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Book Review: ‘Madness,’ by Antonia Hylton

Book Review: ‘Madness,’ by Antonia Hylton
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Hylton tells the story of Crownsville Hospital, a segregated asylum on 1,500 acres in Anne Arundel County, Md. Based on the ludicrous but stubbornly persistent theories of Dr. Cartwright and others, at the turn of the 20th century, Maryland lawmakers claimed to notice rising insanity in Negroes, which they blamed on freedom — willfully ignoring subhuman conditions, including the well-documented lynchings common during the Jim Crow era.

On March 13, 1911, the first 12 patients arrived to what was then called Maryland’s Hospital for the Negro Insane — not to be cared for, but to build the place that would eventually house them. As officials wrote, “This would lessen the cost of construction and at the same time be a benefit to the patients.”

A year and a half later, the sprawling facility nearly complete, nearly 150 patient-workers lived on site. For the next 91 years, Crownsville (as it was renamed) offered a way to keep unwanted parts of the Black community outside of the public view. But under the guise of providing “industrial therapy,” Crownsville also operated as a highly productive farm, thanks to the labor of patients, who harvested produce and tobacco, tended cows and horses, and were lent out to nearby farmers. Inside the facility, they cooked and served food, did laundry and transported other patients to offset the costs of care.

From a decade of meticulous research, Hylton pieces together the story of an institution that, at its height, housed some 2,700 people. She interviewed more than 40 former patients and employees, and combed newspaper archives and surviving hospital records — many of which had been destroyed to conceal evidence of mistreatment and abuse.

Some surprising characters crop up. William Murray, father of the celebrated civil rights lawyer and activist Pauli Murray, arrived at Crownsville in 1917. A graduate of Howard University, a pianist, schoolteacher and principal, Murray suffered from violent mood swings and depression so severe that his family had him committed. Six years later, he was murdered by a white guard.



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