Asylum for the Insane

Charlestown Asylum, 1800s

Most people are familiar with Belmont’s McLean Hospital. Affiliated with Harvard Medical School, McLean is one of the most revered psychiatric hospitals in the country. Famous patients throughout the years have included James Taylor, Ray Charles, Rick James, Sylvia Plath (author of The Bell Jar), and  Susanna Kaysen, whose memoir was the basis for the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted.

McLean Hospital was founded in 1811 as the Charlestown Asylum for the Insane and its original location was in the present day Cobble Hill section of Somerville, at the time part of Charlestown.  Though not a trace of the hospital remains — it was demolished and relocated to Belmont in 1895 to make way for the railroad — the entrance to the grounds featured a long driveway lined with Elm trees at the approximate intersection of current day Washington and Franklin Streets.

In the 1790s doctors began to explore the idea that beautiful, peaceful surroundings could alleviate the suffering of the mentally ill, and the Charlestown Asylum was founded on these progressive principles of moral treatment. In the past the insane had been chained and beaten in a misguided attempt to scare them out of their madness. The Charlestown Asylum (later referred to as The Somerville Asylum, The McLean Asylum for the Insane, and eventually McLean Hospital) spanned 18 acres on grounds with picturesque terraces, trees, flowers and vegetable gardens designed to inspire tranquility.

A man by the name of George Folsom, an early apothecary at the asylum, remarked in his diary: “Crazy people are much more pleasant than I expected.”


DAILY TRIVIA: The nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb” was written about Mary Sawyer, an attendant at the Charlestown Asylum in the 1830s who had adopted a sickly lamb abandoned by its mother and nursed it back to health. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


5 responses to “Asylum for the Insane

  1. I loved this one. I’ve always been fascinated by asylums. (Due to proximity to the ‘Burg? Dunno, really.) I’d love to write a history of an asylum – maybe even the ‘Burg’s, who knows. So, where ARE you getting the trivia facts? Pretty impressive.

    • I stumbled upon the fact that the McLean Hospital was once in Somerville, but couldn’t find much about it online (save for a bit of history on the hospital site). I went to the library and discovered there is a resource room devoted solely to Somerville history – they take your ID and literally lock you in a little glass room full of old newspapers, books and microfiche! The photo of the building was in a newspaper article from the 1930s or so, when it had been closed/relocated for about 40ish years at that point; it’s a digital photo of the newspaper photo.

  2. I loved reading this post. Remarkable story and wonderful to learn about the history surrounding McLean Hospital. I also didn’t know that Cobble Hill was once part of Charlestown, interesting..
    Thanks for all the updates on Somerville :)

  3. This is fascinating. I was reading about those poles in Seven Hills Park in Davis Square. It said each pole represents a hill and a piece of Somerville history. The article mentioned that one of the structures represented McLean Hospital, which I thought was weird until I learned it used to be in Somerville before moving out to Belmont. Sure enough, one is of a convent that burned down, but the other looks like the Bulfinch building. I also came across the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society from 1895-1896 (written at the time the asylum was being demolished) that gives a brief history of the Barrell House, which eventually became the McLean Administration building. It was fascinating to hear about the thoughts of the committee at the time of its demolition.

    • Thanks for reading, and for the interesting post script. I meant to do a blog post on the Seven Hills Park and monuments, but unfortunately couldn’t keep the blog going long enough.

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