Photo of Provincial Lunatic Asylum

Provincial Lunatic Asylum

Toronto, Canada West

Our next visit was to the Lunatic Asylum. The building is of white brick—a material not very common in Canada, but used largely in Toronto, where stone has to be brought from a considerable distance, there being no quarries in the neighbourhood. Brick has not the substantial, august appearance that stone gives to a large building, and it is more liable to injury from the severe frosts of winter in this climate. The asylum is a spacious edifice, surrounded by extensive grounds for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. These are principally worked by the male patients, who are in a state of convalescence, while it affords them ample room for air and exercise.

A large gang of these unfortunates were taking their daily promenade, when our cab stopped at the entrance gate. They gazed upon us with an eager air of childish curiosity, as we alighted from our conveyance, and entered the building.

We were received very politely by one of the gentlemen belonging to the establishment, who proceeded to show us over the place.

Ascending a broad flight of steps, as clean as it was possible for human hands to make them, we came to a long wide gallery, separated at either end by large folding-doors, the upper part of which were of glass; those to the right opening into the ward set apart for male patients, who were so far harmless that they were allowed the free use of their limbs, and could be spoken to without any danger to the visitors. The female lunatics inhabited the ward to the left, and to these we first directed our attention.

The long hall into which their work-rooms and sleeping apartments opened was lofty, well lighted, well aired, and exquisitely clean; so were the persons of the women, who were walking to and fro, laughing and chatting very sociably together. Others were sewing and quilting in rooms set apart for that purpose. There was no appearance of wretchedness or misery in this ward; nothing that associated with it the terrible idea of madness I had been wont to entertain–for these poor creatures looked healthy and cheerful, nay, almost happy, as if they had given the world and all its cares the go-by. There was one thin, eccentric looking woman in middle life, who came forward to receive us with an air of great dignity; she gave us her hand in a most condescending manner, and smiled most graciously when the gentleman who was with us inquired after her majesty’s health. She fancies herself Victoria, and in order to humour her conceit, she is allowed to wear a cap of many colours, with tinsel ornaments. This person, who is from the lowest class, certainly enjoys her imaginary dignity in a much greater degree than any crowned monarch, and is perhaps far prouder of her fool’s cap than our gracious sovereign is of her imperial diadem.

Susanna Moodie, Life in the Clearings (1853)