Let the Caged Bird Sing

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Let the Caged Bird Sing

This map of White Plains, New York from 1910 shows the Bloomingdale Asylum property -- a large tract of land -- on the left.

© Historic Map Works LLC

The public perception and treatment of mental illness has transformed in recent decades. But for many years, the mentally ill were squirreled away in so-called insane asylums, never to be seen again. Within those asylums, awful events sometimes transpired.

In 1872, a reporter named Julius Chambers purposely had himself committed to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in New York, with the help of his editors. For 10 days, he witnessed all sorts of abuses heaped onto inmates, some of whom weren't even mentally ill to begin with.

The publication of his stories unveiled filthy conditions, poor food, awful sleeping arrangements and beatings. It resulted in the release of 12 inmates and the termination of some of the asylum's administrative staff. It also sparked changes in lunacy laws, which to that point were ludicrous. For instance, a person could be committed to an asylum with no real evidence of mental illness at all and then detained for months or years at a time.

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