Featured Patients

Patients at the Asylum suffered from a variety of mental health issues. Due to Isaac Bonsall’s lack of medical knowledge and the subjective nature of his Day Book, it is often very difficult to form a complete picture of the ailments facing a patient from the information we have. However, there are enough hints to show the variety of types of mental illness the Asylum treated. Here are the stories of some patients who show the diversity of experiences at the Friends' Asylum:

Nathan Yarnall and Mary Roberts both belonged to the class of patients who caused the Asylum staff the most work—they were both incontinent. Bonsall wrote frequently about the labor involved in keeping them clean. In an effort to keep Nathan Yarnall from soiling himself, Bonsall tried to shame him by making him wear a petticoat.

Nathan Yarnall's New Clothes
"The Petticoat on Nathan [Yarnall] has had the desired effect both yesterday and today which saves us much trouble. He is ashamed of it and begs for his small Cloaths [sic.] or in the place of them Trowsers [sic.]. We tell him when he learns to behave himself well his Breeches shall be returned." Isaac Bonsall, December 2, 1818
“[Nathan’s father, a visiting manager,] was affected with seeing his Son have a Petticoat on but did not censure us and expressed a wish as it was mortifying to Nathan it should not be continued longer than necessary. Isaac Bonsall, December 5, 1818

Although Bonsall’s treatment prevented Nathan Yarnall from soiling himself for a little while, it did not prove to be a lasting solution. Nathan Yarnall spent about 3 years in the Asylum before dying in a fever epidemic. Bonsall was unable to cure Mary Roberts either. Bonsall did not try to shame Mary Roberts into better behavior, perhaps reasoning that the method had not worked on Nathan Yarnall Instead, Mary Roberts’ husband asked to take her home with him, despite her continued illness. Bonsall expressed relief at this resolution.

Mary Roberts Leaves the Asylum
"It is a great relief to [caretaker] Ruth Peirce that Mary [Roberts] is taken away on account of her filthiness and the Wing is much more comfortable now to the other Patients." Isaac Bonsall, January 6, 1822

Benjamin Cox was one of the Asylum’s patients who suffered from alcohol addiction. While Benjamin Cox was in the Asylum, Bonsall tried to teach him to resist temptation and conquer his addiction. Excessive consumption of alcohol was frowned upon in Quaker circles, and people like Benjamin Cox would normally have been read out of Meeting. The Asylum gave Quakers a place where addiction was treated as an illness, not a sin.

Origin of Benjamin Cox's Insanity
"Benjamin [Cox] appears so rational that we are enclined [sic.] to think that the use of intoxicating liquor has been the main cause of his Insanity. With us he does not even partake of the family small Beer. The evening he was brought he wanted Porter, Wine, and etc. none of which were given although he said he could not live without it and that while he was at the Pennsylvania Hospital he was allowed a Bottle of Porter per Day." Isaac Bonsall, December 2, 1818

Benjamin Cox was one of the many patients at the Friends' Asylum who had spent time at the Pennsylvania Hospital before being sent to Friends' Asylum. Benjamin Cox told Bonsall that he was grateful for the Friends' Asylum’s moral treatment, which he said worked better than the medical treatment he had received at the Pennsylvania Hospital. Benjamin Cox left the Asylum six months later, cured.

Ruth Sc. came to the Asylum incoherent and delusional. Ruth Sc. and her sister refused to believe that she was insane, but her behavior as recorded by Bonsall in the Day Book is not rational. She frustrated Bonsall by banging loudly on her door at night, and harrassing her caretakers and fellow patients.

Ruth S.'s Behavior
"[Ruth Sc.] will not be persuaded to give up her own ideas about anything no matter how absurd they may appear to others neither will she desist from importuning us to grant things which we deem unsuitable as whatever occurs to her own mind as proper to be done She considers an indispensable duty.” Isaac Bonsall, January 7, 1822

Ruth Sc.’s delusions often had to do with religion. Bonsall never stated exactly what was unorthodox about her beliefs, but he was mortified when he took her to Meeting for Worship, and she stood to speak.

Ruth Sc. at Meeting for Worship
"She stood up twice in the Meeting and spoke a few words and a fear being entertained that she would repeat it induced friends to break up the Meeting sooner than usual. What she said was not clear as to the matter and produced trial to friends minds [sic.] generally. We think it will not be safe to let her go very soon again." Isaac Bonsall, May 19, 1822

Ruth Sc.'s actions at Meeting were embarrassing to Bonsall because speaking more than once during Meeting for Worship is frowned upon. Bonsall and Ruth Sc. struggled about whether she should be allowed to attend Meeting for at least the next year. Ruth refused to promise to be quiet because she could not promise to ignore a leading. Bonsall wrote tht he doubted she was genuinely feeling led to speak by God.

Samuel Sykes was one of the Asylum’s violent patients, but despite the threat he posed to the community, Bonsall treated him kindly, and gave him considerable freedom. Even after Samuel announced that he was being told by the Devil he had to kill Anna Bonsall, he was not locked up.

Samuel Sykes and Anna Bonsall
“Samuel [Sykes] told my Wife that he should be obliged to Kill her. He is so strongly impressed with the belief that we have concluded She must take more care of herself when with him than She has done. He thinks her a fine woman and his expectation of destroying her does not proceed from any dislike of her.” Isaac Bonsall, January 22, 1822

This was not the first time that Samuel had expressed his intention of killing Anna Bonsall, but it was the first time that the Bonsalls seemed to think it warranted a response. The response, however, was not directed at Samuel, but at Anna. She was the one who had to be careful, while Samuel continued to have considerable freedom. Later, Samuel Sykes proved that he could actually follow through on his violent thoughts when he set fire to the Asylum basement.

Samuel Sykes and the Fire
“After [the fire] was put out our suspicion fell on Samuel [Sykes] as the Instrument who upon being questioned about it acknowledged he had done it—that he was tempted to do it so strongly he could not resist it. He has had much liberty of late. We shall be careful in future that no opportunity shall [be] afforded him to do a similar act.” Isaac Bonsall, May 1, 1822

Again, the Bonsalls gave Samuel Sykes a remarkable amount of freedom for someone with his case history. Samuel Sykes left the Asylum after nine months there, improved, although not all the way cured.

Abraham Sharp was one of the Asylum’s depressed patients.While in the Asylum, Abraham Sharp tried to commit suicide by hanging himself. Bonsall’s response to Abraham’s suicide attempt shows the darker side of moral treatment:

Abraham Sharp's Punishment
“He proposed that We should drown him [as punishment for trying to kill himself] in consequence of which and in the hope it would have a salutary effect I proposed to the Doctor and Men caretakers to have the Bathing Tub nearly filled with Cold Water and put him in under a pretence [sic.] of drowning him they did so and held him under for some time. He was glad however to get out and willing to live some longer.” Isaac Bonsall, February 13, 1821

Bonsall evidently hoped that Abraham Sharp, seeing how painful it was to die, would want to live longer. Bonsall’s efforts reveal that although moral treatment was supposed to be kinder than traditional treatment of the insane, it still used fear as a method of treatment to some degree. Abraham Sharp did not try to kill himself again, but he also did not recover. He stayed in the Asylum for about 8 months, and was discharged, still “insane,” into the care of his friends.

Friends’ Asylum admitted Annie or Anne Verree in fourth month 1821. She appears to be the first person of color admitted to the Asylum. She was a patient at Pennsylvania Hospital for 14 years before being transferred to Friends’ Asylum. This might have been because she was a Quaker, a member of the Burlington, New Jersey Monthly Meeting. Isaac Bonsall, the superintendent of the Asylum at the time, also wrote that Verree “was brought up by my wife’s grandfather and grandmother” (Fourth Month, 21st, 1820). This indicates that Verree’s family also could have wanted her to be under their care and closer to family.

Anne Verree had an unusual stay once she was in the Asylum. When she first arrived at the Asylum she “objected to getting out of the carriage and was very unwilling to stay” (Fourth Month, 21st, 1820). She was very hesitant to live in a new place but little is known about why she would not have wanted to be there. While in the Asylum, the superintendent noted that she was “somewhat useful,” in the kitchen. It appears that she was one of very few female patients who worked in the kitchen (Second Month, 21st, 1823).

Verree’s medical records are quite sparse, lacking the usual details of treatment, and show that she was only “usually noisy,” once in her first three years in the Asylum (Eighth Month, 1820). It is likely that she was brought to Friends’ Asylum as a place to live out the rest of her life. She originally entered the Asylum at 70 years old and stayed there until her death 12 years later. The night before she passed away the superintendent remarked that she appeared “to be sinking under the effects of old age” (Twelfth Month, 26th, 1832).