you can also read about in more detail, including information on Don’s treatment and death in my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, available by clicking the books link above.

In the mid-1800s, Kingston had only a single public hospital located on North Street and West Street. This hospital served the city’s 30,000 people and contained the Jamaica Lunatic Asylum, as it was called at the time. Accommodations were so awful that one former senior medical officer claimed they were “little better than stables for animals.” Treatment for patients during these early years was primitive at best and included such procedures as “tanking,” or submerging patients into a shallow tank of water many times to reduce their aggressiveness, or rather forcing compliance, not unlike today’s torturous water boarding. Private medical practitioner Dr. Lewis Bowerbank changed these conditions when he appealed to the Colonial Office in London to make investigations into the mistreatment of patients. As a result, Bellevue Mental Hospital was built in 1861, delayed initially by an outbreak of cholera in 1850. But the hospital wasn’t known as the Bellevue Mental Hospital in those days. It was called the Jamaica Lunatic Asylum, then in 1938 the name changed to the Jamaica Mental Hospital and later it was called Bellevue Mental Hospital.  

It is interesting to note that as improvements were made over the years, namely in the areas of nutrition, uniforms and sleeping conditions, recreation, occupational opportunities, and skilled treatment, there was also a brass band that was organized in 1860 to help provide recreational and therapeutic opportunities for patients. This continued during Don Drummond’s tenure and he periodically played with this band, even tutoring a patient there. A senior medical officer remembers that this student was known as Trommie but his real name was Eleazor Beckford. Music is still used as a form of occupational therapy at the hospital today.

The medical treatment patients received at Bellevue were rudimentary in the early days and during the days of Don Drummond’s stay. In the 1800s, the main medication for patients in the asylum was alcohol—brandy, wine, rum, and gin were given to patients. This was greatly reduced and replaced by drugs and castor oil. Overcrowding was always an issue so knocking out patients helped the limited staff, who was not skilled in the early days, deal with clients. During my visit to the hospital, no staff at all was visible in multiple buildings as patients roamed their fenced-in areas, barefoot, bandages unraveling from their heads.

In the 1960s, when Don Drummond lived at Bellevue, one form of treatment was prevalent, having just emerged into the medical industry in Jamaica. In addition to drugs that would have rendered Drummond a zombie, he also was treated with electro-shock therapy. Don’s fellow musicians confirm that he received this treatment at Bellevue, as does the senior medical officer’s (SMO) family who was there, living on the estate, at the time. “EST was definitely the thing, electroshock. The medication would have been basically heavy sedatives. There were basically things to kind of conk you out. Drummond was pretty zonked out from early on,” says the SMO’s daughter. The drugs that Don was given by the unskilled staff were drugs that have since been banned since they are fatal. One administrator told me, “We used strait jackets to restrain different patients. We also had chemical restraints, sodium barbital. The patient would be tranquilized to the extent that they would sleep for a few days and given glucose. They would come out and be in a different state. We also used chlorpromazine, or CPs for short.” Sodium barbital is the same class of drug that killed Jimi Hendrix and Marilyn Monroe.

Was Don Drummond killed in this house of horrors? You can read my thorough research into this and my conclusion in my book. What do you think?