Free Labor: Working & Living at an Asylum


Emily Rock is curator at the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, where she manages the artifact collection, coordinates educational programs, and curates exhibits. She is passionate about community building and works to make history come alive with creative approaches to storytelling.

Asylum: Out of the Shadows, open through May 20th at The History Museum at the Castle, is the result of Emily’s and others’ effort tell the story of the Outagamie County Asylum. With this exhibition, the museum ambitiously sought ‘truth and reconciliation’ for past abuses and aimed to personalize the stories of the residents and employees.  We are proud to be a funder of this community exploration as part of our Working Lives Project.

Asylum: Out of the Shadows

By Emily Rock, Curator, History Museum at the Castle

“Occupation of some sort, steady and if possible, out-door work, has proven to be of greater benefit to those mentally wrecked than drugs or medicines.” -Gustave Kuestermann, President of the Wisconsin State Board of Control, 1905

In November 2016, the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, Wisconsin opened its latest temporary exhibit. Asylum: Out of the Shadows takes on the topic of mental health presented through the context and history of the Outagamie County Asylum. It puts local mental health history in a wider context, while contributing to the public conversation about mental health that has been gaining national momentum.

This immersive exhibit explores why and how patients were admitted, what daily life would have been like, how the institution was administered, treatments, and the legacy of the Asylum. It also explores the work done there—by staff and patients.

One major part of the Asylum’s history is the blurred lines of work within the institution. This is a sensitive topic that needed to be presented thoughtfully, yet truthfully. Some of the goals of the exhibit were to address past abuses, to present information and personal stories to make the topic approachable, and to help remove stigma against mental illness.

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The Asylum opened in 1890 and was in operation as a mental hospital through the 1960s, when it was mostly demolished due to poor maintenance. In the late 1800s, the treatment philosophy for those with mental illnesses was to keep them occupied by doing productive work. At the Outagamie County Asylum, this meant unpaid work in the Asylum farm, dairy, or bakery.

The design of the Outagamie County Asylum, and how patients were initially cared for, was modeled after plans by Thomas Story Kirkbride of Pennsylvania. Dr. Kirkbride was superintendent at the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane, and an advocate for what was known as Moral Treatment for those with mental illnesses. His influential set of principles for the care of the mentally ill in the mid-19th century came to be known as the Kirkbride Plan.

Kirkbride believed patients should live in settings of natural beauty, be exposed to plenty of fresh air and light away from any place that would trigger their illnesses, be given treatments, and do chores at asylum farms to keep them occupied and productive, which would lead to a sense of purpose and keep them physically active. However, this idyllic goal was not always met in real life.

Patients’ unpaid forced labor directly benefited Outagamie County’s bottom line. Food produced at the Asylum not only fed patients, but any surplus was sold for profit. Psychologists and superintendents believed patients had to earn their keep to save taxpayers money, and they thought the work was therapeutic. For some patients, the opportunity to be productive, continue their skills, and spend time outdoors was appreciated. However, at times the work led to abuse and exhaustion. 

Patients were described in 1944 as being undernourished. They were not receiving their fair share of food produced at the Asylum. Farm workers were specifically cited as sometimes starving. With so much emphasis placed on keeping the facility self-sufficient, management sometimes forced patients to go hungry and send more goods to market. This arrangement and pressure to balance a budget was common for county asylums and poorhouses throughout the United States.

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This difficult topic is not a high point in local history, but one that needs to be addressed. The museum took the approach of presenting the facts, as we did in the other sections of the exhibit, and then posing a question to visitors that they can respond to directly in the exhibit by writing on a notecard on the wall.

The question posed was, “Today, forced labor is under scrutiny, especially at for-profit prisons. Do you think prisoners and patients should have to work for no compensation?”

eithics-of-workThis question relates the topic to the present day, and lets the visitors interact with the exhibit. It is interesting to read some of the responses, and there are a variety of opinions. By not simply answering an ethical or moral question for the visitor, the exhibit instead provides a catalyst for discussion.

Another ethical blurred line regarding work was patients acting as staff. It was hard to keep attendants at the Asylum. They were underpaid, non-professionalized staff in the early years of the institution. The many responsibilities, poor pay, and long work hours of attendant, particularly female ones, were grueling. Each ward included a private room where the attendants lived, often next door the patients’ sleeping quarters. The attendants led a group of patients who assisted with most of the tasks, such as waking, feeding, and caring for patients.  Lack of boundaries when it came to work made it harder to keep order at the Asylum, and was confusing for patients.

Asylum: Out of the Shadows has been well received by the community, and its message has been taken outside the walls of the museum. For instance, the museum offered a walking tour of the old Asylum grounds, pointing out where buildings would have stood and adding to the story of the exhibit.

The Museum also recently partnered with Storycatchers, an Appleton organization that creates community through publicly sharing stories. In March, Storycatchers held one of their live storytelling sessions at the museum on the topic of mental health. The program featured thirteen five-minute stories from residents who wanted to share about their experiences with mental illness, whether that was personally, as a loved one, or someone who works in the mental health field. Programs like these continue one of the goals of the exhibit: to help reduce stigma against mental illness by starting a conversation.

Staff have seen visitors be deeply affected by the exhibit. Visitors have approached staff to share some of their memories of the asylum, whether it was visiting there, or having a relative who lived there. It is a topic that in some way or another touches everyone’s lives.

The exhibit presents some difficult facts and their consequences. One way to keep such practices from recurring is to talk about them. To bring them out of the shadows, and into the light. That was one of the goals of the exhibit—to increase awareness. Telling these untold stories can help people understand the past, learn from it, and change the present.  The more a community can discuss mental health, the more supportive it can be of its members that are struggling.  


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PHOTOS used with permission, History Museum at the Castle and Andrew Krueger.






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