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Defective, Dependent and Delinquent Classes: The Care of Two Longmeadow Residents

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

***Today's History Note is part of our Hidden Voices Series that looks to highlight the stories of people often overlooked in history. Warning: this content is about mental illness in the 19th century and may be upsetting for some people.***

1880 Supplemental Census featuring Laura Goodhue on Line 1. Suffering from "Mania"

In the generations before institutions existed to care for people with mental illness, the responsibility fell to their families and community. Towns and the state did provide some financial assistance to residents who qualified as “paupers.” A variety of reasons might have led to someone being cared for as a pauper, but one reason was in fact insanity. In the second half of the 19th century this sometimes took the form of paying for institutionalization at recently built psychiatric hospitals, or asylums as they were often called. The Longmeadow Historical Society’s archives are filled with documents dating back to the early 18th century showing selectmen ordering payments to caretakers of the town’s paupers. Several specifically show payments to “Vermont Asylum for the Insane” and to the “Northampton Lunatic Hospital.”

From 1840-1890 the Federal Census, which collected information every ten years on town populations, included a category asking residents to identify members of their households who suffered from mental health issues. The terminology on the census columns seems harsh today. You were asked to label your family member as “insane or idiotic.” Beginning in the 1830’s “asylums” for “lunatics” were opening throughout New England to provide care and treatment as the new field of psychiatry was emerging.

Vermont Asylum for the Insane Courtesy of Brattleboro Historical Society

The 1860 census identifies one such person, Alexander L. Coomes. All we know about Coomes comes from a handful of documents passing through town records. We don’t know anything about his appearance, his interests, his skills, or the nature of his mental illness. Born around 1830, Coomes lived in Longmeadow with his parents, Henry and Cornelia, and a sister, Elizabeth. Per the 1850 census, Alexander was 20 years old and working as a brickmaker with his father. Ten years later, in 1860, his father had died and Alex, Cornelia and Elizabeth were still living in Longmeadow. In a column labeled, “Is the person ‘deaf, dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict?’” Alexander Coomes was identified as “Insane Hereditary.” He was 30 years old. What did it mean for his mother and sister to care for him?

In the 1865 Massachusetts State Census, 35 year old Coomes was listed as a “Town Assisted” “Insane Pauper.” He was residing with his mother, a widowed 60 year old housekeeper, and his 38 year old sister, a domestic. Five years later on the 1870 census, Alexander L. Coomes was no longer listed in that household. Nor was there any record of his death. It turns out, the town of Longmeadow had been paying the Vermont Asylum for the Insane in Brattleboro for his care since 1859. Coomes died at the asylum in Brattleboro in 1877 and is buried in their cemetery.

Newspaper advertisement New Vermont Asylum, 1836

Another Longmeadow resident was also sent to Brattleboro, though she was eventually transferred to the Northampton Lunatic Hospital. Laura Goodhue first appeared on Longmeadow censuses in 1850 as a 28 year old wife and mother of two. Her husband, Henry, was a farmer. Ten years later, in 1860, Laura had six children and Henry was still farming. By the time the next census enumerator knocked on their door in 1865 for a state census, only three of the six children were still living. The Vital Records book in Longmeadow reveals that in a short five month period between October 1864 and February 1865, Laura Goodhue lost her young daughters Lois (10) and Almira (4) to diphtheria and son George (7) to consumption. In 1869, town selectmen ordered the town treasurer to pay $65 to the Vermont Asylum in Brattleboro for a six month period of care. The town continued to pay for Laura’s care in Brattleboro and eventually in Northampton until her death in 1893.

Like Alexander Coomes, there is nothing we can know of Laura Goodhue’s life and condition beyond what appears in these records. Was the death of so many of her young children in such a short period of time too much for her? Did the grief break her in such a way that she could never recover? What level of care were she and her husband seeking in 1869 when first she was sent away? What were their hopes for her recovery and return?

What was life like for Alexander Coomes and Laura Goodhue during their terms of care at the Vermont Asylum in Brattleboro? Unfortunately, reports indicate that conditions were far less than the ideal vision of care that the Asylum opened under in 1834 with well-appointed rooms, “kind and faithful nurses”, and “no harsh treatment will ever be for a moment allowed.” Farm work, gardening and handwork would fill patients’ days and foster recovery.

Sadly, by 1877 when Alexander Coomes died at age 47 in the asylum, serious overcrowding resulted in a situation far worse. When institutions like the one in Brattleboro began to open in the 1830’s and 40’s, severely mentally ill people who had long been cared for at home at great financial and emotional toll to their loved ones, as well as those who had been sent to local prisons for lack of any other alternative, appeared on their doorsteps. The demand for care far outweighed the ability and resources of the hospitals to care for them. Add the fact that each patient brought with him or her the promise of cash payments from their sponsoring town and a disaster was brewing.

Vermont Asylum Cemetery in Brattleboro Final Resting place for "Alex L. Coomes 1877" (image courtesy of Find A Grave)

The book, "The Vermont Asylum for the Insane: Its Annals for Fifty Years" published in 1887, shows that the period of years in the early 1870’s when Coomes and Goodhue were in residence were particularly troubling. A visiting committee reported a hospital built for 300 patients housing 485. They wrote, “About 75 of the patients were at the time of our visit confined in underground apartments, which are damp, unwholesome, and entirely unfit for occupation by human beings. The sleeping apartments in this underground portion were small, poorly ventilated, warmed and lighted. About midway of the length of one of these lower wards and at the end of another ward, are sinks which receive the urine and slops from the ward above, and at all seasons of the year must impart unwholesome odors. On the occasion of our first visit, although disinfectants have been freely used, your committee found the odors extremely unpleasant. ...We believe the confinement of any person sane or insane, in these underground departments to be cruel, and the officers and employees of the Institution should be prohibited under heavy penalties from hereafter placing any insane person in these apartments.” It’s hard to know why Longmeadow chose to send Alexander L. Coomes to Brattleboro over a Massachusetts facility, but it is likely that similar overcrowding was a problem in-state.

Selectmen's Orders to pay Vermont Asylum

for support of A.L. Coomes and Mrs. Laura Goodhue