The Mystery of the Asylum

Lauren Coodley

Napa Asylum, Before Reconstruction
Napa Asylum, Before reconstruction

Why are we so intrigued by the mystery of asylums? These institutions were established in the nineteenth century in America to provide housing for those who were so challenged by life that they could not exist outside its walls. The Napa Asylum (now known as the Napa State Hospital) was founded to be a model for the nation in the treatment of madness. Although many communities vied to be chosen as the site of the new asylum, Napa was selected for its climate, access to the river, and cheap land. The area purchased from Cayetano Juarez and T.H. Thompson included a wharf on the river, a siding at the railroad tracks, and a duck ranch. Incredibly, this asylum here in Napa, which became Napa State Hospital in 1922, has never had its story published.

An intrepid librarian and archivist named Patricia Prestinary emerged and began to uncover its tangled stories, and I am assisting her. We are illustrating this article with mystery photographs. Can you help us understand more about these images? Patricia has set up a Facebook page by which you can contact her to assist in helping uncover the clues that these photographs reveal.

The Asylum opened its doors in 1876; it was described by the Overland Monthly as “one of the finest of these public institutions of the United States.” Eventually, it housed 600 patients and had its own laundry, bakery, water supply, lumber yard, and mortuary. It manufactured coal gas on its property for lighting. The gothic building resembled a castle, and its seven towers served as a major landmark. The center building housed an office, library, and staff apartments. The rear contained an amusement hall, a drug store, trunk room (for the patients’ luggage), dining rooms, and a kitchen. An underground railroad transported meals and laundry between the twelve different wards.

Asylum Gardens
Napa Asylum Gardens

The patients were treated with occupational therapy, which consisted of participation in farming, housekeeping, food preparation, and building maintenance. This “moral treatment” aimed to give the patient fresh air and access to the outdoors. Doctors believed that nature had great healing powers, and so vast gardens were developed on the grounds. The asylum produced a prize-winning dairy herd and orchards that ran all the way down to the river.

I began working at the State Hospital when I was pregnant in 1977. I was hired to teach “living skills”, although I wasn’t even sure what those were. I was transfixed by the fragile women that I met there, the kind of women that we would now find at homeless encampments in every major city in America. Back then, there were no homeless; people with drug and alcohol problems, violent, depressed, and schizophrenic people, were simply picked up and dropped off at the State Hospital.

I was surrounded by a plethora of skilled professionals: psychologists, nurses, social workers, and psychiatric technicians. Later, in the 1980s, I would teach human development—a topic I was only learning myself as I raised my children—to prospective nurses and psych techs for the hospital. When Dorothy Bryant wrote her brilliant novel in 1981, Confessions of Madam Psyche, a large part of the book was set at Napa State Hospital in the 1940s. I invited her to the college to meet my students who were entranced by what she revealed. She had learned the lore of the Castle from Ellen Brannick, who was then the unofficial hospital historian.

Once, the asylum’s beef operation outside Yountville and its poultry farm on Coombsville Road provided meat for the Veterans’ Home in Yountville and the prison at San Quentin. The patients worked in the pear orchards on the hundreds of acres surrounding the hospital now occupied by the community college, Kennedy Park, and Skyline Park. The year Dorothy Bryant came to Napa, Phong Vu arrived in Napa as a child from Vietnam. The pear trees were still blooming at the college across the street. He remembers picking those pears with his mother and brother and ingesting a little piece of Napa’s history with each sweet bite. “A Fine State of Perfection: Phong Vu’s Napa Childhood”, will be included in my own new book in September of this year. Napa Valley Chronicles is a collection of my most favorite Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine articles.

Napa Asylum Greenhouse
Napa Asylum Greenhouse

In the decades since Dorothy’s novel, the hospital emptied as a result of well intentioned, but perhaps mistaken, legislation which tossed the mentally ill into board and care homes or the streets. And this decision destroyed good paying jobs for thousands of Napa residents. Patricia wants to find some of those retired nurses, psych techs, psychologists: would you like to be a part of history? If so, please contact Patricia via the Facebook page. If you worked there, she would like to hear a story that you want remembered. It might be about one of the buildings or even the landscape itself. Perhaps it is a story about one of your coworkers of whom you dined, commiserated, and communed. Patricia’s book, for which I am writing an Introduction, will be published in 2014. Please help her uncover the still hidden mysteries of the Imola Asylum’s history.

The photographs that accompany this article are courtesy of the Napa Valley Historical Society, which is collaborating in the production of this book.