The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Family and Mental Illness in Early 20th-Century Massachusetts

The MHS is home to a rich variety of family papers. These collections of diaries, correspondence, and other materials provide windows into the way people thought about each other and the world around them. I decided to utilize these resources to explore the ways New Englanders thought about mental illness a century ago. Searches in ABIGAIL led me to the David Richards Family Papers. David Richards (1850- ca. 1927) was a farmer and businessperson who lived in Sherborn, Massachusetts. His wife, Esther (Etta) Coffin Loring Richards struggled with mental illness for a number of years, and a good deal of correspondence among the family members relates to her condition. The personal nature of many of these papers leads to interesting accounts of the way one family understood and responded to mental illness, but the papers also offer insights regarding family dynamics and attitudes surrounding treatment in the early 20th-century.



In The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill, historian Gerald N. Grob writes that the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries constituted a period of challenges to and changes within the psychiatric profession. There were calls for an increasingly-scientific approach to psychiatric medicine, as well as a shift toward psychopathic hospitals rather than “traditional” mental hospitals. These new hospitals emphasized research and cared for a variety of so-called deviant individuals rather than simply long-term, chronically-ill people. However, according to John R. Sutton, rates of institutionalization remained high even with attempts at reform, in part due to new developments in the creation and management of deviance in the United States. Etta Loring Richards’ institutionalization takes place within this context. According to “A Very General Sketch of Mrs. R from the Summer of 1907 to Spring of 1916,” written by David Richards ca. 19 July 1916, Etta felt around the summer of 1907 that she could not trust anyone, and that she was not “having the medical attention she needed.” Etta was taken to Arlington Heights Sanatorium, then later to Adams Nervine. At Arlington Heights, she was diagnosed by a Dr. Ring (three Dr. Rings, two of whom are said to be affiliated with “Ring’s Sanatarium” in Arlington Heights, are mentioned on page 395 of this 1910 Medical Directory of Boston), who said of her condition: “There is nothing the matter with the woman physically, its simply Hypochondria.” After six months at Adams Nervine, Etta returned home. However, her mental health concerns reappeared in later years.

Throughout these papers, Etta and David reflect on Etta’s illness; these writings present possibilities for analysis of family and gender dynamics in their time and place. In a 2 December 1907 letter from David Richards to Mr. Batchelder, the family’s lawyer, David quotes Etta and her pleas for treatment, writing “‘If Mr. Batchelder were here he would say that you ought to take me [and] you say that you always do what Mr. Batchelder says,’” as well as “‘I did wrong in not going, but I am doing wrong all the time.’” Later, in an undated letter from about January 1908, Etta writes that she is sleeping well, but is having trouble eating, and often stays in bed feeling fatigued. She also notes that she is hurt and upset that David wanted to “keep money away from me,” as he thought she would “spend it all on Quack [doctors].” I certainly feel Etta’s pain when reading these letters.

In addition to Etta’s frustration regarding David’s apparent indifference and skepticism toward her treatment, I got a sense of the loneliness Etta felt when her husband failed to give her the attention she sought while she was institutionalized. In a 1 June 1908 letter, Etta writes:

Why do you [–] how can you forsake me so [–] Dr. Fuller [told] me you had never inquired for me through him. He said Dr. Stevens had not inquired for me since he was here [–] the 28 of March so you have not heard of my condition for two months. God in heaven knows I could never leave you in such a suffering condition [-] and never inquire for you – directly or indirectly – for two long months[.] Oh how it hurt me[.]



Etta’s writings about her husband suggest that, in her mind, he was not there for her or interested in her well-being. This raises questions about the ways women were supposed to be taken care of by their husbands during this period. Was David’s behavior normal, with Etta expressing frustration at the roles of men during this period, or was David failing to fulfill a role that was expected of him? A closer look at David’s own writings may shed some light on these questions, as well as raise some additional ones.

David’s blend of indifference toward and control over Etta’s treatment and conditions are noticeable in his own writings, as well. In his “General Sketch,” he writes about his “indifference to my wife’s sufferings.” This supposed indifference is not just observable in hindsight; David writes that “some dear friends insisted Nervine plan my plan [sic], trying to make out my wife [insane?] to get control of her property.” This assertion may or may not have been entirely accurate, but the idea does seem to have some basis in his actions, as a similar fear seems to be on Etta’s mind when she laments his unwillingness to give her any money. David admits in his account that, when Etta wanted to go to an Asylum in 1914, he “laughed at her fears, would not listen to her story of desperation.” This apparent trivialization of Etta’s concerns regarding her health is frustrating to read; however, David’s attitudes present possibilities for analysis of patriarchy within early 20th-century families as well as gendered responses to mental illness within families of this period.

This brief exploration certainly does not tell the whole story of the Richards family, nor does it provide an authoritative account of mental illness and family in the early 20th-century. Numerous other correspondents and subjects exist in these papers, including other family members, as well as Etta’s friends and doctors. The David Richards Family Papers are available for viewing at the MHS, so feel free to stop in for a visit if you would like to explore them on your own.

permalink | Published: Friday, 13 November, 2015, 12:00 AM


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