We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

The Best Specimen of a Tyrant

The Ambitious Dr. Abraham Van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Hospital

Thomas Doherty

Publication Year: 2013

In 1847, young Dr. Abraham Van Norstrand left Vermont to seek his fortune in the West, but in Wisconsin his business ventures failed, and a medical practice among hard-up settlers added little to his pocketbook. During the Civil War he organized and ran one of the army’s biggest hospitals but resigned when dark rumors surfaced about him. Back home, he accepted with mixed feelings the one prestigious position available to him: superintendent of the state’s first hospital for the insane.
            Van Norstrand was a newcomer to the so-called “Hospital Movement,” perhaps the boldest public policy innovation of its time, one whose leaders believed that they could achieve what had long been regarded as impossible, to cure the insane. He was a driven man with scant sympathy for those he considered misfits or malingerers. Even so, early observers were impressed with his energetic, take-charge manner at the hospital. Here at last was a man who stood firm where his predecessors had weakened and foundered. But others began to detect a different side to this tireless ruler and adroit politician. It was said that he assaulted patients and served them tainted food purchased with state money from his own grocery store. Was he exploiting the weak for personal gain or making the best of a thankless situation? Out of this fog of suspicion emerged a moral crusader and—to all appearances—pristine do-gooder named Samuel Hastings, a man whose righteous fury, once aroused, proved equal to Van Norstrand’s own.
            The story of Abraham Van Norstrand’s rise and fall is also the story of the clash between the great expectations and hard choices that have bedeviled public mental hospitals from the beginning. 

Published by: University of Iowa Press


pdf iconDownload PDF (66.2 KB)
p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

pdf iconDownload PDF (53.3 KB)
pp. iii-iv


pdf iconDownload PDF (37.2 KB)
pp. vii-viii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (42.8 KB)
pp. ix-xi

For those who learned about mental hospitals from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and other popular fare, it may be hard to believe that once upon a time those isolated, mazelike institutions were expected to usher in a kind of golden age. In the early nineteenth century, a group ...

read more

Prologue: A Locked Room, a Battered Body

pdf iconDownload PDF (100.3 KB)
pp. 1-17

Monday, January 23, 1865, was a day to put off errands if you could get away with it, much less a thirty-mile trip to Madison. To the family of Reverend Romulus Oscar Kellogg, yesterday’s snowfall had been a godsend, starting before dawn and lingering over Fort Atkinson ...

read more

1. “The Fortune I Desired and Expected”

pdf iconDownload PDF (63.5 KB)
pp. 19-25

By 1877, twelve years after the death of Romulus Kellogg, Abraham Van Norstrand was a banker in Green Bay, successful, comfortable, and well thought of in the business community.1 He lived in a big house in a high-class neighborhood that echoed with grand Yankee names ...

read more

2. “I Soon Found My Hands Full”

pdf iconDownload PDF (100.2 KB)
pp. 27-46

A decade or so before Van Norstrand arrived, Wisconsin Territory was largely terra incognita. Law and order among far-flung pockets of soldiers, miners, missionaries, and fur traders was administered by a circuit-riding judge who periodically ventured across Lake Michigan ...

read more

3. “My Blood Is Up”

pdf iconDownload PDF (72.7 KB)
pp. 47-56

As chairman of a committee that welcomed Stephen Douglas to Jefferson during the 1860 presidential campaign, Abraham Van Norstrand got to see his party’s nominee up close and was not encouraged: “He appeared as if he was just waking up from a prolonged ...

read more

4. “The Best Specimen of a Tyrant”

pdf iconDownload PDF (67.9 KB)
pp. 57-64

In early March, 1862, the soldiers of the Fourth Wisconsin finally embarked upon a real adventure. At Newport News, Virginia, they were ferried to a new steamship called the Constitution, reputedly one of the largest vessels afloat. “Imagine yourself [on] one of those floating ...

read more

5. “A Severe Punishment of a Deluded and Spiteful People”

pdf iconDownload PDF (77.1 KB)
pp. 65-75

Shortly after the war a young officer traveling upriver from New Orleans described the view from his deck chair: “Eastward there is naught to span the horizon but one far-reaching level of swamp or trembling prairie. Westward, two miles back from the river-bank, bold barriers ...

read more

6. “The Whole Camp Still as Death”

pdf iconDownload PDF (75.7 KB)
pp. 77-87

“The faces of officers are changed, as if by ten years of care and trouble,” wrote Edward Bacon, an officer of the Sixth Michigan who watched from the levee as soldiers trooped down the gangway. “The men appear like wretches escaped from the dungeons of the ...

read more

7. “The First Negro Hospital”

pdf iconDownload PDF (74.5 KB)
pp. 89-99

At midnight on August 6, Halbert Paine walked ashore a liberated man. He spent the night inspecting the perimeter, a series of rifle pits spread in a semicircle through the eastern edge of town. Over the following days he raced to construct new and stronger positions around the ...

read more

8. “The Wails of the Wounded”

pdf iconDownload PDF (78.0 KB)
pp. 101-112

All winter long, soldiers at Carrollton speculated about the coming move against Port Hudson. The first step of that operation took place in the spring, when they returned to Baton Rouge. They found it a forlorn shadow of the prosperous, shade-drenched community of a year ...

read more

9. “Friends and Enemies” [Includes Image Plates]

pdf iconDownload PDF (145.3 KB)
pp. 113-127

When Union forces moved unopposed into Baton Rouge in the spring of 1862, Port Hudson would have fallen into their hands just as easily had they sensed its strategic value. Just twenty-five miles upriver, Port Hudson was an undefended trading center where rail ;and river ...

read more

10. “A Second Class Man”

pdf iconDownload PDF (87.0 KB)
pp. 129-144

In the fall of 1863 at the hospital for the insane in Madison, Dr. John Clement was consumed by resentments of his own. Unlike Dr. Van Norstrand, whose declining workload left him time to find ways to compensate himself for his good work, Clement contended with mounting ...

read more

11. “The Usual Little Jarrings in the Ward”

pdf iconDownload PDF (93.7 KB)
pp. 145-162

The superintendent and his assistant charted in enormous casebooks, a fresh page for each newcomer. If he proved to be an attentiongetter and stuck around long enough, that page eventually filled, and he reappeared deeper in the book and perhaps even in a subsequent casebook, like ...

read more

12. “A Critical and Searching Examination”

pdf iconDownload PDF (93.0 KB)
pp. 163-180

There was no turning back from the course charted by the “brethren,” as the first members of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane liked to call themselves.1 Thirty-six state hospitals opened their doors between 1824 and 1860, most ...

read more

13. “Patients that Manifested a Dislike to Dr. Van Norstrand”

pdf iconDownload PDF (116.3 KB)
pp. 181-206

Did Samuel Hastings know what he was getting into? If he had been talking to Amherst Kellogg and others with grievances, he probably did. Done right, this project would inflict wounds and ignite controversy. At any rate, he was destined to earn those three dollars a ...

read more

14. “Little Short of Murderous Neglect”

pdf iconDownload PDF (81.5 KB)
pp. 207-220

Van Norstrand faced not only the credibility dilemma shared by every superintendent—that enormous gap between expectation and reality—but real problems of his own making. He was impulsive. He did attack patients. Unlike Thomas Kirkbride in Philadelphia and John Butler at the ...

read more

15. “Rotten Eggs”

pdf iconDownload PDF (73.9 KB)
pp. 221-231

The implications were troubling. If the superintendent approved of disciplinary procedures as dangerous as the cold bath, what else was he hiding under that confident, genial manner? The question must have occurred to Hastings and Sherwood in the course of their ...

read more

16. “A Solemn Court of Impeachment”

pdf iconDownload PDF (75.4 KB)
pp. 233-244

Hastings had left no stone unturned. Every patient capable of coherent conversation had been interviewed, every attendant and officer had been called to testify, former employees had been contacted by telegraph and letter, experts had been consulted, rumors had been tracked to ...

read more

17. “Abandon Hope”

pdf iconDownload PDF (92.2 KB)
pp. 245-262

To prevent the superintendent from taking center stage and playing the wounded monarch, Hastings and Sherwood had twice urged that he be fired immediately and twice they had failed. So now Van Norstrand stalked from the wings bearing his own stack of papers. By this time ...

read more

18. “A True Gentleman of the Old School”

pdf iconDownload PDF (94.6 KB)
pp. 263-280

“Dissolved by mutual consent”: thus did the former superintendent and the grocer announce the termination of their partnership on the back page of the Wisconsin State Journal. Six months after leaving the hospital, Abraham Van Norstrand was a full time storekeeper: “Dr. Van ...

read more

Epilogue: “Three Percent Hastings”

pdf iconDownload PDF (63.3 KB)
pp. 281-287

In early 1868, Samuel Hastings would have needed every ounce of his famous self-control and Christian modesty not to yield to the thrilling expectation of a great personal reward. Not only was he poised to bring down the tyrant at the state hospital, but it appeared all but certain ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (36.9 KB)
pp. 289-290

My thanks to Charles East of Baton Rouge for the many courtesies he showed a stranger, and especially for leading me to the papers of Halbert Paine; to Patrick Brophy of the Bushwhacker Museum in Nevada, Missouri, for information about Joseph Bailey; to Attorney ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (135.0 KB)
pp. 291-316


pdf iconDownload PDF (71.9 KB)
pp. 317-326


pdf iconDownload PDF (57.3 KB)
pp. 327-331

E-ISBN-13: 9781609381615
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609381462

Page Count: 344
Publication Year: 2013