In this episode, psychologist and author, Dr. Paul Grant, recounts a scandalous event in 19th century Philadelphia involving the confinement of an individual who suffered from mental health challenges.
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Dr. Paul Grant. Hundreds gathered at the corner of Fourth and Lombard. It was June 1870. “Burn the house down,” they cried, “Bring out the infernal wretches! Lynch them!” Stones began flying at the house in question, owned and occupied by Joseph Herriges and his mother.
The mob had assembled after hearing that Joseph’s brother, John, had been confined to a small room for nearly two decades. The Day newspaper headline from the next morning captured the moral outrage that stirred the crowd, “A Poor Idiot Caged Up for Many Years in a Filthy Room.” John’s family was seen as depraved people lacking basic human decency. How else to explain why they treated their relative “worse than a wild animal?”
While we certainly would not condone these actions, I think it is fair to say that the Herriges had a much more complicated situation than it might seem. John was described as insane. Today we would say he was experiencing serious mental health challenges, and a modern psychiatrist might give him the diagnosis of schizophrenia. His family describes John’s change as coming about age 20, which is typically when disorders like schizophrenia emerge.
It began with a change in his diet. John refused to eat certain things. As his condition worsened, John refused to eat just about anything, and he also refused to drink. The family had to feed him like an infant. When John was 26, his family placed him in the custody of Philadelphia Almshouse.
Stretching back to the early 1700s, the treatment for “the insane” has been polarized in Philadelphia. Those able and willing to pay could send their relatives to a private institution, such as Friends Hospital (in the Northeast) or The Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital (in West Philadelphia), both vanguards of the latest treatment approaches. The only option for the poor was the Almshouse, located on the western banks of the Schuylkill River.
Not surprisingly, John’s mother found the conditions there unacceptable, her son having become so emaciated that she feared for his life. So they brought him back home to Lombard Street. But, taking care of John was a challenge. The mother explained that she worried he would be harmed in public. He seemed different and hard to understand. He may have behaved in a manner that seemed inappropriate for the situation, and he likely looked disheveled and smelled bad. All these factors, which have long been observed in those experiencing serious mental health challenges, would put him at risk in public.
Unable to protect John outside the house, his family locked him away. Given what we now know about the effect of un-stimulating environments for people like John, being locked in the room with minimal contact with others likely exacerbated his condition. He might have had an even harder time motivating himself to eat, take care of himself, to move about. He might have attempted to regain control of his situation by defecating on the floor and smearing feces on the walls.
So, it’s easy to imagine his family’s blaming him for acts like these, thinking he was intentionally acting out. It might have been a slippery slope to outright neglect that lasted two decades, a period in which he had very little human contact and did very little, developing the “Van Winkle” look that he had when the police freed him.
After John was discovered, he was transferred back to The Almshouse, where he was confined to a cell no bigger than the room he had occupied in his family’s house. Reporters went to see him. They describe a completely socially disconnected man who did not take notice of their questions and who emitted words about burglars and murderers and laughed frequently. At one point, they observed an excited outburst in which he had to be restrained from moving toward another Almshouse resident. His physician, Dr. Richardson, characterized John as hopelessly and incurably insane.
John’s inability to care of himself was part of his condition. Every other night, John would smear feces on the walls of his room – to the utter disgust of the whole staff. John refused to move under his own accord, so he was wheeled around The Almshouse. John wouldn’t eat, so he was fed. John lived this way until February 1885, when a fire broke out at The Almshouse. Sixteen of the 682 residents perished, including John Herriges. He died in his locked cell.
This unfortunate life from more than 130 years ago has parallels today. The Almshouse was ultimately replaced by Philadelphia State Hospital or “Byberry,” which was famously closed in the early nineties. Individuals like John are now supported by Medicaid and may live in the community, live with their families, or live in an institution. Theses individuals likely have a psychiatrist and some form of case management.
Families continue to be vexed, like John’s was, by serious mental illness. John’s mother was unable to explain the change in her son. Maybe it was his switch to vegetarianism that was the cause, she thought. The family tried to manage the public outcry and probably could not explain its behavior toward John. When your loved one changes and begins acting in ways that are hard to understand, you don’t know what to do, and it is easy, ultimately, to blame yourself.
Despite many advances in research and treatment, there are individuals today who still show the same social disconnection as John – who find little energy or motivation for basic tasks, who are concerned about being harmed or killed, who laugh at surprising times. However, these same people have another side, which comes out when music is playing, when they are dancing, when they are playing a game, when they join a party or participate in an activity that they have expertise in. In these situations, they are connected, understandable, funny, and enthusiastic.
The modern treatment for these individuals is to empower them to develop “at their best” moments by active participation in meaningful social activities in the community – to help them see they are capable of getting the life they want, to thrive, to make a difference. And, at the same time, to develop resiliency, to master stress that can lead anyone away from the best things in life. In short, treatment helps them identify their best self and to live that meaning every day.
What I find missing from the account of John Herriges is what he was like at his best. What was he like before he changed and was confined to small spaces for upward of thirty years? What was truly neglected — John’s humanity. In my experience, people like John are full of incredible potential. They can surprise themselves and their loved ones. And be an inspiration for us all.
“Great Talks at Gloria Dei” is sponsored by the Historic Gloria Dei Preservation Corporation, a non-profit organization that supports the preservation and restoration of Philadelphia’s Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church and its graveyard. We do not have any paid staff. All of the work that we do — including the creation of this podcast — is produced by of our board of volunteers. To learn more about our organization and how you can support our efforts, please visit preserveoldswedes.org.
We’d like to thank our guest, Dr. Paul Grant, for reading from his forthcoming book and answering our questions. CT-R is the treatment he began developing in 1999 with Dr. Aaron T. Beck that empowers individuals to be their best selves. The home for CT-R is the Beck Institute, an organization that improves lives worldwide through excellence and innovation in Cognitive Behavior Therapy training, practice, and research. To learn more, please visit beckinstitute.org.
Music for this episode was provided by The Jazz Sanctuary, a non-profit organization that promotes American’s greatest music invention — JAZZ — by hosting free concerts and supporting music education in the Philadelphia area. You can learn more about this organization by visiting their website at thejazzsanctuary.com.