This post was written in the summer of 2020 and edited in the summer of 2021.
My apartment looks over a large park where anti-mask protestors gathered regularly. The anxiety surrounding the current COVID-19 pandemic flourished in my studio apartment every time I heard the sound of cheers leaking through the window. Transcribing the Rockwood Asylum notes gave me a deep sense of calm. Calm because I was able to detach from the reality outside my window. Transcribing doctors’ notes and meeting minutes allowed me to delve into another world. A world filled with problems different from my own, contextualizing the current reality of what we are collectively experiencing.
Transcribing the asylum notes allowed me to analyze trends of disease-related deaths. I worked closely with cases between 1850-1870 where the primary diseases ravaging the eastern seaboard were typhus and typhoid fever. Noting the rise in cases, a spike, and then a gradual petering out over time was incredibly calming during the summer of 2020, especially when the quarantine seemed endless and no news on vaccines had been released. It provided hope that an end would eventually come. While we are still currently a long way away from the end of this pandemic, it is a privilege to have a semblance of a ‘normal’ life again. Something that I do not take for granted, as there is still no vaccine against typhus.
That being said, looking at the Book of Discharges and Deaths notes for the Rockwood Asylum was heavy at times. This document was a large ledger that tracked how patients left the Asylum. The first few pages of the ledger are evenly spaced with many descriptions of the patients and how they left the Asylum. As time goes on, the spaces between patients became more cramped. Details were left out or were unknown. The hastily scrawled notes became more apparent. During periods where typhoid fever was rapidly spreading through the asylum, the notes on the page seemed to be picking up speed, chugging through the list of patients that were rapidly leaving the Asylum as corpses. Showing the impossibility of stopping the spreading of diseases throughout the Asylum quarters and the similarities to the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.
One surprise I came upon was that after the first patient death of typhoid, there was a mass release of patients. The lack of detail on the Book of Discharges and Deaths register meant I could not decipher whether the mass exodus was because their mental illness was cured. Perhaps they were seen to be ‘cured enough’ for release or potentially released to stop the spread of typhoid fever. Unfortunately, in many cases, once a patient leaves the asylum system, we have no way to follow up on them. One can hope that the patients were spared from a typhoid-related or otherwise violent death.
Transcribing notes from the Rockwood Asylum gave me a deeper understanding of the current pandemic we are experiencing. It allowed me to see trends in history and understand that disease-related deaths come in cycles. It showed me that pandemics and epidemics do end, even when they do not feel like it in the present moment.