Lost Hospital Series — Eloise Mental Hospital, Westland, Michigan
Eloise. In the history of mental health in the United States, few words need explanation. Eloise Mental Hospital had a long and illustrious history that ran parallel with the treatment of mental illness in the U.S.
On March 8, 1832, in Detroit, Michigan, the Wayne County Poor House named the new institution the County House Infirmary. Moved in 1839 to a second County Poor House, the old stagecoach shop named the Black Horse Tavern, this facility received 35 of the 146 patients from the original Poor House (the other 111 patients refused to transfer to the new facility as the location was, in their opinion, too remote). Biddy Hughes was Eloise’s first official mental patient in 1841. Institutionalized by her family, Biddy was in her mid-30’s at admission, and she stayed at Eloise until her death 58 years later.
Eloise, Eloise Sanatorium, or Eloise Mental Hospital was the eventual name adopted by the Board of Superintendents of the Poor on August 18, 1911. Eloise expanded over the years, and by the 1930’s the facility included 78 buildings on close to 1,000 acres of land. This self-sufficient community had it’s own dairy farm, pig farm, greenhouse, fire department, power plant, bakery, and a Post Office. Eloise’s main building was over 380,000 square feet and housed 7,000 patients.
Eloise was a general hospital, a home for the poor of Wayne County, Michigan, and a place for the mentally ill. In response to the growing number of mentally ill living in the facility, Eloise’s governing body began to separate the insane from the not-so-insane in a new building constructed in 1868. East and West wings were added in 1876, and finally in 1881 Dr. E. O. Bennett assumed management of Eloise’s mentally ill population. Nineteen years later, Dr. John J. Marker replaced Dr. Bennett.
At its peak, Eloise cared for 8,000 patients daily. Hospitals like Eloise played a crucial role in the history of American psychiatry. In fact, the superintendents of 13 state hospitals founded the American Psychiatric Association in 1844. Every state had at least one hospital for the insane at the time. Notwithstanding, insanity was very much a mystery in its early days. An 1895 report on insanity referenced causes as “disappointment in love, epilepsy and heredity.”
During the 1930’s, Eloise experienced tremendous growth as it cared for the indigent and mentally ill. By 1934 Eloise’s population had swelled to more than 8,300 with almost 2,000 employees. One issue faced by Eloise’s patients, however, was general boredom. A 1939 Detroit News article wrote: “The residents rise at 7 a.m. and go to bed at 7:30 p.m. Between times, they sit and stare at the wall, at their feet, at the windows. There is no exercise or organized social movement.”
Hospitals like Eloise provided state-of-the-art treatment at the time, complete with calming hydrotherapy, sensory deprivation chairs, twirling chairs, needle cabinets (steel cabinets in which staff would lock patients and then insert needles to put water directly in their skin), straightjackets, and shackles. Eventually, shock therapy became a common.
Over the years, Eloise kept up with the changes in treatment for the mentally ill. Longer-term care was replaced by a protocol designed to return this patient populationl back to society. Most patients at Eloise were kept less than 90 days, and in 1964 only one in ten became permanent residents (as opposed to 50% previously). This hurt Eloise financially, and Michigan slashed its allocation for psychiatric patients who did not spend one year in a mental hospital.
Finally, across the nation the Comprehensive Mental Health bill in 1964, and the Medicare and Medicaid Acts in 1965 and 1966, resulted in the transition of mental health patients to general hospitals with psychiatric wings.
This was the beginning of the end for long-term, full care state mental hospitals. In what many saw as a final blow to these institutions, in 1972 a federal court ruled that patients in mental health facilities had to be compensated for their work, and the institutions lacked the funds to comply.
As the tide had turned around the nation, Eloise was caught in the swell. Eloise’s last patient left in 1979, and Eloise officially closed in 1981, another victim of financial problems and mental health care reform.