Nature & People at the Boston Insane Hospital in the Late 1890s

The Boston State Hospital – originally called the Boston Lunatic Asylum – was founded in South Boston in 1839. By the 1880s, new ideas about the care of the mentally ill emphasized the importance of fresh air, hard work, and separation from the adverse influences (both social and environmental) of city life, an approach that was referred to as “moral treatment.” Thus, when the time came to move out of the old and overcrowded facilities in South Boston, the Asylum’s leaders looked to West Roxbury – at that time a semi-rural area that had only recently been incorporated into the city of Boston – as an appropriate setting for a new hospital.

Beginning in 1884, some Asylum residents were moved to the former almshouse at Austin Farm, just across Morton Street from the present Boston Nature Center, where the Harvard Commons development stands today (see map). In 1892, looking for more room for both buildings and farmland, the City purchased the 35-acre Pierce Farm, along Walk Hill and Canterbury Streets – part of which land is now the western end of the BNC. A few years later, the City bought another parcel of land, adjoining Pierce Farm and Canterbury Street, which now includes much of the Clark Cooper Community Gardens and other areas in the central part of the BNC.

It was soon decided that Austin Farm would house women, while Pierce Farm became the “Department for Men” of the recently renamed Boston Insane Hospital. The new buildings at Pierce Farm, designed by city architect Edmund March Wheelwright, opened in 1895, and a few additional farm buildings were added over the following years.

Click on the images below to see larger versions.

This is part of a 1907 map of Dorchester, Roxbury, and West Roxbury made by George H. Walker & Co. of Boston. The red numbers show the approximate locations from which the photographs in this exhibit were taken, while the outline of the current BNC is in green. 
This photograph of the hospital buildings at Pierce Farm was taken in the late 1890s, from a point near the current location of the Walk Hill entrance to the BNC. When you stand there today, the entrance road (Oak Street) replaces the walkway on the left half of the photo, and our three brick buildings are right in front of you, all surrounded by lines of oaks and other plantings – a very different landscape!
Productive work, exercise, and time spent out-of-doors were important parts of the “moral treatment” of mental illness, and so the residents of Pierce Farm were put to work landscaping the grounds, reclaiming marshland, caring for animals, and tending crops. The Annual Reports of the Boston Insane Hospital gave statistics on the products of farm and garden, which provided both food for residents and employees and income for the hospital.
The Annual Report for 1897 described the need for a new “piggery” at Pierce Farm, “where the kitchen waste of both farms can be used to advantage” – reminding us that the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” is not so modern as we might think. The piggery was built later that year, near where the BNC parking lot is now.
The cattle at Pierce Farm – here, grazing on a hillside somewhere near where the George Robert White Center is now - produced 107,142 quarts of milk in 1896. Unfortunately, that year the presence of tuberculosis was discovered among the herd, and a number of animals died or were destroyed; it took years of care and attention on the part of residents and supervisors to rebuild the herd.
In 1899, hospital residents helped reclaim 20 acres of marshland, including the cultivated land seen at the back of this photo, taken somewhere around where Canterbury Brook runs under American Legion Highway today. In the words of the 1901 Annual Report, all of the many farm tasks “furnished considerable labor for patients” – and, one hopes, a sense of dignity and pride as well.

In a practice common to many Americans in the nineteenth century (and today), hospital residents brought bits of the outdoors inside, using objects encountered in nature such as cattails, leaves, and dried corn cobs to beautify and personalize their institutional rooms.

In these same years, the founders of the Massachusetts Audubon Society such as Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall undoubtedly decorated their own rooms in a similar way, with flowers and greenery in spring and dried leaves, fruits, and seeds in autumn – though they may have balked at the stuffed owl in this resident’s room, given their crusade against the killing of birds for use in fashionable hats and clothing.

Despite such differences, in the late 1890s many of the residents of the Boston Insane Hospital had more in common with the founders of Mass Audubon than we might think – both shared an understanding of the natural world as an essential part of everyday life, as a place of personal meaning and healing, and as a common good to be shared with the community.

This was the view of Pierce Farm in the late 1890s from somewhere on Austin Farm, across Morton Street; the black-and-white structure to the right of the main buildings is the piggery. Over the following century, marshland would be filled in, trees planted, the brook rechanneled, and other elements of the landscape transformed, to give the contours of the Boston Nature Center as we know it today.

The photographs in this exhibit were selected from a larger set that were taken for the City of Boston by an anonymous photographer (or photographers) in the late 1890s, portraying the facilities and daily life of both Austin and Pierce Farms.

Many of the images were reproduced in the Annual Reports of the Boston Insane Hospital, while the full set can be found in the Special Collections Department of the State Library of Massachusetts.