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Public Hospital

Public Hospital
  • First public building in North America devoted to treatment of mentally ill
  • First patient admitted October 12, 1773

The "Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds" was the first building in North America devoted solely to the treatment of the mentally ill. The first patient was admitted October 12, 1773.

Hospital founded at urging of Governor Fauquier

A two-story brick institution south of Francis Street, Williamsburg's public hospital was founded at the urging of Governor Francis Fauquier (pronounced "Fau-keer"). Like many men of the 18th-century Enlightenment, Fauquier believed science could be employed to cure "persons who are so unhappy as to be deprived of their reason."

Parish vestries and families had long borne the responsibility for the care of the mentally ill, but it was a responsibility sometimes beyond their means. Fauquier spoke to the House of Burgesses in November 1766 of "a poor unhappy set of people who are deprived of their senses and wander about the countryside, terrifying the rest of their fellow creatures." He proposed a hospital for these unfortunates staffed by doctors who would "endeavour to restore to them their lost reason."

At first the burgesses paid little heed, but Fauquier got their attention by consigning some prospective patients in the Public Gaol. On June 4, 1770, the legislators adopted an act to "Make Provision for the Support and Maintenance of Ideots, Lunaticks, and other Persons of unsound Minds."

Philadelphia architect Robert Smith submitted design for hospital

George Wythe, Thomas Nelson, John Blair, John Randolph, and John Tazewell were among the directors appointed. William Byrd III invited Philadelphia's Robert Smith to submit a design for the hospital building. Among Smith's other works are Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia and Nassau Hall at what is now Princeton. Though Smith never visited Williamsburg, his plan fit the city well.

Benjamin Powell built hospital

Contractor Benjamin Powell began construction in 1771. The building stood 100 feet long and about 38 feet wide with a central hall leading to the keeper's quarters and, beyond them, to patients' cells. A central staircase led to a meeting room for the court of directors and to more patients' cells. Before he was finished, Powell was directed to provide "yards for patients to walk and take the Air in" and to put a fence around the lot.

Thomas Jefferson thought the building resembled "rude misshapen pile"

The structure was crowned with a cupola that carried an expensive weathervane imported from England, and it resembled the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary. Thomas Jefferson, who had different tastes in architecture, said years later that both were "rude misshapen piles, which, but that they have roofs, would be taken for brick-kilns." Inside the hospital looked much worse.

The building housed 24 cells, all designed for the security and isolation of their occupants. Each cell had a stout door with a barred window that looked on a dim central passage, a mattress, a chamber pot, and an iron ring in the wall to which the patient's wrist or leg fetters were attached. Neither harmless nor incurable people were admitted; the cells were reserved for dangerous individuals or for patients who might be treated and discharged.

Apart from the keeper, the staff included a matron for female inmates, a visiting physician (such as Dr. John deSequeyra and Dr. John Minson Galt), and slaves for domestic duties.

By the theories of the day, mental illnesses were diseases of the brain and nervous system, and the mentally ill chose to be irrational. Treatment consisted of restraint, strong drugs, plunge baths and other "shock" water treatment, bleeding, and blistering salves. An electro-static machine was installed. Between 1773 and 1790, about 20 percent of the inmates were discharged as cured.

In 1790, fences 10 feet high and 80 feet long were added to each end to provide exercise yards for both sexes, and staircases were built at the ends of each hall. In 1799, two dungeon-like cells were dug "under the first floor of the hospital for reception of patients who may be in a state of raving phrenzy."

Treatment of restraint replaced by "moral management"

Late in the century the treatment of mental disorder began to change. By 1836 restraint had been replaced by what was called moral management, an approach that emphasized kindness, firm but gentle encouragement to self-control, work therapy, and leisure activity. Cells were furnished with beds and other comforts.

The Public Hospital's population grew, and so did its facilities. A female ward was added in 1821 and a third story was raised in 1841. By 1859 there were 300 patients and seven buildings.

Hospital building declined during Civil War

During the Civil War, the hospital, now called Eastern Lunatic Asylum, began to decline. Stucco was falling off the walls in 1884, the gas generator that supplied fuel for illumination gave out, and there were complaints of staff incompetence and drunkenness. In 1883 there were 400 patients and in 1885 about 450. By then, despite a fire in 1876 that destroyed a building, there were 10 structures on the property, and a quadrangle had been formed.

Electrical fire broke out June 7, 1885

James D. Moncure came in as a reform superintendent, and repairs and improvements began – among them electric wiring for lighting. Moncure was writing letters the night of Sunday, June 7, 1885. "While I was closing my correspondence," he later reported, "I noticed that the Electric light suddenly flared up giving an unusually bright flash which indicated to me a short circuit had occurred some where." That had happened before, and he paid no more notice until about 10:30 p.m., when he heard the cry, "Fire!"

Investigating, Moncure found two red-hot wires glowing through a hole in a second-floor wall. Then he saw flames leaping above the roof toward the cupola and spreading laterally through ventilating shafts that connected all the wings.

Moncure ordered the patients evacuated and sent a telegram to the chief of the volunteer fire department in Richmond, about 50 miles west. "Come at once," it said, "and bring engine. Eastern Lunatic Asylum on Fire. Will be destroyed if help is not coming soon." Alas, help did not arrive soon enough. Flames destroyed the 1773 building and five more. Two female patients may have died in the fire – no remains were found – and a third who wandered away was discovered dead the next day in College Creek. No one else was hurt, but 224 patients were displaced.

The walls of the gutted buildings were pushed down and rebuilding began. Workmen filled the cellar of the original building with rubble and raised a new structure beside it. Eastern State Hospital, as it was eventually renamed, stood on the site for almost 75 years.

Hospital moved to new location in 1960

Colonial Williamsburg acquired the property in the 1960s, when the hospital moved to land provided by John D. Rockefeller Jr., west of the city. In 1972, archaeologists uncovered and excavated the Public Hospital's foundations – still filled with the ashes and debris of the great fire of 1885. Reconstruction was approved in 1979.

The Public Hospital reopened on June 8, 1985, with six exhibition cells in the first floor of the east wing and staff offices on the second story. From the west wing an underground concourse leads to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.