Author: Catriona Misfeldt
Series Editor: Roland Case
A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 16–18
On September 8, 1863, a man whose legs had been cut off at the knees was found on the beach of Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia. He had no identity papers, money, or belongings, and didn’t speak. Unable to look after himself, Jerome was taken in and cared for by local Acadians. He spent the rest of his life almost in silence. Many rumours developed about this mystery man and his origins. These theories — ranging from the believable to the unbelievable — were transformed into a widely-told Maritime legend.
In the late 19th century, people who couldn’t talk or were physically handicapped were not believed to be normal, and were often labeled as “idiots” or “lunatics.” Most were put into institutions (long-term care hospitals). Because Jerome wasn’t normal — he didn’t speak, had unexplained fits of anger, and had no legs — he was feared by many and became a public curiosity.
What can we learn about the treatment of the mentally ill at this time? What can we learn about how Jerome was treated? How typical for that time was the treatment Jerome received? Was it consistent with the standards prevailing at that time?
In this MysteryQuest, you are invited to judge whether the way Jerome was treated was typical of the level of care given to other people deemed “not normal.”
First, you will learn more about the treatment of the mentally ill (e.g., living conditions, medical treatment, opportunities for recreation). Next, you will look for evidence of how Jerome was treated by the community and his adopted families. Based on this evidence, you will decide whether the treatment he received was better or worse than was typical at the time. Finally, you will write a one-page response to the question, “Considering the standards of the time, was Jerome mistreated?”
Our knowledge of mental illness, its treatment, and people’s attitudes towards mental illnesses have changed a great deal since Jerome’s time. Many historical practices were conscientious, based on good intentions sincerely intended to help people. Today, however, we may no longer think these practices are defensible.
As you investigate past practices, do so using a historical perspective — that is, try to understand why people at that time acted as they did. Consider the circumstances, societal values, and beliefs that would likely have influenced people. This requires you to:
Historical practices and beliefs may at first seem strange or hard to understand. But they often make more sense when we learn about the typical actions at the time and the reasons for these actions. For example, chains and strait-jackets were commonly used in asylums in the 19th century. Restraining patients who were physically aggressive or who bit or hit themselves was a measure intended to protect the patient, other patients, and staff. Restraints make more sense in crowded, under-staffed institutions where patient safety was considered more important than their treatment and comfort.
Begin to develop a feel for the times by reading about Jerome’s life in the following newspaper article:
Toronto Truth, “‘Jerome’ of Nova Scotia,” L'Évangéline, September 20, 1900
Read the two overview documents found in the Secondary Sources section of Evidence in the Case to learn more about late 19th century views of what was “normal” and how people who were “not normal” were treated.
Your next task is to gather specific evidence about the typical care mentally ill patients received at this time. On your own or with a partner, read the following four documents:
In the left-hand column of the chart Comparing Treatment, briefly record how the following needs of the mentally ill were provided for within institutions:
You may need to “read between the lines” when gathering this evidence, since some examples will be implied or only hinted at in the account. For example, at an inquest into the treatment of the mentally ill, an attendant at the Nova Scotia Hospital for the Insane testified:
“The meat I have seen rotten, and as a general thing the tea, butter and meat were bad. I have seen the bread often bad also.”
From this statement, we can infer that the food was not always fresh and that the nutritional needs of patients were not always considered.
After completing your research, reflect on the data. Do you notice any patterns? What seem to be the main issues behind the treatment?
So much of what we know about Jerome is based on legend or hearsay that it is difficult to get a complete picture of his care. Information about Jerome’s daily life comes mostly from government documents, newspaper articles, and interviews with people who lived in his community — you will read a few of these to gather evidence showing how he was treated.
On your own or with a partner, read the following eight relatively short documents:
Record evidence about each aspect of Jerome’s treatment in the right-hand column of the chart Comparing Treatment. Again, you may need to “read between the lines” when gathering evidence from the documents. For example, the statement Jerome lived in a house with a family with thirteen children suggests that his living conditions were crowded and that he might not have had much privacy or peace.
Use the information accumulated in the previous activities to compare Jerome’s treatment with the typical standards of the time. Use the choices on Rating Jerome’s Treatment to indicate the extent to which Jerome’s treatment was better or worse for each aspect of care. Provide reasons for your ratings.
Based on your findings, write a one-page response to the question: “Considering the standards of the time, was Jerome mistreated?” Support your conclusion with evidence from the documents, and remember to base your answer on an appreciation of the perspectives and attitudes of the time.
The evaluation rubric Assessing the Evidence and Conclusion may be used to assess how well you were able to meet the following criteria:
Examine additional documents
Locate other historical documents in Jerome: The Mystery Man of Baie Sainte-Marie that provide more complete evidence of Jerome’s care. Based on this information, judge whether or not Jerome was mistreated.
Make a recommendation about treatment
Assume the role of a doctor or hospital superintendent. Write a letter to the local Municipal Council recommending either that Jerome remain in the care of the Comeau family or be admitted to an institution. You must convince the Municipal Council that the proposed placement is in Jerome’s best interests by considering his quality of life, personal dignity, protection, and potential for improvement.
Put yourself in the place of a family member
Write a diary entry from the perspective of a Comeau family member. Given what you now know about the treatment of the mentally ill, imagine how he/she might have thought and felt about caring for Jerome.
Explore other challenges
Apply your detective skills to a related mystery associated with Jerome’s life:
Activity Sheet: Comparing Treatment
Activity Sheet: Rating Jerome’s Treatment
Commission Appointed by His Honor the Lieutenant Governor in Council. “Evidence Taken Before a Commission Appointed by His Honor the Lieutenant Governor in Council to Investigate the Management of Mount Hope Asylum for the Insane,” (Halifax: 1878), 1, 7–10
Oral histories or interviews