A Case

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Clarissa Caldwell Lathrop (1847 – September 11, 1892) was an American social reformer and autobiographer. Her prominence came from her remarkable experience, being confined and according to Lathro, unlawfully imprisoned in the Utica Lunatic Asylum for 26 months (October 1880 – December 1882).

Clarissa Caldwell Lathrop was born in Rochester, New York. She was a daughter of Gen. William E. Lathrop, a Brigadier General of the National Guard. Lathrop’s father had met and married Lathrop’s mother, Jemima, at the age of 42 – Jemima was only 19. Lathrop had been one of five children but had lost her eldest brother to disease in 1865 and her second eldest brother moved to the southern part of the country to look for work. Lathrop’s father passed away in 1877 leaving his wife, and his three daughters to open their home to board strangers for income.

She graduated from the Rochester Academy and became a teacher, which, owing to her father's failure in business, became a means of support to her family as well as to herself.

Utica Lunatic Asylum incarceration

Utica State Hospital
Utica State Hospital

Lathrop feared that Miss Hamlo, a boarder in her mother's house, was poisoning her. Lathrop was obsessed with a Mr. Zell, a former lover who married another woman after Lathrop rejected him. After repenting her decision to reject Zell, Lathrop became convinced that Hamlo was in alliance with Zell's wife. After Lathrop began seeing Zell everywhere, she believed he had divorced, and would now marry her if Lathrop survived Hamlo's poisonings. When Lathrop's life was "saved" on two occasions by friends, she took some of the poisoned tea to a chemist for analysis, as she sought reliable proof before making open charges against anyone. At the instigation of a doctor Lathrop went to Utica to consult Dr. John P. Gray, Superintendent of the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, New York. Instead of seeing Grey, upon her arrival, she was incarcerated with the insane, without the commitment papers required by law, and kept a prisoner at the asylum for 26 months.

Clarissa was sent to the asylum at the insistence of her mother and sisters, who lived in Rochester, and who asserted that Lathrop was suffering from the delusion that somebody was trying to poison her. Her answer was that it was not a delusion, that somebody was endeavoring to poison her. But she was willing to accept proof to the contrary, which was also evidence that there was no delusion. Nonetheless, her incarceration ensued. By the time Lathrop was admitted to the asylum, she was 32 years old and unmarried despite engagements to two different men.

The hospital, according to Lathrop was “a living tomb.”

Within a few weeks of her arrival at Utica, Lathrop had written letters to two of her physician friends only to find out later that her letters had never been mailed. The attending physician claimed they were not sent because the asylum was not obliged to send her letters “all over the country.” Lathrop was “amazed and dumbfounded” at the idea that not only would her letters be read by the asylum doctors, but that they would never reach their intended destination. Lathrop had easily made a friend who had revealed to her how she would be able to communicate to the outside world without getting caught by the authorities. She obtained paper through another patient who had hidden the contraband in her room. The woman would not outright give the paper to Lathrop for fear of punishment for aiding and abetting, but hinted that there was nothing she could do if Lathrop took a page or two while she was elsewhere. Lathrop also wrote on newspaper edges and scraps of wrapping paper which she also hid in her skirt.

Eventually, Clarissa managed to communicate with Silkman, a New York lawyer, who had been forcibly carried off and imprisoned in the same insane asylum. He obtained a writ of habeas corpus at once on behalf of Lathrop, and in December, 1882, Judge Barnard of the New York Supreme Court pronounced Lathrop to be sane and unlawfully incarcerated.

Social reformer and autobiographer

Immediately upon her release, Lathrop went before the New York State Legislature. She described her experience and the necessity for reform. After making another fruitless effort the succeeding year, she found herself homeless and penniless, and dependent upon a cousin's generosity for shelter and support, forced to begin her new life under the most difficult circumstances.

A Secret Institution (1890)

Lathrop collected money for a charitable society on a commission, spending her evenings studying stenography and typewriting. She soon started a business of her own and was successful as a court stenographer. Ten years after her release, she wrote her book, A Secret Institution, which was a history of her own life, written in the style of a novel, and descriptive of what she experienced or witnessed while an inmate of the Utica asylum.

Keeping true to her vow “to devote the rest of [her] life to the cause of the insane,” Lathrop formed the Lunacy Law Reform and the Anti-Kidnapping Leagues. The Leagues provided legal services to asylum patients who felt they were victims of a corrupt legal system. The goal of the leagues was to “protect sane people from false imprisonment.” Both groups had helped several individuals who had been unjustly incarcerated secure their freedom. The Lunacy Law Reform League in 1889, was a national organization having its headquarters in New York City, of which she was secretary and national organizer. Lathrop spoke out against asylum abuses, and became a spokesperson for others incarcerated as insane. She lived with self-doubt, fear, and suspicion, while trying to understand how incarceration affected her. She struggled with society's perceptions of her mental stability.

Lathrop died in Saratoga, New York, on September 11, 1892.

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