A tan banker’s box labeled st. es sits on a shelf in the archives at Walter Reed’s National Museum of Health and Medicine. The box is filled with dozens of 4-by-5-inch glass slides from the nation’s first and only federally funded asylum for the mentally ill. Set against a light board, the fragile plates illuminate haunting scenes. A woman, hunched on the floor, holds herself with her head lowered in retreat. Two elderly men pose in the sun in their wheelchairs. There are portraits showing patients with their eyes blotted out or the outlines of their heads carefully snipped away. Diagrams map the suspected causes of problematic behavior as they were once understood (homosexuality, for example, is linked to masturbation and incest).
A few scribbled notes are the only clues to the stories they tell. Smaller boxes are labeled transvestism and sexual psychopath. They include photographs of famous transvestites like Valerie Arkell-Smith, a London lady who posed as a colonel and married a woman in the ’20s. A box marked foreign bodies contains X-ray images with keys, hooks, and rings outlined in the blank spaces of stomach cavities, and a carefully arrayed collection of dozens of items one patient swallowed (a current St. Elizabeths pathologist who has seen the patient’s file vouches for the inventory’s accuracy). Many pictures of patients and staff appear to date to the turn of the 20th century. The most recent images, likely from the ’40s, feature posed group photos of recuperating patients in the woodshop or gathered around a piano.
The slides offer a glimpse into St. Elizabeths’ past. Even the people with the closest knowledge of the local asylum—a few current and former employees who’ve become obsessed with the institution’s history—didn’t know the images existed until they were recently rediscovered.