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Crownsville Hospital: From Lunacy to Legacy

Crownsville Hospital: From Lunacy to Legacy

Written by R. Todd Stevens | Review by Helen Wheels

[dropcap]R.[/dropcap]Todd Stevens and his team set out to make a documentary about the notorious Crownsville State Hospital, located in Crownsville Maryland. They interviewed doctors, patients, and the community to piece together an accurate picture of what life was like there. It wasn’t pretty. Crownsville State Hospital originally opened in 1911, as the first African American mental health facility in the United States. The patients made their own clothes, grew their own food, and lived in tents while they constructed expansive buildings, according to Deputy Sherriff George Phelps Junior. The hospital didn’t admit white patients until 1962.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, homeless African Americans were “scooped up” and taken to Crownsville, says Historian Janice Hayes-Williams. Patients didn’t always have issues that would warrant hospitalization, yet many spent their entire life calling Crownsville State Hospital their home. African American volunteer, Essie Sutton, said she often thought that a lot of the patients were no different than the people living in her neighborhood. But they were different. Many didn’t have families, were malnourished, and/or alcoholic. They were vulnerable.

Patients were forced to take whatever new form of treatment the doctors were experimenting with at the time. And, of course, their daily dose of medications. Experimental treatments included shock therapy, which left the staff traumatized, as well as causing serious brain damage to many of the patients. If the patients refused to do as they were told, they were restrained. The orderlies and nurses would use sheets and wrap them straight-jacket style. Sometimes they would be secured to a chair, many times the patient would be put in the seclusion room. Often, they didn’t return. A graveyard on the property stands as a testament to the countless lives that ended at Crownsville.

The hospital was isolated, far away from the city. All the doctors and nurses were white.
Without any protections, the all African American population were at the mercy of people who most likely thought of them as a lower form of life. Interviewees comment on Crownsville being a place to send people when you wanted to get rid of them. Many patients were sent there and never heard from again. Carlos Fenwick was sent to Crownsville when he was orphaned at twelve after his grandma died. Fenwick said that orderlies handcuffed him as soon as he arrived at Crownsville. He said, they kept the patients “drugged up” so they could do whatever they wanted to you. Two years later he was able to escape during a riot and made it all the way home. Carlos Fenwick is one of the lucky ones.

Evening Capital Reporter Doug Struck spent a week, undercover, posing as a patient in Crownsville State Hospital. Afterward, he interviewed actual patients, talked to psychiatrists, went through hospital records. He produced a series that exposed many of the “dark corners” of what was happening at Crownsville. The eighteen-part series won some awards and spurred a report by the State Legislative Committee that confirmed Struck’s findings. But that’s where it ended, even though there had been seventy-two deaths accounted for out of a population of seven hundred.

Though allegations of mistreatment and human rights violations abounded over the years, the facility was open until 2004. Crownsville State Hospital was in decline and operating with less staff and fewer patients. The hospital’s sudden closure failed to consider the patients and families who would be estranged when they relocated to new facilities across the state. The legacy of not considering the patient’s well-being continued even after the abuse ended.

Stevens contrasts this lack of humanity with the love and kindness that the community shows when they get together to clean up the facility’s cemetery. He shows us a little glimmer of light. A hope that maybe somehow, we have progressed enough to avoid tragedies like the ones that happened to the patients at Crownsville State Hospital.

Crownsville Hospital: From Lunacy to Legacy is an eye-opening documentary about the inhumane treatment of patients. It is a frightening commentary of the vulnerability of an individual with no social status and no family to protect them. Stevens expertly weaves interviews with a variety of eye-witnesses, historical footage, and animation to bring the stories to life; horrific accounts of rape, overdose, neglect and physical abuse. He uncovers a bigger picture story of the insidious nature of human rights violations committed toward African Americans. We need to know about stories like that of Crownsville State Hospital so that we can learn from the past, and so that we don’t let institutions that are supposed to care for people treat them with anything but dignity and respect.


Helen Wheels is an independent filmmaker, freelance writer, and visual artist. She has produced, directed, worked as a set designer and scenic painter, and has been an assistant director on dozens of films. Wheels graduated from Shoreline College with an AAAS in Digital Film Production and is continuing toward her MFA in New Media Communications.  Known for her eye to detail and advanced research skills, Wheels is currently researching historical events for her latest script and is in the process of developing her online writing business.

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