Robert James Lees - Norman Lees and Matteawan State Hospital

Robert James Lees


 

The Matteawan State Hospital and Norman Albert Lees

In the Leicestershire Record Office is a letter from Norman to his brother Ernest, dated 16 April 1891, inviting him to join him in America to work. There is also a scrapbook of cuttings from American newspapers concerning Norman campaigning to stop `malpractice and ill treatment of inmates in Matteawan State Hospitalí where he had been confined in March 1910 after allegedly setting fire to his house in Brooklyn, New York.

He had been released by February 1911, and achieved considerable success in improving conditions for prisoners, including securing the dismissal of some members of the hospitalís staff.

 
   
Norman Albert Lees was the eldest child of Robert James Lees and Sarah Lees. He was born in 1873 in Birmingham (Warwickshire, England), and married Anna Casey. They had three children, Roland, Ethel and Robert James.

A letter from the journalist and publisher William T Stead confirms that Norman and his brother Douglas had travelled to the United States in about 1892/3. At that time, they were living in Chicago.  Later, Norman moved to New York.  Norman was living with or close to his brother Lionel in Chicago in 1897 according to a letter to Lionel in their father's hand, dated 10 July 1897.

 

Henry H Thaw


Henry H Thaw

 

Norman and his brother Douglas became involved in the sensational trial of the Pittsburgh millionaire Henry H Thaw (1906) who was convicted of murdering architect Stanford White on 25 June 1906 over his wife, the showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt. Thaw was also incarcerated in the Matteawan State Hospital but escaped to Canada. 

It is believed that Douglas was hired in his role as a journalist to write in support of Thaw. Norman campaigned for Thawís release. This murder was the basis for the film "The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing" released in 1955 and starring Joan Collins and Ray Milland.

 

Evelyn Nesbitt-Thaw


Evelyn Nesbitt-Thaw

 

In April 1892, the Asylum for Insane Criminals, with 261 patients, was relocated from Auburn in New York State to a new site. The following year, it was renamed Matteawan State Hospital. Except for tighter security, Matteawan functioned in the same way as the state's civil hospitals. The doctors prescribed a programme of "moral treatment" developed in the early 1800's. It consisted of kind and gentle treatment in a stress-free, highly routine environment. Patients who were capable were assigned to a work programme (often called "occupational therapy") which involved cooking, maintenance, farming and making baskets, rugs, clothing and bedsheets.

Patients were given outdoor exercise in the courtyards twice daily and films were shown weekly. Radios and phonographs were available on the wards. Patients played softball, tennis, bowling, tennis, handball, shuffleboard, volleyball, chess, checkers, cards, gymnastics, ping pong and. At Christmas and other special occasions, there were teas for the women, cigarettes for the men and "vaudeville entertainments" staged by patients and staff.

 

Matteawan State Hospital


Matteawan State Hospital

 

By the mid 1960's, there were about 3000 patients at Matteawan and the nearby Dannemora state hospitals, some serving sentence, some held past their sentences and many confined without ever having been convicted. A series of court decisions ended the relatively free and easy procedures under which Matteawan and Dannemora had operated. All patients stayed until the superintendent approved their release. In many cases, persons committed for minor offences were confined for 30 and 40 years.

Eventually, attitudes to the `mentally-ill' changed. First, the courts established that transfer to Matteawan or Dannemora would require the same procedures, including the right to a court hearing, as involuntary commitments of ordinary citizens to civil mental hospitals. A later decision established that nobody could be held in a correctional institution beyond their maximum sentence. Further decisions eliminated the transfer of "dangerous civil patients," and then of persons found not guilty by reason of insanity, to institutions where convicted persons were also held.

The effect of these decisions was to empty the prison mental hospitals. Dannemora was the first to close, in 1972. For another five years, Matteawan held convicted patients only, with all other categories of the criminally insane going to the Department of Mental Hygiene. The state agreed that the Department of Mental Hygiene should assume responsibility for all mentally ill persons, including sentenced prisoners. On January 1, 1977, Mental Hygiene opened the Central New York Psychiatric Center (CNYPC) a special forensic mental health facility on the grounds of the Beacon complex.  With its creation, Matteawan closed forever.

Norman attended his motherís funeral in Ilfracombe, England in February 1912. He rode in the second carriage behind the hearse with his sister Pearl, his brother Ernest, and Ernestís wife. However, he did not attend his fatherís funeral in 1931. On that occasion, a wreath was sent from "Douglas, Norman, Muriel, May and Wally, sons and daughter, Australia".

 

Stanford White


Stanford White

 


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© 2003 Stephen Butt