This past Wednesday, the Gladstone Hotel and TINARS hosted the “Words On The Wall” event with Geoffrey Reaume, author of Remembrance of Patients Past: Life at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane, 1870-1940. In Remembrance of Patients Past, historian Geoffrey Reaume remembers previously forgotten psychiatric patients by examining in rich detail their daily lives at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane (now called the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health – CAMH) from 1870-1940. Psychiatric patients endured abuse and could lead monotonous lives inside the asylum’s walls, yet these same women and men worked hard at unpaid institutional jobs for years and decades on end, created their own entertainment, even in some cases made their own clothes, while forming meaningful relationships with other patients and some staff.
The evening began at 4:00 pm, with the opening of the silent auction of pieces from the Workman Arts “inSanity” exhibition, which included artwork derived from bricks taken from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Proceeds of the auction were donated to Psychiatric Survivors Archives of Toronto (PSAT). The stage was set for the event, quite literally, as pieces by the Workman Arts, inspired by Reaume’s text, were featured. The exhibit, called “The Story Behind the Wall,” includes figurative sculptures that tell the story of six patients from the Toronto Hospital for the Insane.
Reaume, on the walking tour which was the next portion of the evening’s festivities, told several accounts of the patients depicted in the exhibit.
While rain threatened to dampen the mood of the planned walking tour of the wall around CAMH, the sun began to shine through as Reaume led the group of 50 guests on his 64th walking tour of the grounds. Reaume shared vivid accounts of patients of the former Toronto Hospital for the Insane who lived “in the shadow of these walls.” On the tour, Reaume focused on the labour-intensive existence of previous patients of the hospital, and the strength and longevity of the wall built by patients and what it symbolizes. Parts of the wall were erected at different times; some sections date back 150 years, built, as Reaume emphasized, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. Other portions of the wall were built the year John A. MacDonald was Prime Minister of Canada, when Roosevelt was seven years old, and the year Charlie Chaplin was born.
One story was of particular interest: Winston, a patient featured in the exhibit at the Gladstone, was a cooper, and besides building barrels for the hospital, also tinkered with other inventions. In 1910, Winston built a wooden car with a working horn. Winston also built a wooden plane, although the workability of this invention was never tested, and a violin made from a box, a featured item in the exhibit.
The walking tour trouped back to the Gladstone, arriving just in time for the conversation between Ruth Stackhouse and Geoffrey Reaume to begin. With a packed house, Stackhouse and Reaume discussed the ethics of publishing and opening patients’ files to the general public, and the benefits of bringing attention and awareness to the conditions of the former Toronto Hospital for the Insane. Reaume’s next project will include a survey of the labour conditions of all mental facilities in Ontario.
The night concluded with the announcement of the winners of the silent auction. The proceeds of the silent auction will go to plaques in dedication to the patients who built the wall and laboured within its shadows.