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In special places

Christmas at the Asylum

Daily Gleaner 1886 December 26, page 2


With all these blessings then why hanker after the ideal Father Christmas. Who can account for the strange aspirations of the human mind! Like Diogenes seeking for an honest man we could not rest, and lo at last we found Father Christmas. It was Christmas eve. We looked through a window - and there before our eyes, was Father Christmas and Santa Claus in one, surrounded by fair faces, busy fingers and laughing voices, preparing his Christmas gifts. There, piled on tables, were candies of all kinds, there were necklaces and lockets, beads and brooches, "glittering in barbaric pearl and gold", pipe and tobacco, and cigars being deftly wrapped by fair fingers in neat paper bags on each of which Fattier Christmas wrote some cabalistic symbol doubtless a talisman of good luck to the recipient; knowing how good-natured Father Christmas is, how indulgent and charitable, and that one of the principal traits of his creed is that at the festive season over which he presides, forgiveness of past and present injuries should be exchanged by all men, we made bold to ask why all this preparation. We received an answer with a packet of candy and a jovial smile. "These heaps of kind tokens of interest and solicitude are for about 400 hundred - children? No, alas not children in bodily development, but children, nay not even children in their intellectual, their mental powers - 400 patients in the Lunatic Asylum at Rae Town! Can any mortal misfortune. Can any dire disease fill one with such pity and sympathy as this dreadful disturbance of the mental balance?


“To see that noble and most sovereign reason

   Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh."


Oh the pity of it. Here under one roof are 400 of our fellow creatures in all the ages of man, from the young girl budding into womanhood to the tottering nonagenarian whose poll is frosted with the snows of age. Here is the doddering idiot whose form is indeed human but whose wandering, expressionless eyes and purposeless, shifting fingers make one shrink at the very thought of a common humanity. Here too is the raving, homicidal maniac, his intelligence fixed on the one dread object of shedding blood. Picture it - think of it, you who at this Christmas time, collect your friends around you, and exchange the season’s greeting with hearty handclasp. You who have father, mother, sister, wife, child to cheer you with their love and sympathy in the disappointments of life - 400 poor helpless lunatics. Have they no claim to share in general joy of this "gracious time" Aye indeed they have. Father Christmas is there. Santa Claus is there. Come with us at one o'clock p.m. on Christmas day and we will introduce you to Father Christmas and to Santa Claus (for here the two are one). We pass through a fine shed, called the "entrance shed." of an extensive building, not unlike the Crystal Palace at Sydenham only, "not quite so much so." We pass through a gate at the upper end and the janitor is a benevolent looking old man with a taste for playing the fiddle: his instrument is beside him. No ; - not a lunatic? Yes; - homicidal mania. Why, he looks as though he had not the heart to slay a persistent mosquito. Surprise the first. We are now in the midst of a large court yard and we are in the very center of the asylum. Could you believe you had 400 lunatics around you? The quiet is that of a cathedral aisle. Look around: mark the neatness and good order that prevail. Now and again passes as we walk along, a man or woman, neatly dressed, engaged on some business of the asylum. Assistants. - No, - Patients.  We are now on a long verandah-pavement white and spotless, not a leaf or straw or speck of dirt. A long row of women and girls is seated on a bench next the wall. Father Christmas is there. All rise, and as he passes them with a kindly glance or word for each, see how they curtsey and smile, and how their eyes brighten. Why they all - everyone - look upon him as a friend and protector. With them one smile or glance is more efficacious than a short jacket or a cold douche You can see at a glance that each one of these poor creatures loves that man with the blind confidence, the absolute trust of a pet spaniel On our way to the dining hall we pass an adjoining room fenced off by a wooden partition from the dining hall itself where assistants are busily preparing the patients’ dinner. Long tables are piled with huge yams which are being rapidly cut up and weighed put upon tin plates and placed on racks. The odour of boiled beef smites the olfactory nerves pleasantly, that is also being cut up and weighed. When all is ready these plates will be passed through those trap doors in the partition into the dining hall, and the waiters, who are also patients, will place them on the long tables. Let us follow them. Not like a har[le]quin through the trap. We will take a more commodious and less direct route. Here we are in the dining hall; dining hall? - Ball-room, you mean. Here is, indeed, a fairy scene. Bright colored flags and banners hang from every " coign of vantage;" cocoanut boughs make green arcades on the spaces between the pillars; pot plants, palms, bouquets everywhere, make a garden of what would otherwise be a great bare brick-paved shed, or empty railway station, whose desolation would depress the spirits of a Mercutio. Now, wherever the eye rests, is a waving banner or an emblematic shield, or a mass of green foliage enlivened with bright flowers. All this for the poor creatures on whose intelligence a blight has fallen and who, in the old days, were subjected to the strait jacket, scourge and cold water douche. Now, the whole scene is festive as a flower show and Father Christmas is everywhere. Now, addressing a patient who smiles and follows him with affectionate eyes; now; asking council with the pleasant and portly lady who is the matron of the establishment; now; examining the yams or the beef; now; slightly altering some of the decorations which don't quite please him. Everywhere is Father Christmas, pervading all doings, the guiding spirit, the Deus ex Machina. At a sign from Father Christmas, with orderly march enter the patients, quietly they take their seats at the long tables where piles of oranges and heaps of sugar cane, cut into convenient lengths, together with plates of beef and yam (the appetising odour of which pleasantly assails their nostrils) await them. With sparkling eyes they patiently wait - hungry - before these savoury viands, until Father Christmas gives the word for "Grace." All stand and sing in good time and tune their musical grace. The origin of this grace is lost in the mist of hoary antiquity. The words are, we believe, very beautiful, full of a grateful, tender pathos, breathing a spirit of praise and thanks giving - but no articulate word, spoken of modern tongue, has ever been identified by the profoundest philologist within the memory of man. The music is of a severe and touching simplicity, and is more modem than the words - Ah! but the spirit is there. We cannot doubt but that to the mind of these poor creatures this musical grace conveys some impression of benefits conferred upon them, doubtless many respond with grateful hearts.

So under the benignant gaze of Father Christmas, the patients like obedient children, set to work to absorb their Christmas dinner. Everything quiet and orderly from the first mouthful of yam to the end of the teeth-stripped truncheons of sugar cane. Then enter two men in the new uniform of the institution Brown Calico - with red collars and cuffs (Father Christmas invent et del.) These men bear a mysterious box, veiled from profane eyes by a covering sweeping the ground (sensation.) Every eye turned towards the box. Every mind on the stretch. Father Christmas advances. Deep silence. Breathless excitement. (Pins are not allowed among the patients, but had there been any the sound of their dropping on the bricks would have been distinctly audible. Father Christmas, la. - " A venerable old gentleman called last night and left this box with me, saying that it contained some nice little lucky bags for the good boys and girls of the Asylum. (Sensation.) " Now let us see what it contains." 

A pious fiction, but Lord bless you, even their clouded minds were not imposed on. Didn't they know him? Who but Father Christmas would have thought of them?


There was not one who did not know full well that Father Christmas himself had brought that magic box. Off with the veil. Some of the patients are stationed on each side to receive and pass the lucky bags to those for whom they are destined. We noticed two particularly. Among the men a bright eyed coolie, whose keen and flashing glance followed every movement of the distributing hands and who took the packages, entrusted to him, to their respective owners with the dexterity and rapidity of a Parisian waiter in a cafe on the Boulevards. The other a pleasant faced girl with a neat cotton print frock and ribbon decked hair, whose quiet, happy smile and intelligent expression conveyed not the slightest sign of mental derangement.


And now a pleasant scene is before us. Every one is delighted with the contents of those mysterious bags. Here a man withdraws a nice mounted pipe, a plug of tobacco, a paper containing candy. One being of musical turn, who had made for himself a flute from a piece of bamboo, was delighted to extract from multitudinous wrappings a brand new, real flute!


Any how the pious fiction of the benevolent old gentlemen who brought the box has not imposed upon him, for looking up at Father Christmas with a quiet happy smile, he said simply, "Thank you doctor," but look! here is a nice looking old lady with flowers in her hair and a scarlet ribbon round her neck quietly happy with a flaxen haired, wax doll.


While all round the table you see eyes sparkling with pleasure, as eager fingers abstract one by one from those wonderful bags necklaces, earrings, brooches, bangles, and the ever present pocket of sweets.


Did you notice one incident during the dessert? It told a story and conveyed a lesson.


The quick eye of the Commander (Father C.) detected one of the men pocketing the oranges. A very small crime. Yes, but an offence against the rules. It is above all things necessary that discipline should be maintained. A word from Father C. and without a murmur, without the slightest sign of resistance, the unfortunate stoops, takes his hat from beneath the table, rises, steps over the form and accompanied by an attendant leaves the festive scene for the seclusion of the wards. It comforted us when Father C. told us that his oranges and sugar cane at which he cast a Parthian glance as he left the table, would afterwards be sent to him in his ward. It is by such quiet calm observance of small things, that Father C. avoids the necessity of heavy punishment for great offences. This is the reason of his magic influence. This makes a look or a sign from him more efficacious than a strait jacket to an unruly patient. Even in the refractory ward the strait jacket is never known, and such is the moral force exercised over the most violent lunatic by Father C. that that padded room has been consigned to the limbo of forgotten things. Well; what do you think of Father Christmas at the Jamaica Lunatic Asylum? Oh! Ah! I promised to introduce you to Father Christmas. Permit me to present my friend Smith. Smith, old man, this is Father Christmas and his name is Dr. MACCORMACK acting Superintendent and Director of the Jamaica Lunatic Asylum. A Happy New Year to him. 


I haven't been able to find more information on Dr MacCormack so far; though he appears to have still been in Jamaica towards the end of the 1890s.


A doctor's house at the Asylum c1906










Xmas '04

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