On November 22, 1852, a moderate fire broke out in the heating system at the old Worcester Insane Asylum. Four patients, or inmates as they were known, suffocated to death as a result. The patients were locked in their cells and trapped, while smoke, and eventually flames, filled the wing of the building. The warden first attempted to fight the fire himself, but then decided to release the patients after he failed to put out the fire. The heat from the fire expanded the door locking mechanisms, and the architecte had to be summoned to instruct the firefighters on how to remove the hinges and locks from the doors, and attempt to save people from suffocating or burning to death.
The elder state mental hospital system was at times known for being inhumane. These hospitals were essentially jails and often designed as such, with judges sentencing people indefinitely into the system. Of course, the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders was in its infancy at the time of this fire. In the late 1800s it was recognized that the system was often inhumane, and attempts were made to improve the living conditions of the patients. The decay of such buildings by the 1960s, as well as advancements in medicine, helped to disband the original jail-style complexes and treatment methods that had been contrived in the 1800s. Films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Girl Interrupted convey the atmosphere of these institutions.
At Worcester State Hospital, the bodies of the dead inmates was described as a "ghastly spectacle," as apparently the patients were ghasping for air rolled up on the floor locked in their when they expired. The following describes the Worecester Insane Asylum fire in 1852:
THE Firemen of Worcester, Mass., were called from their beds shortly before one o'clock, on the morning of November 22, 1852, by an alarm of fire which proceeded from the Worcester County House. The fire occurred in the new north wing of the prison, and resulted in the death of four persons,— James Fitzpatrick, Irish, 50 to 60 years of age, who had been an inmate of the Insane Hospital since 1846; Wm. O. Keith, Irish, aged 17, an inmate of the Insane Hospital since 1849; Thomas Downs, of Worcester, aged abeut 40; and Bucklin J. Duchee, of Rhode Island, a carpenter by trade, an inmate of the same Hospital since 1845';— who were smothered in the cells in which they were confined, before assistance could be furnished them. All of these persons had been inmates of the Insane Asylum, and in consequence of the crowded state of that Institution, had, with other incurables, been transferred, within a short time, to the Jail, for safe keeping.
The fire is supposed to have been communicated to the cold air flue, which was made of wood, from the furnace, which was situated directly under the tier of cells, and so constructed as to warm the whole of that wing of the building. Passing along the whole of that flue, the fire communicated with the pitch pine floor of the corridor around the cells, producing a heat in front of them so intense, as to cause the expansion of the iron bolts by which the cell doors were secured, and to defy all ordinary means of shoving the bolts.
The unfortunate occupants of the Jail were probably alarmed by the smoke and flames, sometime before their perilous situation was known to the keepers; but their outcries attracted no attention at first, from the fact that this class of persons are in the habit of making disturbances, in the night, without any apparent cause; and it was not until the smoke penetrated into the other parts of the building, that the jailor and his family were aware of what had occurred. Their efforts were immediately directed to the extinguishing of the flames in the basement; but not succeeding in this, they repaired to the story above, to release the prisoners.
Meantime the alarm was given outside, and the fire department were soon upon the ground Capt. Lamb, the architect of the prison, was sent for, and succeeded in removing some of the fastenings, so that the doors were open as speedily as possible; but in consequence of the density of the smoke, the great heat, the narrowness of the passageway, and the want of proper tools with which to pry open the doors, about half an hour elapsed before an entrance was effected into the cells.
A fifth insane person was taken out alive, although equally exposed as the others. —In the several tiers of cells in this wing, there were in confinement 5 men, 24 women, one of whom had an infant child. Fourteen of the women were in confinement for various offenses, and the other ten women and five men were insane persons.
All the deceased were lying upon the floor, when found, with their faces downwards. Their countenances did not indicate that they had experienced intense suffering, and their bodies were but slightly marked by the fire.
Coroner Day held an inquest over the bodies of the four men. The testimony showed that the fire commenced in the air box of the furnace, but how it originated seemed to be a mystery, as no defect was known to exist in the construction of the air box.
EFFECTS OF FIRE UPON AN INSANE MAN. —The insane man who escaped suffocation, was called upon to testify before the coroner's jury, and gave in his evidence as intelligibly and correctly as any witness. He said he wrapped himself in a blanket and laid down on the floor, with his face to the ventilator, and thus saved himself. At the inquest he was not considered insane, though he was before thought to be one of the "incurables."
Source: The Fireman's Own Book, by George P. Little, 1860