The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Asylum by Thomas Doherty

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fascination with mental asylums, so how could I pass up Thomas Doherty’s non fiction book, The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Asylum? I came to the book knowing nothing about the subject–just what the blurb promised. The author first learned about the Wisconsin Insane Asylum back in 1972, but it had long disappeared by that time and been replaced by “utilitarian 1950s era brick buildings.” Doherty was fascinated enough by the tale of the now vanished “palatial stone” asylum to return and research the “early hospital casebooks,” the minutes of the trustee meetings, and the annual reports from the asylum’s superintendents. The intro sealed my interest in the book:

From all that accumulated mustiness emerged an endless stream of lost souls, such as a young woman devastated by the deaths of her brothers in a Confederate prison camp: “Conceives she can feed the portraits of her brothers … by crumbling up bread and trying to make them eat it.”

While the book is a portrait of an age and its attitudes towards insanity, it’s also a portrait of post civil war America with its detritus of human tragedy.  The post civil war period saw an incredible upswing in insanity as a result of broken, bereaved families, unassailable grief, and the aftermath of an incredibly savage war.

Widows, wives tormented by returned veterans, mothers convinced that the draft was a death machine stalking their sons, fathers and mothers whose grief had driven them berserk or sucked all the vitality from them and there were the soldiers themselves.

This was an era of “the hospital Movement” with the medically held opinion that “insanity was not a curse but a curable disease,”  and with a national attempt underway to standardize the management of public insane hospitals. While the book is partially an examination of a particular insane asylum, even more than this, the book is a character study of Dr. Abraham van Norstrand, a man who served as a doctor during the civil war, a banker and an entrepreneur, who later became the Wisconsin asylum’s most notorious superintendent. According to the author, the asylum’s 1868 annual report was “as thick as a Russian novel,” thanks to testimony about van Norstrand and “months of dramatic hearings.”

Best Specimen of a TyrantThe book opens with van Norstrand firmly in place as the superintendent when a new, young patient is admitted, Reverend Romulus Oscar Kellogg (known as RO). Kellogg suffering from exhaustion, and had already experienced breakdowns when he was brought to the asylum by his brother Amherst. Just the week before, RO preached a thunderous sermon from the pulpit which didn’t end when he left the church. He lapsed into insomnia, ranted through “frenzied marathons” of preaching, and these episodes would end in exhaustion, with RO complaining of pains in his head and paranoid fantasies of “enemies [who] lurked in the house.” RO’s wife Caroline coped with the situation, but RO’s behaviour spread out to a local man, and the result was that RO was admitted to the Wisconsin Insane Asylum with the opinion of a local doctor that he would make a “speedy recovery”  from a condition labeled as Theomania. 36 hours later, Kellogg was dead. This death, called a ‘suicide’ by van Norstrand, led to a scandal and, eventually, to an unraveling of the superintendent’s life and ambitions.

From this point, the book goes back into a catalogue of cases–damaged people many scarred for life as result of the Civil War–and we understand why Kellogg’s case (and death) was so different from the norm. Then the book delves into van Norstrand’s past, his pre-Wisconsin Insane Asylum days, and we see a young ambitious man carving out a medical career and learning the benefits of Quinine. A considerable portion of the book is spent following van Norstrand’s army career as a Union doctor with the Fourth Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, and while all this may seem a distraction from the death of Kellogg, this information allows the reader to very effectively get a sense of just who van Norstrand was, his character and his motivations, before he became the superintendent at the Wisconsin Insane Asylum.

There were just a couple of annoying intrusions when the author speculates fancifully about situations:

From time to time, in the comfort of his family’s elegant quarters on the second story of the central building, he night have stood at one of the towering windows overlooking Lake Mendota, his gaze fixed on the skyline of the distant city, and brooded upon his fate should some eminent figure rise out of that feverish undercurrent of rumor and resentment to point an accusing finger at him.

But this is just an unfortunate lapse; the book is much better than that, and reveals some remarkable facts about van Norstrand’s life–through his hardships as a doctor, as a politician behind a smear campaign, and as an entrepreneur and a banker during some very dicey times. His civil war experiences were horrendous, and the conditions the soldiers endured were shocking (thinking of the misery of Ship Island and that’s even before they fought the enemy), but even in the midst of war, van Norstrand managed to engage in some strange speculations involving whiskey.  It wasn’t all death and dying:

Like Flashman he had a gift for attaching himself to local gentry on both sides of the conflict and basking in their flattery. He delighted in recalling many a feast laid out for his pleasure and many a bottle of aged brandy or claret urged upon him in one white-pillared mansion or another. As head of the biggest hospital in the Department of the Gulf, he saw Fourth Wisconsin comrades die lingering deaths and was himself worn down by illness and exhaustion, to say nothing of the frustration of being locked into middling rank. But again and again those lavish encounters with the privileged–slave owners or not–and every favor and deference granted him as surgeon, officer, man of the world, energized him. And finally that old seductress, easy money, caught his eye.

We also see van Norstrand at his best during the Civil War. He held firm ideas about good diet as essential for health, and Doherty, mining van Norstrand’s memoirs shows him arguing with commanding officers and going “beyond government channels and local pharmacists, paying planters and other private citizens up to five dollars an ounce, often from his own pocket” for precious supplies of Quinine. Thomas Doherty does a fine job of re-creating the times and conveying the impression that van Norstrand was really an incredibly energetic and enterprising man–yet his flaws, his energy, his ego and that entrepreneurial spirit are the very things that led to his downfall in the end. The marvelously detailed section regarding the 1868 hearings make for fascinating reading, and we see how van Norstrand’s mammoth task to ‘cure’ the insane was fraught with difficulties in a chemical-less age when physical restraint and punishment seemed a viable option. Van Norstrand was battling against the odds before RO Kellogg appeared at the asylum, and this young man’s appearance and his reaction to morphine created the ‘perfect storm’ for disaster. While Doherty opens a window into a specific time and a specific incident, the book extends beyond even the study of one character into human nature itself. We see disgruntled employees given a venue for their discontent and yet ultimately, van Norstrand’s speculations and business ventures sealed his fate and underscore the argument that once one arena of unethical behaviour is uncovered, the door is open to all other accusations and suspicions. In crossing swords with Samuel Hastings, the man who led the attack against van Norstrand, the superintendent met his match and hence his downfall. Sometimes, it’s the corners of history that prove to be the most interesting. Highly recommended for those interested in Wisconsin or asylum history.

review copy.

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10 Comments

Filed under Doherty Thomas, Non Fiction

10 responses to “The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Asylum by Thomas Doherty

  1. Brian Joseph

    I too have a fascination with this type of institution. This sounds like very well researched and balanced history. The history of how mental health issues have been treated is so interesting in itself. Micro – histories such as this can really add to our understanding.

  2. I wouldn’t read it but it sounds fascinating. I find it incredible that Doherty could find material about this asylum after all this time.
    I need to read a novel set during the Civil War, I don’t know much about it and since I’m not good at reading non-fiction.

  3. acommonreaderuk

    A fascinating review of a remarkable book. I suppose you saw the recent series on ITV about the Bethlem Hospital near Croydon?

    Please forgive my neglect of your blog in recent months. I’ve been doing other things this year but hope to return to book reviewing next year. In the meantime I wish you a very happy Christmas.

    • No worries, Tom. I’ve read your posts and I know you’ve been busy. No, actually I haven’t seen the series yet, but thanks for the tip. I’m currently watching WENTWORTH PRISON.

  4. leroyhunter

    The horror of the Civil War and its aftermath links obliquely to the imminent anniversary of 1914, ie, how were Europeans so ignorant of the power of modern warfare with such a devastating example to hand?

    I’m guessing you’ve seen the movie Wisconsin Death Trip? I wonder if any of Van Norstrand’s cases feature in it. Must have another look.

    • You raise a good point re the WWI connection–that’s exactly what I was thinking when I read about some of the civil war scenes. The conditions were horrific, the gangrene, dysentery, crude surgeries.
      No I haven’t seen the film. I just took a look at Amazon and saw the cover of the book version of the film, and the face of the woman on the front (the look in her eyes) certainly evoked scenes from Doherty’s book.

  5. Very fascinating. This is a book I might read in the future.
    I’m really not a fan of medication but I think in the case of severe mental illness it has helped quite a bit. Asylums then and now are so different.

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