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The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham Van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Hospital

The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham Van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Hospital

by Thomas Doherty

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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


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. 

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The Best Specimen of a Tyrant

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

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2007 Thomas Doherty
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-146-2

Chapter One

The Fortune I Desired and Expected

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. He lived in a big house in a high-class neighborhood that echoed with grand Yankee names like John Jacob Astor and Washington Irving, who once owned land there, and he had set up his wayward son Fred in the lumber and coal business. Green Bay was far from the acid tongues of Madison. Settled by French missionaries and fur traders, it was the oldest town in the state, and it was prospering anew with lumber and paper mills.

On August 25 of that year, his birthday, he opened a leather-bound journal the size of a small gravestone, dipped his pen, and embarked upon a project that would continue to the end of his life. In his own way and at his own pace he was determined to set the record straight:

"Today at the age of 52 it may be of use to someone if I should modestly look over some of the events of my modest and uneventful life. To record some of my early thoughts, fancies, expectations and aspirations, together with my experiences as a child, youth, young man, student, teacher, physician, surgeon, speculator, superintendent of Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane, merchant, lumberman, etc. etc."

He simply cannot fake it. Time and again—in letters seeking favors, in speeches to professional colleagues, and in these memoirs—Van Norstrand tries to elicit a scent of lilacs only to fill the air with swamp gas. In the first paragraph of his life story he is at his worst. He strains for humility but what flows from his pen is pure vanity.

But gradually the stage makeup is sweated away, and something real emerges. Forget the tin ear and false modesty, because underneath all that the reader detects lingering hurt. The man has been wronged, his reputation grievously wounded, and time is running out. Not that he admits to any such thing in the 154 densely lined pages that follow. Far from it. They are filled with a lifetime of bold risks and narrow escapes. Most of these tales are variations on the David and Goliath theme, the good doctor as the boy with the slingshot, while a succession of great names, roughneck thugs, and infuriating colleagues rotate through the Goliath role. His father had died young—at just fifty-eight—as Van Norstrand men had a history of doing. Abraham protests that in writing his life he intends only to provide a rainy-day pastime for his grandchildren, but the reader is not deceived. Clearly he has serious business to conduct while there is still time.

"In writing my opinions and thoughts, especially those of recent occurrences, I may allow my feelings to prejudice my judgment. I will endeavor to keep [this] thought continually in my mind while writing, thus assisting me to avoid recording feelings of hate or envy, still inherent in my nature of strong likes and dislikes, of never failing friendship and slowly ending hate."

* * *

The Van Norstrands descended from a Jacob Jansen who landed in New York in 1638. Jansen came from an island off Holland called Noorstrandt, the source of the unwieldy and frequently butchered last name, which, ironically, was added in America to distinguish him from other Jacob Jansens. The family spread out along the Hudson River valley, intermarrying with French Huguenots.

Abraham Harris Van Norstrand was born August 25, 1825, in a farmhouse among rocky fields on the east side of the Hudson River, near Poughkeepsie. His father, Frederick Frelinghuysen Van Norstrand, was solidly built, steady, and temperate. Raised a Quaker, Frederick had been forced to leave the church for "marrying out," his wife being a member of the Dutch Reform Church, but he lived the Quaker virtues of hard work, thrift, and patience, scratching enough profit out of a poor farm to eventually trade up to a bigger one, then a bigger one still. About the time of their son's tenth birthday, Frederick and his wife Elizabeth acquired over four hundred acres in Cayuga County, at the western edge of the state among exotic back-country folk who mistook the bulging parcels of clothes hanging from the family wagon for bags of money. Although sick with whooping cough, Abraham exercised his pride of place as oldest son to travel on horseback to this rich farming country, which he described as "better and more beautiful than we had been accustomed to." In time Frederick accumulated eight hundred acres.

Abraham also aspired to prosperity, but unlike his father he was not, as he so often reminds his readers, a patient man, nor one to seek his fortune toiling on the land. The story of his boyhood and youth, played out through years of agrarian toil, was one of quiet struggle between a father who pressed his first-born to follow in his footsteps and a son determined to leave such drudgery behind.

Education became Abraham's bridge to the world, but into his mid-teens his attendance at so-called "district schools" was interrupted by chores. Hay needed cutting, hickory nuts did not gather themselves, nor could his father erect a house alone. Back in school he was frustrated by the repetitiveness of the lessons. When he was ready and eager for fractions, his teacher cycled back to "the rudiments of grammar and arithmetic." He made up his mind to go off to boarding school. In a skirmish destined to be fought again and again, his father first adamantly rejected the plan, then conditionally objected, and then, sadly, and with a clumsy sort of grace, dug about in his pocketbook for the money Abraham would need. For three months Abraham lived at an academy near the shore of Lake Ontario, thrilled to make the acquaintance of algebra and other heretofore exotic subjects, before returning home and settling for an occasional tutoring session from a medical student apprenticed to the family doctor, a man he identifies as Dr. Palmer. In the fall of 1843 he set off by foot for a teacher-training course offered at Auburn, fourteen miles from home.

At eighteen he took a job at a country school and discovered that "boarding around" among his students' families opened up a whole new social life. He was flattered by the deference accorded him as teacher, scholar, and at times, family therapist. But grand as he may have felt in a family parlor, he was not happy with the petulant taskmaster he became in the classroom, where fear was evident in the eyes and bowed heads of his students. The demands upon him were complicated, the distractions many. He discovered that under pressure he became a bit of a tyrant—impatient, probably sarcastic, and quick to punish. He described himself as altogether too "ardent."

Those hours spent with his former tutor, the medical student, remained on his mind and suggested an alternative. The next spring he explored the issue with Dr. Palmer, who agreed to take him on as a trainee. For $1.50 per week he would get meals, office space, and access to the doctor's books and equipment. The deal was struck when Palmer loaned him a copy of Bell's Anatomy to study over the summer.

Of course this was not to his father's liking, and for about a year Abraham tried to do it all—work the farm, study medicine, and also earn his fees by teaching and hiring out during harvest season. It was too much. Again, the solution was to go off to study fulltime. Palmer was on the faculty of the medical college in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where, at nineteen, Abraham Van Norstrand joined a starting class of twenty students.

He managed to scrape by for a while but finally gave in and asked for help from home. The letter resulted in a visit from his father, a trip he would not have undertaken lightly. It was a bittersweet encounter. Again Frederick yielded to his son, agreeing to pay tuition and board, but in a last attempt to get him away from school and back into the family he held out the promise of a new overcoat if Abraham would accompany him on a visit to relatives in Albany. Abraham was tempted—he dearly needed a coat, or the money it would fetch—but he sent his father off alone. There would be no overcoat, nor a first son to carry on at the farm.

Even with his father's help, day-to-day life was tight. He could not join other students dissecting a body because he lacked the fifteen-dollar fee. "I never indulged in a glass of soda water or an apple," he recalled.

Once he paid a visit to his father's side of the family. "I attended Quaker church and visited much among them and must say I like the Quakers and many times later in life I have regretted that I did not adopt at least outward Quakerism." Perhaps in middle age he was tempted to idealize the road not taken. It is a revealing confession. He yearned for the simplicity and sense of community that he felt among the Quakers, but unlike his father, who broke a rule but remained a Quaker at heart, Abraham was alienated from the church by his own temperament.

The Berkshire Medical School in Pittsfield was associated with the Vermont Medical College across the state border in the small town of Woodstock. In effect, Woodstock was a satellite of the older, better-known school in Pittsfield. The Pittsfield school was in session in the fall, Woodstock in the spring. Most students and faculty migrated between the two. Itinerant medical teachers and students were common, some faculty teaching in three, even four schools a year, while students were able to cram what was supposed to be a three-year course of study into two. So when Dr. Palmer packed up and moved to Woodstock, Van Norstrand and other students went along.

Woodstock and another private medical school at Castleton had put the medical school of the University of Vermont out of business. Nearly twenty years would pass before it enrolled another class. Considering the private schools little better than degree mills, the medical faculty at Burlington had raised admission standards and performance requirements so high that potential students had little incentive to apply, not with two seductively undemanding alternatives nearby. The attempt to improve the quality of medical education backfired, a reflection upon the state of medical education in mid-nineteenth-century America. While medical research flourished in Europe, in America medicine was increasingly driven by short-term economic imperatives. Private schools succeeded in a marketplace that did not expect much from doctors. In the battle for public confidence, orthodox medicine—with its bleeders, purgers, and poisoners—was losing ground to alternative practitioners like the Thomsonians, who offered a do-it-yourself botanical cure for almost anything: simply clean out the system, raise the body temperature, and wait for better days.

That survival-of-the-fittest aspect of the doctor training business may have shaped Van Norstrand's expectations. Medicine for him became a means to an end, a way to accumulate capital, although he would remain a diligent practitioner. Nothing hurt a doctor's pocketbook more than a bad reputation.

At Woodstock he sat for another year of lectures, rooming first with a graying, dissipated scholar who could afford to romance one of the landlord's daughters while Van Norstrand, with his empty pockets, could not. Over time he detected—or imagined—a resulting chill from that side of the house, and so he moved in with another student, a carpenter and father of five who was making a mid-life career change and was as poor as himself. They all lived cheaply together and got along well.

The Woodstock faculty was receptive to new ideas. A staff member just back from France gave instruction in auscultation and percussion. Van Norstrand studied "Minute Anatomy and Physiology" through the compound microscope, a rarity in American schools. He witnessed a variety of surgeries and heard lectures from specialists in what were considered the seven parts of medicine—anatomy, physiology, chemistry, material medica, physic (including pathology and therapeutics), surgery, and midwifery. Having met most requirements for graduation in twenty-eight months, young Abraham felt well-qualified to sit for the final exam, and in the spring of 1846, two months shy of his twenty-first birthday, he received his sheepskin.

His first choice was the army. War with Mexico had been declared. How exhilarating it would be to follow the flag as an assistant surgeon. Recommendations from his teachers were easy to come by, but money for uniforms and equipment was not. He couldn't even afford the trip to Washington to apply.

He settled for more prosaic work closer to home, first in nearby Dorchester, Vermont, filling in for a physician who was returning to school to upgrade his skills. He lasted seven unhappy months and was only 60 dollars ahead when he entered into another ill-fated arrangement. His senior partner sent a bottle of strychnine to a morphine addict who, expecting her usual delivery, promptly popped the cork and drank deeply. Fortunately it came shooting back up, thereby saving her life and the doctors' reputations as well.

This was not the future Van Norstrand had envisioned. "Charges were low," he wrote, "competition large and the amount of medical paying business ... much too small to satisfy my youthful energy" or to start him along the path toward that fortune he longed for.

It was time to break from the cold porridge of the east and chance feast or famine in the western territories. On May 1, 1847, he loaded a trunk of clothes and a box of books onto a stagecoach, climbed up beside the driver, and headed over the Green Mountains for a last visit home.

Chapter Two

I Soon Found My Hands Full

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 to Green Bay, then set out over the so-called Military Road to Prairie du Chien on the shore of the Mississippi River, two hundred miles to the southwest. By mid-century not much had changed north of the Military Road, which was forested wilderness all the way to Lake Superior, but in the south federal surveyors were plotting and measuring, and new settlements were springing up everywhere, especially inland from Lake Michigan.

The young judge was James Duane Doty, and while plodding along on horseback he had plenty of time to ponder the land's potential to make a smart man rich. As late as 1835, for instance, the area known as Four Lakes remained a wilderness, "wild and desolate [where] the wild cat and wolf roamed at large." The Blackhawk War of the early 1830s had uprooted the Sauk and driven them west across the Mississippi. Crisscrossed by trails left by the Indians and the soldiers who had chased them to the river, the Four Lakes region was now home only to a Frenchman in a log cabin and a few Sauk and Winnebago tribesmen who had eluded the militia's dragnet to continue their old seasonal migrations. That year Doty and a partner bought over a thousand acres there and on paper turned them into a make-believe city. Doty then turned his prodigious energy and political savvy to bringing that city to life. That he succeeded is apparent to any visitor gazing down upon the city of Madison from the dome of the state capitol today. The layout is identical to Doty's original map; even street names are unchanged. In return for votes designating that stretch of wooded hills between two pristine lakes as the territorial capitol, legislators were given parcels of land in the fantasy city.

"Pork eaters" is what the half-breed fur traders and wilderness men called easterners who arrived so ill-prepared for life on the frontier in the 1830s and '40s. Lacking the stomach for wild game and the skill to bag it, they traveled for days in search of a bag of flour or a keg of pickled pork. But by 1865 those "pork eaters" had become distinguished "old settlers." They were legislators, judges, bankers, teachers, and clergymen, and they looked back upon the early years of shared hardship with a misty sense of pride—the era of log huts and dirt floors, of communal geese and pigs roaming the muddy lanes, and a sense of all-for-one when crops failed or fevers broke out. For Yankees raised to believe that you had not earned your harvest unless you had uprooted a forest or hauled away yet another generation of rock, Wisconsin was sinful abundance. The black soil along the Rock River was so rich that each spring the Indians would burn off old prairie grass to make room for the new. New England had been survival; Wisconsin would be profit.

On through the forties they came. The southeastern corner of Wisconsin Territory was so thick with the rippling surf of prairie grass that a wagon drawn by a pair of oxen was lucky to make a dozen miles a day—considerably less when hills, marshes, and muddy river bottoms intervened. Even old Indian trails had a way of dwindling into little more than a notion through the wildflowers. All were struck by the beauty of the place, but its real beauty was in its potential to make a man rich. A New York couple making their accident-prone way to a farm near Fort Atkinson was so buoyed by the prospect of riches that when their wagon tilted dangerously in a bog, Mary Turner scrambled to dry land with a baby in each arm and gazed at the immobilized wagon, the helpless oxen, and her husband flailing his own way to safety, and still she was not discouraged. "I thought we should go back in a few years rolling in wealth," she recalled decades later.

Eventually those Yankees were outnumbered by newcomers from Germany, Ireland, and Scandinavia. They liked to drink and have fun on Sundays, an outrage to puritans for whom Sunday remained a day of silent and earnest reflection. In Madison those immigrants called the old-timers "the codfish aristocracy." But old New England still controlled the elective offices, edited the newspapers, owned the banks, and parceled out the land.


Excerpted from The Best Specimen of a Tyrant by THOMAS DOHERTY Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Doherty. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thomas Doherty lives in Madison, Wisconsin. His short stories have appeared in the Iowa Review, the Laurel Review, the Mississippi Valley Review, and other literary journals. His nonfiction has also appeared in a variety of publications from the Saigon Post to the Wisconsin Magazine of History. He won the 2008 Wisconsin Historical Society’s Book Award of Merit for The Best Specimen of a Tyrant

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