Plaques Marking Madness

Women and men were segregated by gender and split off into different halves of the Toronto asylum.We began our tour visiting the women.

Our tour guide, Dr. Geoffrey Reaume, is a psychiatric survivor cum academic who decided it was time to hear the residents’ stories instead of only doctors’ limited and stereotypical accounts of their patients’ lives. While working on his doctoral thesis, Reaume applied under the Freedom of Information Act for access to patients’ records. He later published  Remembrance of Patients Past: Patient Life at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane, 1870-1940.

Each plaque includes a photograph of the person about whom he spoke and evocative details he gleaned from the no doubt scant research materials he uncovered. His words seemed to invite the person to stand alongside us and lean into the past with the same fascination and compassion.

After 17 years working in the asylum laundry, Mary A. was released in 1911. One day on the outside she counted up the exact dollar amount owing to her for her years of unpaid labour. She wrote to the hospital demanding payment. She was ignored.

Another woman, Josie B., lived and worked at the hospital from 1906 to 1915. She also petitioned for payment while still living in the asylum. Her plea was similarly ignored but according to her files the doctors went one step further: they determined she was ‘more insane’ simply because she made the request. 

Although it’s possible these two women knew each other, they probably didn’t double-up and demand similar retribution.

I wonder what it was like to day-in-day-out shuffle off to their jobs, knowing the end of their shifts only returned them to their diagnosis and their cell and probably their loneliness. Maybe the hours at work gave them companionship. Windows to look out from. Crisp, snapping laundry on lines beyond the Queen Street tree line and the change of seasons over a vague Toronto skyline.

Geoffrey asked: Which gender do you think made more attempts to escape the hospital?

The answer was obvious: men. 

Because men wore trousers and ran. Women tripped up in their skirts and were dragged back inside.

Why couldn’t Mary and Josie pilfer a couple of pairs of pants from the laundry? Shorn their hair (as if they had scissors!) and tuck-up under a worker’s cap? But then again, where would they run?

The last plaque stood on the site of the hospital’s mortuary where autopsies were done on patients during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their remains were kept walled in until either families claimed them or they were moved from the Queen Street asylum site and buried in paupers’ graves such as Mount Pleasant or Prospect Cemetery. What was left unmarked there, at least for some residents, is marked now by the wall plaques and ever-ready for viewing.


About Nor

I'm a creative non-fiction writer, with a special interest in memoirs and obituaries--life stories, local histories with flesh & blood anecdotal details. I'm also beginning to create podcasts of people's stories and expanding their audiences. I'm a diarist, an editor, and a political activist. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and spend days tapping keys or staining my fingers in ink.
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