Artifact of the Month

October 2011

Utica Crib


The Artifact of the Month for October is a wooden Utica Crib, a restraining device used during the 19th century in mental institutions.


Psychiatry has come a long way since the 19th century, when psychiatrists little understood how to treat mental illnesses and utilized numerous techniques that in the present day we would consider cruel.  However, at the time when it was used, the Utica Crib was considered more humane than other forms of restraints for patients in mental institutions.


Today we can look at this artifact as an educational tool that shows us how far the field of psychiatry has come.  This Utica Crib can inform a present day audience and illustrate the history of medical practices from the past.


The reason this device is called a Utica Crib is because it was invented at the Utica State Hospital, (originally called the New York State Lunatic Asylum) which opened in Utica, New York in 1843.  It was New York’s first state-run facility to care for mentally ill patients and was one of the first such institutions in the United States.


Use of the “Utica Crib” began in the 1840s at Utica, but spread throughout the United States to other mental institutions.  It was widely used in the 19th century to confine patients. 


Prior to the development of psychoanalysis and psychiatric medications, doctors had a limited understand or know how to treat mental disorders.  Doctors attempted a variety of treatments and would subdue a patient and restrain them for their own protection, the protection of other patients and themselves. 


Some Utica cribs were made out of wood, some iron. Literally shaped like a crib, the sides and lid were made of spindles, which allowed airflow. The difference was the Utica Crib was adult-sized and had a lid, which could be fastened over the patient. The person restrained could not sit up nor get out. The bottom was cushioned with layers of straw. Additionally, the crib could be suspended with chains and rocked to calm the patients.  The idea behind it was to give the patient a place to rest in a secure, protected space.


Dr. Amariah Brigham, the first superintendent of Utica Hospital, believed the "insane" needed moral and medical treatment and he used rest, quiet, seclusion, diet and care as cures.  He promoted non-restraint, there were no dungeons or chains at Utica, and he found existing types of restraints for highly disturbed patients unacceptable.  He invented the Utica Crib for use as what he considered a more humane restraint.  The Utica Crib design was based on a similar device that was being used in asylums in France during the 1840s.


Leon Clements, current Western Illinois Museum Advisory Board member and one of the driving forces behind the formation of the museum, vividly recalls acquiring the Utica Crib for the museum.  “I was on a trip to the State Surplus Warehouse in Springfield, and spotted the crib in storage there.  I knew right away that it would be a significant addition to the museum collection. I knew it was a one-of-a-kind item, and that we wanted it for the museum.  Something like that would be educational.” 


Clements got the Utica Crib and brought it to the third floor of Sherman Hall, where, as Director of Auxiliary Services of Western Illinois University, he had established a museum exhibition area.  When the museum opened in 1974 to the public, the Utica Crib was a featured display and was exhibited for many years.


Because the Utica Crib was in the State Surplus Warehouse in Springfield, Clements feels certain that it must have been removed from one of the State Hospitals in Illinois.  


One possible location the crib could have come from is the Peoria State Hospital, also known as Bartonville State Hospital, and was once called the Illinois Hospital for the Incurable Insane. 


The Peoria State Hospital closed in 1973, therefore it might be possible that when it was closed, items were removed from there, and sent to the State Surplus Warehouse, where Clements discovered the Utica Crib, sometime around 1974.  The timing fits for this to be the hospital that once had this Utica Crib. Other evidence also points to this hospital as the probable source of the museums’ Utica Crib.


Located in Bartonville, near Peoria, the Peoria State Hospitals’ first patients arrived in 1902.  The innovative superintendent, Dr. George Zeller in 1905 ordered all bars and mechanical restraints removed from all of the buildings there.  In 1908, he established a display of restraints in the institution library.  Photographs from the WIU Archives show restraints, straitjackets and a Utica Crib, very similar to the museums’ Utica Crib, on display at the Peoria State Hospital Library.


A photograph taken in 1952, for the Cleveland Press newspaper shows a Utica Crib very similar to the one owned by the museum, on display in the lobby of the Peoria State Hospital. The sign above the Utica Crib reads, "Utica Crib, once hailed as a triumph of the humane care of the mentally ill, a woman was confined to this crib for fourteen years in an Illinois institution. Twenty-six of these abominations were used in Illinois state hospitals. This kind of restraint was banned in 1905.”


Presumably, the Utica Crib owned by the museum is one of the twenty-six once used in one of the state hospitals in Illinois.   It might be probable that it is the one that belonged to the Peoria State Hospital, because it is known that that one was kept on display at the hospital, and that the hospital closed in 1973.  After closing, it seems probable that the Utica Crib would have been sent to the State Surplus Warehouse.


Another possible location where the museum’s Utica Crib could have come from is the Elgin State Hospital, the Annex was demolished in the 1970s and items from there could also have been removed to the State Surplus Warehouse.


Angela Goebel-Bain, Asstant Curator for Decorative Arts at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, notes that there are no Utica Cribs held in any of the collections in the Illinois State museum system.  It can be presumed that there are probably very few Utica Cribs in Illinois, and there are very few preserved in museums nationwide.  Where this Utica Crib was exactly used, we may never know for sure.  Now it is preserved at the museum as a reminder from the past when doctors struggled to treat patients with the knowledge they had at the time. 


From an essay by Heather Munro