Murders at Montville - Epilogue


From: “Mental Illness in the 19th Century” by Carrie Hughes.


The history of the treatment of the mentally ill in the United States is a checkered one. The first colonists blamed mental illness on witchcraft[1] and demonic possession[2] and the mentally ill were often imprisoned, sent to alms houses or remained untreated at home.

Until the 19th century, people with mental illness in rural areas, were cared for by family members, who quietly attended to their needs.

Beginning in the late 18th century, “moral treatment” had become the prevalent school of addressing the needs of the mentally ill in the United States, replacing the model of demonic possession. “Moral treatment” hypothesized that insanity was caused by brain damage from outward influences on the soft and fragile brain. Removing patients to an appropriate environment where they could indulge in clean, healthy living and would be offered exercise, work, education and religious instruction, was thought to facilitate their cure. 


But the “moral treatment” method was riddled with problems.  As doctors and other hospital personnel grew frustrated by their lack of progress and with a continuing shortage of willing, qualified staff, conditions often deteriorated.  Faced with overcrowded hospitals and concerned about the rise of the spiritualist movement[3], which peaked in 1868 (which some attributed to the “moral treatment” method), many institutions resorted to using physical restraints. 


By the middle part of the 19th century, heredity also was considered as a root cause for mental illness.  Many in the field believed that weak family and vices, like alcoholism and masturbation could lead to madness.  The mentally ill were considered “genetically inferior”, prompting the implementation of eugenics[4] and warped interpretations of the theories of Charles Darwin[5], suggesting that mental illness could be eliminated through social engineering. 


Dr. Edward C. Mann[6], Medical Supervisor of New York City’s Ward’s Island, concluded in his 1876 study of “Insanity in the Middle States”, that there was “one insane person in every 953 of the whole population of the United States.”  Also, from the same publication:


“Next to hereditary pre-disposition, which is the first and predisposing cause of insanity, comes the great mental activity and strain upon the nervous system that appertains to the present age and state of civilization. This feverish haste and unrest, which characterize us as a people, and the want of proper recreation and sleep, tend to a rapid decay of the nervous system and to insanity as a necessary consequence.”  Have things really changed at all since then?


For “Insanity in the Middle States”, in its’ entirety, please visit:


By the 1880's the tide was turning against asylums, thanks to stories of their poor conditions appearing in the press, some true and some sensational. Greater oversight and medical standards for asylums were implemented.  New theories promoted by neurologists included “rest cures” and treatment using static electricity. By the close of the century, the theories of Sigmund Freud[7] began to arrive in America, precipitating a revolution in Psychiatry[8].


In 1893, German psychiatrist, Emil Kraepelin[9] clinically defined the term "dementia praecox", later retermed as Schizophrenia[10] in 1908.


In 1901, German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer[11] identified the first case of a disease that would bear his name.


From: DSM-III and the Revolution in the Classification of Mental Illness by Rick Mayes and Allan V. Horowitz.


The history of Psychiatric practice in the first part of the 20th Century did not place much stake in particular diagnostic categories. The first official manual of the American Psychiatric Association, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders[12] (DSM-I, 1952) reflected the views of dynamic psychiatrists. These manuals conceived of symptoms as reflections of broad underlying dynamic conditions or as reactions to difficult life problems.


Dynamic explanations posited that symptoms were symbolic manifestations that only became meaningful through exploring the personal history of each individual. It made little effort to provide elaborate classification schemes, because overt symptoms did not reveal disease entities, but disguised underlying conflicts that could not be expressed directly. For example, Schizophrenia is thought to be caused by the mother.


Karl Menninger[13], a leading dynamic psychiatrist, viewed all mental disorders “as reducible to one basic psychosocial process: the failure of the suffering individual to adapt to his or her environment. Adaptive failure can range from minor (neurotic) to major (psychotic) severity”.


Rather than treating the systems of mental disorder, he urged psychiatrists to explain how the individual’s failure to adapt came about and its meaning to the patient, thus almost everyone has some degree of mental illness at some point in their life. The focus of dynamic psychiatry broadened from the treatment of neuroses to more generalized maladaptive patterns of behavior, character and personal problems.


Mental health patients came to be people who were dissatisfied with their relationships, careers and their lives in general. Psychiatry had been transformed from a discipline that was concerned with insanity to one concerned with normality.


This focus made the profession open to criticism that it was too subjective, medically unscientific and overly ambitious in terms of its ability to explain and cure mental illness.


While the scientific debate raged on about insanity versus normality, eugenics was still being practiced at Psychiatric Hospitals on the east coast of the United States, with New Hampshire’s first sterilization law for the mentally ill enacted in 1917. It provided for the sterilization of the “feeble-minded” and patients suffering from certain mental diseases, in institutions and at large.


One proponent was Dr. Charles P. Bancroft[14], the Superintendent of New Hampshire State Hospital. He was among New Hampshire’s earliest major eugenics advocate and the first in the state to compile heredity data, searching for conditions such emotionalism, hysteria, Huntington's Disease[15] and alcoholism.


He concluded that genetic factors played a major role in explaining how these disorders arose, but conceded the influence of “environmental conditions”.


When the eugenics law passed, doctors and people in the institutions where sterilizations occurred, began to look at ways to have a rapid turnover of people admitted, sterilized and then released from the institution.

The insane and feeble-minded were barred from marriage in New Hampshire unless they were sterilized. Unlike many states, New Hampshire did not have a statute expressly prohibiting the marriage of the “mentally deficient” and viewed common law marriages between these individuals as legal.


New Hampshire did try to restrict the marriage of “idiots”, “imbeciles” and “feebleminded” persons. Schools were required to file with the state board, the names of all of these persons who were either 14 years old and in school or had left school. 


Furthermore, the superintendents of State institutions were required to file the names of all people discharged or paroled. This list was used to ensure that people applying for marriage licenses were not “incompetent”. If an individual had been sterilized, the restrictions would be lifted.


Any “unfit individual” could marry, only if his wife was older than 45. If a couple married in violation of these restrictions, the issuer of the marriage license could be fined anywhere from $50-$500, serve 30 days in jail or both.

“Whenever the superintendent of any state or county institution shall be of the opinion that it is for the best interest of the inmate and society that any inmate of the institution under his care should be sexually sterilized, such superintendent is hereby authorized to cause to be performed by some capable surgeon the operation of sterilization on any such inmate [as stated above]”.


Those affected had the right to appeal the sterilization decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court within 14 days of when the order was issued. In 1927 the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, it was decided in favor of the state of Virginia. Around that same time, the [Vermont eugenics] advisory committee agreed to promote a sterilization law and to study the laws in Maine and New Hampshire.

For patients sterilized at the New Hampshire State Hospital between 1916 and 1935, one researcher found that sterilizations were primarily performed on women of childbearing age. Little else is known about their socio-economic status.


Betsy Scott Johnson[16] was another proponent for New Hampshire sterilization.  She was a social worker for the Laconia State School between the years of 1917-1947.  She supported the New Hampshire compulsory sterilization program in an article she wrote in 1950 titled “A study of sterilized persons from the Laconia State School.” In it, she claims that the state of New Hampshire saved an estimated $388,974 between the years of 1917 and 1947 due to sterilization.


I am repulsed by the fact that Ms. Johnson felt compelled to equate the revocation of some of the basic civil rights of the mentally ill with a dollar value, completely ignoring the inherent risks of invasive surgery on its’ female patients. Procedures performed at that facility.


Please excuse me for taking all of this personally, because I have. My great-aunt Jeanne Avard[17] was born after a difficult birth and spent the last years of her shortened life at the Laconia State School. Jeanne Avard died there in 1946 at the age of 30 years, 6 months and 22 days.


Henry Farnham Perkins[18], an 1898 graduate of the University of Vermont, became an associate professor of Zoology at his alma mater in 1903. In 1922 Henry Perkins stumbled upon a WWI study done by the US Army to establish and define parameters for the physical and mental requirements necessary for enlistment in the military.


This study concluded that men who were drafted into the Army, from Vermont, had a significantly higher rate of defects such as diabetes, epilepsy, deformities and mental deficiencies. Perkins soon modified his Zoology curriculum to include heredity and evolution.


Perkins soon turned his attention to employing fieldworkers to gather information from rural Vermonters, for a survey, which targeted Indians, African Americans and French Canadians. Perkins animosity towards these groups of ‘degenerates’ was thinly disguised as science.


The criteria used to determine which people were degenerates included such traits as: alcoholic, a little odd, cruel, dependent, dishonest, epileptic, illegitimate, illiterate, immoral, insane, liar, one eye, queer, shiftless, stillborn, syphilis, thief, twin, wild and wanderer.

This survey and another funded in 1927, enabled Perkins to promote his ideas, for what would become Vermont’s compulsory sterilization law in 1931. It was the 25th state to do so and essentially practiced eugenics on persons living in state institutions, classified as idiots, insane, imbeciles or the feeble minded.


Ironically, Henry Farnham Perkins died of liver failure, a bedridden alcoholic, his other siblings were Harriet Olmstead Perkins, who died at age 5 and an unnamed stillborn sister. Henry met the criteria himself.


As late as the 1950’s, one of the country’s most susceptible population, its’ children, were targeted for experimentation by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).


In partnership with researchers at the Quaker Oats Company, MIT scientists laced the children’s oatmeal and milk with radioactive isotopes, then fed it to the 74 unsuspecting boys, who resided at the Fernald State School, in Templeton Massachusetts.


The inhabitants of this facility, once known as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, were a mixture of mentally disabled children and other young boys who were simply abandoned by their families, to become the “property” of the state.


The children, who were often abused and had food withheld as punishment, were more than eager to obtain a regular source of nourishment and were lured into the “Science Club” as a result.


The boys were also given injections of radioactive calcium to ascertain the rate for absorption of calcium by the bones. They were rewarded with gifts of Mickey Mouse watches and field trips off the grounds, including attendance to Red Sox baseball games in Boston.    

From the article:

A hearing before the Senate’s Committee on Labor and Human Resources was called in January 1994 to investigate the Fernald experiments. During the session, Senator Edward Kennedy[19], the committee chair, asked why researchers hadn’t conducted the experiment on MIT students or children at private schools. “Aren’t you appalled at the fact that the most vulnerable people in our society, which are young people, 7, 8 years old, that are in an institution, aren’t you appalled that they were the ones selected?” he asked.


Edward M. Kennedy certainly had a personal axe to grind, because his sister, Rosemary Kennedy[20], had once been among the “most vulnerable”.  After years of “behavioral problems”, their father, Joseph Kennedy[21], arranged for Rosemary, at age 23, to undergo one of the first performed prefrontal lobotomies. The procedure failed and left her permanently incapacitated, to live in an institution until her death.

Mental illness is as relevant a subject today, as it has been for millennia. Often ignored and treated without the respect that every human being deserves, the mentally ill will not cure themselves.


Without conscience, we as a society are still more comfortable to shutter them behind locked doors and have them disappear into the chasm of neglect and abuse, rather than address the immediate issue.


The 21st Century has seen the separation of the ‘special-needs’ clients from sufferers of the severest forms of mental illness such as Schizophrenia and the criminally insane, who in earlier times were housed in the same institutions, often with violent and tragic results.


If Dr. Edward C. Mann has calculated correctly, there are nearly 350,000 individuals with varying degrees of mental illness in the United States today. How many harmless and how many dangerous? The harmless usually don’t make the news unless they are victimized. The dangerous ones make headlines and by then, it’s too late for everyone.



[1] Witchcraft: the use of sorcery, black magic or spells and invocation of evil spirits or the devil

[2] Demonic Possession: process by which individuals are possessed by malevolent preternatural beings

[3] Spiritualism: 19th Century religion based on the belief that departed souls can interact with the living

[4] Eugenics: Science of improving a human population by controlled breeding, reducing the incidence of genetic defects

[5] Charles Robert Darwin 1809-1882; author of “On the Origin of Species” and other publications

[6] Edward Cox Mann 1850-1908; NYC Ward’s Island Superintendent, appointed May 20, 1874

[7] Sigmund Freud 1856-1939; Austro-Hungarian Neurobiologist, founder of the field of psychoanalysis

[8] Psychiatry: study and treatment of mental illness, emotional disturbance and abnormal behavior

[9] Emil Kraepelin 1856-1926; German psychiatrist, researched connection between brain biology and mental illness

[10] Schizophrenia: disorder causing loss of personality, confusion, psychosis, catatonia, agitation, delusions and hallucinations

[11] Alois Alzheimer 1864-1915; German psychiatrist and neuropathologist, colleague of Emil Kraepelin

[12] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; DSM-1, 1952; 2018 (current) 5th Edition, DSM-5

[13] Karl Menninger 1893-1990; American psychiatrist; “What’s done to children, they will do to society.”

[14] Charles P. Bancroft 1852-1923; of NH State Hospital; succeeding his father Jesse P. Bancroft 1815-1891

[15] Huntington’s Disease: fatal genetic disorder causing progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain

[16] Betsey Amanda (Scott). Johnson Little 1889-1969; dau of Charles H. Scott 1858-1935 & Flora M. 1865-1907

[17] Jeanne Avard b Jul 17, 1915 d Feb 8, 1946; dau of Augustin Avard 1876-1940 & Leona Sirois 1876-1915

[18] Henry F. Perkins b May 10, 1877 d Nov 24, 1956; son of George Perkins 1844-1933 & Mary Farnham 1842-1904

[19] Edward Moore Kennedy b Feb 22, 1932 d Aug 25, 2009; son of Joseph Kennedy 1888-1969 & Rose Fitzgerald 1890-1995

[20] Rosemary Kennedy b Sep 13, 1918 d Jan 7, 2005; dau of Joseph Kennedy 1888-1969 & Rose Fitzgerald 1890-1995

[21] Joseph P. Kennedy b Sep 6, 1888 d Nov 18, 1969; son of Patrick J. Kennedy 1858-1929 & Mary Augusta Hickey 1857-1923

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