The History of Northampton State Hospital

Due to overcrowding at other state hospitals, such as Taunton and Worchester, town hall officials gathered in 1851 to discuss the construction of a new state hospital for the insane. State Representative Erastus Hopkins of Northampton gave a lengthy and persuasive argument highlighting the beauty, purity, morality, and intelligence of Northampton and its community.

Four years later, in 1855, the Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that the state commissioners had chosen Northampton as the site of the asylum. The original site included 185 acres of land to be built upon with a grant of $300,000.

On July 4, 1856, a parade of townspeople, state and city officials, two bands, and clergy gathered at the top of Hospital Hill. Dr. Edward Jarvis gave his "Address delivered at the Laying of the Conerstone of the Insane Hospital," an optimistic speech about the curability of mental illness. A time capsule was buried under the cornerstone, containing newspapers of the day, and Northampton-area tourist guides. After the event, fireworks lit up the night sky, celebrating both the Hospital and Independence Day

The Northampton Lunatic Asylum opened in 1858. Influenced by the spirit of humanitarian reform, the hospital hoped to provide the mentally ill with a therepuetic environment. The patients were to receive sympathetic and humane treatment by nurses and staff, who would be headed by the superintendent--the head doctor in charge of the medical and adminstrative workings of the hospital. This combination of exercise, hard work, fresh air, and a strict schedule was considered the "moral treatment" neccessary to bring patients back to good health.

The hospital was built in the "Kirkbride" style, as named for the architect Thomas Kirkbride. it featured a central core of administrative offices with patient wards extending from both sides in wings. This allowed the superintendent, who lived and worked in the adminstration center, to have the close personal contact with the patients, which was a neccessary part of this "moral treatment."

Pliny Earle was hired as the hospital's superintendent in 1864. Armed with years of experience with hospitals and the mentally ill, Earle stressed the importance of physical labor by his patients. Residents of Northampton State Hospital raised and processed livestock and produce, cooked food, made and laundered clothing, and cleaned living quarters. The work of the patients contributed to the success of the hospital's farm so greatly that profit from produce and livestock sold made it possible for the hospital to run without the help of state funds during most of Earle's residency.

By the turn of the century, the now-named Northampton State Hospital barely accommodated a severly overcorwded population of 600 people. The hospital came to serve as a last option for those with no where else to live. During the first half of the 20th century, the hospital's population grew another 400 percent. The poor, elderly, and homeless flooded the rooms at Northampton State Hospital. Overcrowding, paired with the rise in psychotherapy and new-yet-questionable medications and treatments created conditions at the hospital which made it impossible to practice the tenets of "moral treatment." Only basic custodial care was possible.

In the 1930s, the Memorial Complex was developed with federal relief aid during the Depression. These buildings alleviated crowding for a short while, separating and distributing 2,100 patients over a larger area.

By 1955, however, the hospital housed over 2,500 patients. Most were there for long-term care. Little active therapy was provided, but daily needs were taken care of. This system of custodial care could be maintained with fewer staff, creating a rather high patient-to-staff ratio. Many of the hundreds of employees, who worked with patients or on the grounds, lived in dormitories near the hospital. The hospital was a self-contained, self-supporting entity, held together by a "family" of patients and workers. Literally, paternalism encouraged the hiring of entire families to work at the hospital.

In the middle part of the 20th century, a series of new treatments were utilized at Northampton State Hospital. By using these more agressive, modern treatments, Northampton hoped to improve its image as well as its patients. Hydrotherapy, pharmaceuticals, lobotomies, and electroconvulsive therapy were all used on various patients at the hospital.

Northampton was constantly suffering from a lack of supplies and adequate treatment. Also, due to the invent of various alternatives to in-patient treatment and the Brewster vs. Dukakis case of 1978 and the following "consent decree," the hospital census fell 95 percent between 1955 and 1990. By the summer of 1991, only 120 patients remained. The last 11 patients left Northampton State Hospital in August 1996, and the hospital's doors were closed forever.

Learn more about the events leading the closing of Northampton State Hospital in the Deinstitutionalization section.

Thanks to Massachusetts Historical Commission, Michael Moore, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and Tom Riddell for historical information.