Women of The Asylum

October 27, 2012 by Stephanie Stebbins  
Published in Women

A review of the book: Women of the Asylum.

I read a book recently that I have not been able to stop thinking and talking about.

Women Of The Asylum: Voices From Behind The Walls, 1840-1945 by Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris.

I cannot begin to describe the effect this book had upon me.

These are stories of women who were institutionalized during the suffrage movement. There were many different reasons as to why they were sent to the asylum, but in every case I came away thinking the same thing.

NONE of them truly needed to be there. They were NOT crazy.

These women faced horrors such as the “water cure,” lobotomies, rape by institution workers, beatings, and at worst, death.


In the case of thirty-two year old unmarried Adriana Brinkle, she sold furniture.
That’s right. She sold furniture. She had bought some furniture from a store and in the process of moving she decided that she could come by some extra cash for her move by selling a night table and chair. Upon hearing this, the store from which she purchased said furniture became angry that she didn’t just bring the furniture back to them for no profit and brought her before the court where a judge deemed her insane.

She languished in a mental hospital for 28 years.

In the case of Alice Russell, her husband “tired” of her. She was kidnapped from her bed by the Sheriff and brought to an asylum where she lived for 12 years while her husband was seen all around town with a different woman almost every night. She was only released when her husband became ill and could no longer care for himself and none of the women he had been with while she was imprisoned wanted to do it. 

In the case of Margaret Starr, she was outspoken about her disbelief of religion. She DIED in the asylum, they never let her out. She wrote about her time in there very vividly and reported on what was called the “water cure.” Women were put into a tub of ice cold water, a strap of canvas was put over the top to where only their head was sticking out and left…for DAYS. Not minutes, not hours…DAYS. In her account of first witnessing this water cure, she speaks of a woman who had been left in there for so long she was gibbering and screaming like she truly was mad while  gnashing at the canvas covering while her teeth fell out of her mouth and bled, this combined with the stench of the woman’s own feces and vomit that she had been soaking in for who knows how long overpowered Ms. Starr and made her faint (and not in the way that was “fashionable” at the time). 

Anna Agnew was another woman institutionalized for her outspoken ways and independence. Her husband went to the court stating that he could not control her and she was clearly insane. He failed to mention that he beat her nearly black and blue on almost a daily basis if she so much as SNEEZED.  She was only released once she agreed to sell her family inherited property (valued at $20,000 at that time) so her husband could utilize it to pay off gambling debts. She was there for 6 years before she was finally broken down to the point that she would have agreed to ANYTHING just to get out of there. She was raped repeatedly by asylum employees and when she tried to tell the doctors, they answered that they did not believe her because she was insane. She was lobotomized on three different occasions. She spoke of her experiences to anyone that would listen to her until the day she died.

Some of the cases are of women who were locked away for YEARS because of simple things like depression and anxiety. It was VERY eye-opening to read their thoughts and experiences and realize that today, these very same women would be among all of us dealing with an every day illness that is easily adjusted by talking therapy and medication (if necessary). These women endured tortures I can’t even imagine for something that is EASILY treated today.

It is beyond me to understand what it would have been like to live during that time.
The best thing about the book is that it breaks up the time periods into 4 chapters and in the beginning there is an overview of what was going on in history at that point in time. It gives you a perspective of where America was as a country during the time these women were in the asylum.

I was unable to shake the images of what these women wrote about for awhile. I may not ever shake them, actually, and I don’t think I should. In the time I have grown up, I have always known freedom.  Granted, I do believe the world has a long way to go in accepting the equality of women in all things, but this gave me a bit of perspective on how far we’ve actually come.

I owe my life and everything I hold dear to these brave women who spoke out and lived through incarcerations and institutions to prove the simple fact that we are not, nor have we EVER been, second class citizens.

Thank you, ladies. I will never forget what your courage and tenacity have done for me, or my daughter, or my future granddaughter(s). No matter what derogatory term is thrown my way, no matter what slight by society I will receive, no matter how I may be judged, I will continue to fight for what you have started for my own gender.

I wouldn’t be able to do it had you not used your voice, your strength, and your determination to make it so for me and all future generations to come.

I highly recommend this book, not just because of the horrors discussed that these women faced but also because of the history that EVERYONE (women AND men) should know. I find it very hard to take anything I do as a woman for granted since reading it.

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