Lives of ‘misery, sadness & terror’

A look inside the ‘intimidating, cold and severe’ halls of the Rockwood Insane Asylum: home to Kingston’s so-called ‘mentally disturbed’ for 100 years

The wide hallways of Rockwood were designed for patients to socialize.
The wide hallways of Rockwood were designed for patients to socialize.
Rockwood closed in 2000 and has been abandoned for the past six years.
Rockwood closed in 2000 and has been abandoned for the past six years.
Supplied photo by Marni Van Dyk
An aerial shot of the Rockwood Insane Asylum, circa 1920. The building has been empty since closing in 2000.
An aerial shot of the Rockwood Insane Asylum, circa 1920. The building has been empty since closing in 2000.
Courtesy of The Medical Records at the Archives of Ontario

Close your eyes and imagine the place you call home surrounded by austere brick walls and windows covered with iron bars. You’re cut off from contact with even your closest family members and forced to subsist in a cell barely big enough to hold a single bed.

It might seem hard to fathom, but this was the familiar life for hundreds of Kingston residents and relocated inmates from the Provincial Penitentiary in the 19th century. These men and women called
the Rockwood Insane Asylum— which sits on the grounds of the Providence Continuing Care Centre, at 752 King Street West— home from 1859 until 1959, when it became a facility for those with mental disabilities.

Jennifer McKendry, an architectural historian who has done extensive research into the building, said the asylum has been abandoned since closing six years ago.

“The building closed in 2000 and has been for sale since then,” she said. “It is a difficult building,
because it was planned to treat the mentally ill, the layout isn’t great for modern use.” McKendry, who has toured the building, called it intimidating, cold, and severe. “Inside, it is very institutional in the worst sense of the word: intimidating, conforming,” she said. “Where people slept, you walk though a locked door and into a long, wide hallway, with doors coming off each side leading into individual rooms.” Bedrooms measured 3 by 3 meters, large enough for a single bed and wardrobe. Room doors included a wicket for the transfer of food, and wide hallways were meant to be social areas for patients. McKendry said every aspect of the building is designed with a specific purpose, including its
location—as far away from the street as possible. “The facility sits far into the grounds, and the designers said it was because they didn’t want the patients to be scared or disturbed looking out at people in the city,” she said. “But really, ordinary folk wanted to be as far away from these ‘deviants’ as possible. “Why would you need to protect patients from seeing society and other people if you wanted to reintroduce them to the community one day?”

The asylum, commissioned by then-Upper Canada premier Sir John A. Macdonald, was designed by William Coverdale after initial layout plans by another firm were rejected. McKendry said the first layout was scrapped because it was considered “too regressive and prison-like.”“An architectural firm was initially hired and called the bedrooms ‘cells.’ When another firm was hired, led by William Coverdale, he renamed them ‘dormitories’ because he thought that these people could be cured,” she said. “That was the intent of the facility.” The institution, which was meant to rehabilitate insane inmates as well as Kingston residents labeled “mentally disturbed,” was built by the very convicts it intended to help, to save the province money on construction costs.

In an article on the asylum, “An ideal hospital for the insane?,” published in the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC ) Bulletin, McKendry writes that gangs of convicts were sent from the penitentiary to work at the site on a daily basis. The inmates lived in the basement of the penitentiary dining hall until work on the asylum was complete and they could be relocated.

Patients were moved in gradually from 1859 until 1870. According to McKendry, horse stables on the
land were used to house female patients until a new wing was added onto the facility in 1868.

Once completed, Rockwood Asylum was home to 300 patients, including prisoners, lepers, and
“promiscuous women” deemed mentally unwell. McKendry said the attitude towards the patients in the 19th century may seem outdated, but it still exists today. “Of course, the scope of people who were considered insane was much larger than it is today. People with leprosy, promiscuous women, were institutionalized, and thereare still echoes in how we treat or think about people today,” she said. “The Penrose Building was home to mentally delayed people only six years ago, we still put these people
into institutions.” Over the years, administrative documents cited by Edgar-Andre Montigny from Trent University in his research on Rockwood show the demographics of the asylum changing, as elderly members of the community were brought in by their families. One administrative log refers to the asylum as “no longer a hospital for the insane, but a veritable ‘Home for the Incurables’.”

According to Montigny, 4,204 patients were admitted to Rockwood between 1866 and 1906, and 7.4 per cent of them were older than 60. In his research, Montigny writes that most of those admitted to Rockwood died there, including 58 per cent of the elderly population.

McKendry lamented the lonely lives she said must have been led behind asylum doors.

“I’m sure there are thousands of miserable, sad stories,” she said. “Imagine yourself, you go out to that building, stand there, and think: you are ill, your family or loved ones have driven you out there in a carriage and dropped you off with a satchel and now you have to live there.
“There must have been lives of misery, sadness and terror.”


Joseph Judd was born in England in 1832 and moved to Toronto to work as a cabinet-maker. Judd and his wife, Emily, had two daughters. When he was 49, Joseph was admitted to the Rockwood Insane Asylum and diagnosed with Paresis, a mental disorder resulting from untreated syphilis. What follows are excerpts from Judd’s patient records.

Patient Number 1643

“Has been insane about two years, getting worse gradually. Has a great desire to wander about. Imagines he owns a great deal of property and money … He has often got up in the night and wandered off without any object. He has been unable to do his work and since that he has tried to work at home but could never do it properly.”

Aug. 1, 1884

“Has been maniacal for a few days and very aphasic [lacking speech]... Last night [the] patient named Ohaiboneau struck Judd with a chamber pot and cut his head terribly.”

Judd’s condition gradually worsened, including epileptic convulsions and paralysis of the throat muscles. He died when he was 50, in the asylum on June 27, 1885. Judd, like other deceased patients, was buried in an unmarked “asylum” plot in the Cataraqui Cemetery.


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