Why is it in this nineteenth century of refinement and enlightenment that one person out of every three hundred is doomed to become a mental wreck, a cipher, a nonentity, to be wiped off the surface of the earth? Have we exhausted every possible means of knowledge? Cannot something still be done to avert this black cloud of intellectual decay? — Walter Channing, M.D. (1880)
I’m guessing you’ve probably never heard of Dr. Walter Channing. Why would you? Even within the field of psychiatry, he’s relatively unknown. A surprising fact considering — as evident from the quote above — he was in the vanguard of medical professionals during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries who sought to alleviate the symptoms of mental illness. It was only through their efforts that society began to view those suffering from psychological disorders not as criminals, but as patients who needed proper treatment.
Before we get to Walter Channing — and the nationally-recognized sanitariums he established in Brookline and Wellesley — let’s expound a little bit about the general state of mental health treatment when Channing arrived on the scene in the mid-1870s. At that time, within the United States, facilities dedicated to the treatment of mental illness were relatively rare. In fact, those people with symptoms of severe mental disorders were far more likely to be sent to a local almshouse where the living conditions were nothing short of deplorable:
Of all spectacles of human misery which the light of day looks upon, we suppose that of the lunatics in American almshouses is the most pitiable. Unlike many sufferers under the great evils of society, they are often persons who have been in better circumstances, and who must, in their dim way, feel and see the abuses of their treatment. In the country poorhouses, they are treated as lunatics were a hundred years ago in Europe. They are chained, put in cages, beaten, kept in dark holes, without fire, often naked, their food reached to them as to beasts, their clothes seldom changed, without bedding, except straw, left in their own filth, and eaten by parasites. -The Nation (1876)
But even the asylums that had been established by that time were not all that different, consisting of nothing more than “a rampart of iron bars, strong enough to confine lions and tigers in a menagerie.” Pretty much the only way someone suffering from a severe mental illness could receive proper treatment was to hire a physician to provide such care within one’s own home — an option that was only available to the wealthy.
It was therefore crucial that psychiatrists — or “alienists” as they were known back then — work to develop humane procedures and practices that could help mentally ill patients overcome their problems, or at the very least, find some sense of comfort. One of those alienists was Walter Channing, a Harvard-trained physician who worked at several asylums before opening the “Private Hospital for Mental Diseases” at the base of Fisher Hill in Brookline in 1879.
Compared to most of the other asylums in the region, Channing’s sanitarium was unique in the treatment it prescribed. Due to the relatively small number of patients — 25 or so appeared to be the maximum at any time — its doctors and nurses were able to provide individualized treatments that focused more on routing out the cause of the illness rather than merely suppressing its symptoms. How this was accomplished required not only occupational therapy and other physical therapies (such as hydrotherapy, massage therapy, and electrotherapy), but also a somewhat primitive form of modern psychotherapy. As Walter Channing explained, alleviating mental illness relied on more than just medical knowledge:
The psychiatrist must be a man, I believe, who is willing to take upon himself some of the duties of the parish priest, and not only know the physical conditions under which his patient lives, but the moral as well. He must be a humanist, patient and painstaking and willing to wait to solve problems relating to the inner life of his patient. The man of pure science can see only one side, just as on the other hand the philanthropist has only a limited outlook. It is a combination of some of the qualities of both which enable a man to most successfully treat mental cases.
Another relatively pioneering approach that Channing subscribed to was the belief that there was a benefit to employing female nurses over male orderlies. I know it sounds terribly sexist, but as Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs (the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Insanity) explained, “…the softening, refining influence of woman, with her gentle and soothing touch which has proved so efficacious in the general hospitals for the sick, should minister with equal advantage to certain classes of unfortunate dements who, although denizens of the realms of hallucinations and delusions, are yet amenable to kindness and gentle ministration.”
Little seemed to change at the sanitarium when Channing moved it from Brookline to Wellesley in 1916. Although the reasons for moving are unclear, I’m guessing that it had to do with the rapid development of Brookline that had begun during the 1890s and accelerated post-1900. Fisher Hill was just no longer conducive for a sanitarium. Much of Wellesley, however — including the area around Great Plain and Wellesley Avenues (now part of the Babson College campus) — was still largely undeveloped.
Channing Sanitarium (in Wellesley) originally consisted of seven buildings — all designed by the nationally renowned architectural firm of Kilham & Hopkins.
Simply put, this sanitarium wasn’t your typical insane asylum. Patients weren’t confined to cell-like rooms, but rather encouraged to walk among the surrounding woods. Each also had his or her own private suite with its own living room, bathroom, and open-air sleeping porch. (Eight of the twenty-four suites also had an indoor bedroom.)
In addition to the four dormitories, there were three other buildings on the sanitarium grounds: one housing administrative offices, a service building (presumably where many of the employees resided and the only of the seven original buildings no longer standing), and a third used for both recreation and treatment.
There were also two identical cottages that were added to the west side of this campus at some point soon after the sanitarium opened.
Separate from the main campus, there were also several houses owned by the sanitarium on Great Plain and Wellesley Avenues where many of its doctors and nurses lived. (Three of those houses — 107 Wellesley Avenue and 90 & 102 Great Plain Avenue — had previously been part of the Fuller family estate and were the only three structures on the entire 50-acre grounds of the sanitarium when Channing purchased the property in 1903.)
So where exactly was the entrance to Channing Sanitarium? Well, if you look closely, you can actually still see it on the right side of Wellesley Avenue as you head from the rotary towards Babson College (opposite another sanitarium-owned house at 128 Wellesley Avenue). And if you’re really adventurous, you can try to walk up this driveway, which is believed to have been closed to vehicular traffic since 1969.
OK, enough with the buildings and grounds. What do we know about the patients? Well, by and large, the vast majority of them were middle-aged or elderly women — mostly widowed or single, but there were a few who were married at the time — and their average length of stay was at least five years. There’s also no evidence that very many Wellesley residents were ever committed to the institution; in fact, approximately half of its patients appear to have come from outside of New England.
Unfortunately, the stories of most of these patients — specifically, what caused them to break down mentally and then how they responded to treatment — are a complete mystery.
There are a few patients, however, about which we know at least a little something.
Let’s start with Annie Tyler Rice (c.1867 – 1950), an elderly spinster from Beverly, Massachusetts who spent the last 20 years of her life at Channing Sanitarium. Apparently, her only “condition” was that she had become an invalid and was thus unable to live alone. But Rice must also have been quite a recluse. How else can you explain that when she died in 1950, nobody knew that her estate was worth a whopping $6.4 million (or nearly $60 million in 2014 dollars)? Perhaps she was even unaware of her vast wealth given that she died intestate. (Rice must have inherited this money from her brother, Charles G. Rice, a mining and smelting magnate, who had died seven years earlier. The courts ended up awarding her estate to her niece and two nephews.)
And then there was Elise Hall (1853 – 1924), the first woman in the United States to play the saxophone. Her affinity for the instrument began in the 1890s when she was living in Santa Barbara, California. A serious case of typhoid fever had caused Hall some hearing loss, so her doctor’s “prescription” was to find a wind instrument and blow out her ears. Oddly enough, a saxophone was all that she could find. When Hall and her family returned to Boston in 1898, she took her obsession with the saxophone to the next level. She began taking lessons with Georges Longy, the principal oboist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (and eventual founder of Cambridge’s Longy School of Music), and even helped form the Boston Orchestral Club, an elite group of musicians — including herself — that commissioned and performed works from world-renowned composers, including Claude Debussy and Andre Caplet.
Not everyone, however, viewed her notoriety as a concert saxophonist with admiration. One of those was her son-in-law, Benjamin Loring Young, the Speaker of the House in the Massachusetts Legislature, who felt that the public’s fascination with Hall could hinder his political ambitions. To Young, there was just something strange and unflattering about a woman playing the saxophone in the early 1900s. Combine that with her other eccentricities — such as the time that she brought to a dinner party a piglet she hoped to cook — and it’s not that surprising that Young had his mother-in-law committed to a few different institutions, including Channing Sanitarium, where she spent the last three years of her life. (I suppose, however, it was karma that Young was unsuccessful the only time he ran for national office — as the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1928.)
Our third and final patient was Starr Faithfull (1906 – 1931), an attractive young socialite whose tragic life story — including a brief stay at Channing Sanitarium — attained widespread notoriety when her badly bruised body was found washed ashore on Long Beach in New York. (The novel and Hollywood movie, BUtterfield 8, was based on her life and garnered Elizabeth Taylor her first Academy Award.)
Born into a wealthy and prominent family (as Marian Starr Wyman), Faithfull voluntarily committed herself into Channing Sanitarium in the mid-1920s after finding herself on the verge of a mental breakdown — a result of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of Andrew James Peters, her elder cousin (by marriage) and Mayor of Boston from 1918 to 1922. The details are quite disturbing. Starting when she was only 11 years old, Peters would drug her with ether to break down her resistance to his sexual advances, culminating in rape by the time she was in her late teens. He even built a house for his cousin in Dover at 9 Old Colony Drive, across town from his family’s estate, where he could sexually assault her on a regular basis.
This abuse continued until Starr Faithfull was in her early 20s. And although Peters was caught in 1924, he paid her family to keep the matter private and was never prosecuted for his heinous crimes. Faithfull, however, was permanently scarred and, despite the mental health treatment she sought, little could help her. She spent the remaining years of her short life abusing drugs and alcohol, falling in and out of deep bouts of depression. Many people therefore suspected her death was a suicide. (Several suicide notes were found, but their authenticity was inconclusive.) Other investigators suggested that the 25-year-old had simply fallen overboard and drowned. A few even made accusations that she was murdered. To this day, the death of Starr Faithfull remains a mystery.
Channing Sanitarium would close in 1951 after its acquisition by Roger W. Babson, founder of the Babson Institute. Although Babson intended at first to keep the sanitarium operational — as he was always fascinated by “the relationship between the physical condition of the average man’s brain and the efficiency of his work” — the plans quickly changed to establishing a graduate school there. But even that idea never came to fruition as the increasing enrollment of the Babson Institute necessitated the use of the facility’s buildings for faculty and student housing. The former sanitarium is now known as Woodland Hill.
It’s a shame they didn’t keep the original name, if only so that Walter Channing wouldn’t have become a complete unknown. Well, to be precise, he’s actually somewhat well-known for his expert analyses on the insanity of Charles J. Guiteau and Leon Frank Czolgosz, the assassins of U.S. Presidents James A. Garfield and William McKinley, respectively. But that’s a separate story. When it comes to Wellesley and Brookline, his legacy has all but disappeared.
Nevertheless, Walter Channing was a pioneer within the field of psychiatry, one of the few voices that spoke out against the barbaric treatment that was prevalent in asylums throughout the United States and helped to develop a medically-based approach to combating mental illness that was both humane and successful. And if that’s not worth honoring, I don’t know what is.
- Diseases of the Mind by Charles Follen Folsom (1877)
- ‘The Treatment of Insanity in its Economic Aspect’ by Walter Channing in Journal of Social Science, Vol. 13 (1881)
- Atlas of the Town of Brookline, Massachusetts by G.W. Bromley & Co. (1893)
- Atlas of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts by George W. Stadley & Co. (1897)
- ‘Dispensary Treatment of Mental Diseases’ by Walter Channing in The American Journal of Insanity, Vol. 58 (1902)
- A History of Brookline, Massachusetts (1906)
- Wellesley Townsman: 13 April 1906; 19 February 1915; 19 November 1915; 28 June 1951; 10 April 1952; 29 May 1952; 3 April 1969
- ‘Restraint Instead of Treatment’ by L. Vernon Briggs in Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, Vol. 162 (1910)
- Federal Censuses of 1910, 1920, 1930 & 1940
- The Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada, Vol. 2 by Henry Mills Hurd (1916)
- The American Architect, Vol. 112 (1917)
- The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 185 (1921)
- Boston Daily Globe: 25 November 1921; 10 June 1931; 30 July 1943; 19 January 1951; 1 September 1991; 12 March 2000
- New York Herald Tribune: 10 June 1931; 16 June 1931; 30 June 1931; 24 July 1931; 19 January 1951
- ‘Lloyd Vernon Briggs, M.D., 1863-1941′ by Winfred Overholser in The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 98 (1941)
- Newsday: 11 March 1980
- The Passing of Starr Faithfull by Jonathan Goodman (1996)
- Wikipedia.org [Andrew James Peters; Benjamin Loring Young; United States Senate Election in Massachusetts, 1928]
- Findagrave.com: Starr Faithfull
- Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
- Wellesley Historical Commission files: #107 Wellesley Avenue
Note: All 2014 photographs above were taken by Joshua Dorin.