Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

Ella, Asbury and the State Hospital at Morganton: From Social and Institutional to Personal History

Every day of the year somebody’s brain reels.

Splendid as is our civilization, insanity, and intemperance, its foremost proximate cause, are its dark shadows which follow its march with ever-deepening gloom wherever it goes. They appear at our firesides, at our altars, and in our most sacred seats, like the skeletons at the Egyptian feasts, as if to mock us.

Annual Report of the Board of Directors and the Superintendent of the North Carolina Insane Asylum [Raleigh], November 30, 1884

Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, Morganton NC [after 1890, State Hospital at Morganton. Postcard from 1920s. North Carolina Postcard Collection, UNC Library

Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, Morganton NC [after 1890, State Hospital at Morganton]. Postcard from 1920s. North Carolina Postcard Collection, UNC Library

Gaps in the Family Records

It’s not exactly a needle-in-a-haystack problem, but writing on Asbury or Ella between about 1885 and their moves to Asheville (1900, 1907) is a bit like trying to figure out–especially in the absence of the pivotal 1890 census–what a prehistoric animal looked like from a few long-disconnected bones and a tooth or two.

Like male members of Ella’s family, those in Asbury’s family (as pre-1890 census reports reveal) were farmers of modest means, most with sizeable families.  Asbury’s father Jackson Pinkney was one of the many Golden Valley/Whiteside farmers.  Thus it seems likely that Asbury and his brothers “Doc,” Daily and Charley helped out on his family’s farm during the approximately twenty-two years before he is reported to

BlueBackedSpeller_TP_DigLibPittbe working for the State Hospital at Morganton (before 1890, called the Western North Carolina Insane Asylum) in late 1894.  Beyond this, I have discovered no facts about his pre-adult life except that (as noted in the 1940 census) he attended school through eighth grade.

For years I had his old Noah Webster Blue-Back Speller, but it has long since disappeared. Indeed, it would have been odd if Asbury had not had a copy, since virtually every school child did. First published in 1783 (come in, Wikipedia), it went through 385 editions before Webster died in 1843, and by 1890 had sold sixty million copies.


Lenoir in 1874, five years after Ella’s birth on nearby Lower Creek. Caldwell Heritage Museum.

We also know little about Ella between her birth in 1869 and her own employment at the asylum, beginning sometime before August 1895, when she was in her mid-twenties.  What had she done before then?  Had she worked outside the home?  Helped with “keeping house,” as the census usually put it?  How much schooling did she get?  We don’t know, and the census is of little help: the 1880 census occurred when she was only eleven. I have found no record of her having married before she married Asbury in 1907 at age thirty-eight.

Fortunately, the history of the State Hospital, a few bits of data from the 1900 census, and scattered newspaper items about the Hospital turn out to be revealing.  These sources tell us almost all of what we know of Ella herself before 1907.  To compensate a bit for the lack of detailed information, I will also sketch some salient aspects of the world she and her peers grew up in during the closing third of the century.

The Coming of Asylums and Mental Hospitals

European precursors of institutions for mentally ill  people (“mad men,” “lunatics,” “the insane” they were called) appeared in medieval times, but by the early eighteenth century there were still few of them.  In the American colonies, Pennsylvania Hospital had a section for the insane by 1752, and the first public mental hospital, Virginia’s Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, admitted its first patients in 1768.

Soon after they began to appear, such institutions came under criticism on humanitarian grounds (e.g., filth, neglect, brutal, abusive treatment of patients, purely custodial care).  That criticism informed the creation of state mental hospitals beginning in the 1840s (such as New York’s Utica State Hospital in 1843).

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, dozens of mental hospitals were built

Kirkbride, On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane (1854), showing the typical Kirkbride staggered-wing arrangement. Wikipedia.

Kirkbride, On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane (1854), showing the typical Kirkbride staggered-wing arrangement. Wikipedia.

on the Kirkbride Plan (1854), an architectural model that emphasized and facilitated “Moral Treatment” of mentally ill patients.  The Western North Carolina Insane Asylum was a Kirkbride institution.

Dorothea Dix's Memorial Soliciting a State Hospital for the Protection for the Protection and Cure of the Insane, Submitted to the General Assembly of North Carolina, November 1848. DocSouth

Dorothea Dix’s Memorial Soliciting a State Hospital for the Protection and Cure of the Insane, Submitted to the General Assembly of North Carolina, November 1848. DocSouth

As early as 1825, and twice more (1838 and 1844) the North Carolina legislature considered building a state asylum, but not until the indefatigable reformer Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887), already successful in Massachusetts, delivered her Memorial Soliciting a State Hospital for the Protection and Cure of the Insane (1848) to the North Carolina General Assembly was there movement.  Dix came, she told the Assembly,

as the advocate of those who cannot plead their own cause . . . , as the friend of those who are deserted, oppressed, and desolate. . . .  I am the voice of the maniac whose piercing cries from the dreary dungeons of your jails penetrate not your Halls of Legislation.  I am the Hope of the poor crazed beings who pine in the cells, and stalls, and cages, and waste rooms of your poor-houses.  I am the Revelation of hundreds of wailing, suffering creatures, hidden in your private dwellings, and in pens and cabins–shut out, cut off from all healing influences, from all mind-restoring cares.

North Carolina Asylum for the Insane. North Carolina Illustrated (1857)

North Carolina Asylum for the Insane [Raleigh]. D. H. Strother, “North Carolina Illustrated,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine XIV (March 1857), 157.

North Carolina’s first mental

institution, named for Dorothea Dix, opened in Raleigh in 1856, and quickly became overcrowded.  Those conditions led to establishing the North Carolina Asylum for the Colored Insane in Goldsboro (1880).  Another one–for the western end of the state (mainly Buncombe, Burke and Watauga counties)–opened in Morganton  in 1883.

The brief history of this latter hospital that follows–and especially of its pioneering nursing program, from which Ella Austin was an early graduate–draws substantially upon Megan Norman’s senior honors thesis (2005), and Carrie Streeter‘s M.A. thesis (2011).

Western North Carolina Insane Asylum / State Hospital at Morganton

The Western North Carolina Insane Asylum was designed by Philadelphia institutional architect Samuel Sloan (who had designed many residences and public buildings in North Carolina since the 1850s).  It was built on (initially) about 300 acres of land outside Morganton.

Architectural drawing of Western Insane Asylum, Morganton, ca. 1880? Illustrated Guide Book of the Western North Carolina Railroad (1882). North Carolina Collection, UNC-CH. The asylum opened in 1883.

Architectural drawing of Western Insane Asylum, Morganton, ca. 1880? Illustrated Guide Book of the Western North Carolina Railroad (1882). North Carolina Collection, UNC-CH. The asylum opened in 1883.

Typically for public projects after the Civil War–and paradoxically for the Dix-inspired humane purpose of the Morganton asylum, the construction labor force included convicts from the state prison system.  We will explore this matter further in a future post on the Swannanoa Tunnel, also built with convict labor (“that’s my home, baby . . . “).  But for the moment: U. S. Commissioner of Labor Carroll Wright’s  nationwide investigation of convict labor in the early 1880s counted some 1,100 convict laborers in North Carolina.  Forty were on “public account” helping to build the governor’s mansion, and forty more were making brick; 644 were leased out for railroad construction (“. . . all caved in, baby, all caved in”).

When its magnificent brick building opened in 1883, the Asylum had three wings: one for administration, one for female patients and another for males.  One hundred of its initial 183 patients arrived by train from the Raleigh asylum.  Their arrival was major news in a town of only about 400 people (around which many new textile mills would soon spring up, bringing with them–as many a commentator has pointed out–new social, mental and physical health problems).

At the beginning, a general call went out asking that the asylum be informed about local people likely to need its services.  It was soon clear, however, that demand for the newly

Query concerning possible patients for WNC Insane Asylum. Morganton Public Library

Query concerning possible patients for WNC Insane Asylum. Morganton Public Library

available services would be so heavy that actively seeking patients would not be necessary.

Lacking such a facility, mentally disturbed people had previously had to remain with families ill-prepared to care for them, or were shuffled off to jails, workhouses, “the poor house,” or “the county home.”

As early as September 1878, in fact, the nearby Lenoir Topic commented on the “fearful outrages” of asylum abuses under then-current Pennsylvania law, which allowed legions of people to be sent summarily to “mad-houses” on the word of a compliant physician or “whenever it may suit the whims or interests of relatives, guardians or others,” who found their continued presence in homes and communities to be bothersome or dangerous.

To avoid such abuses in the projected Morganton asylum, potential patients were first carefully screened by local physicians, who documented family composition and drinking or insanity in the family; the patient’s physical condition and any narcotic use; history of epilepsy, delusions, delirium tremens (“the DTs”); dangerous or destructive behavior and the use of restraints; prior treatment and any aid received from the home county; and property ownership.

Patrick L. Murphy (1848-1907), Superintendent 1883-1907. North Carolina Government and Heritage Library, via NCpedia.

Patrick L. Murphy (1848-1907), Superintendent 1883-1907. North Carolina Government and Heritage Library, via NCpedia.

The institution’s first superintendent was Patrick N. Murphy, a native of Sampson County, who had been Assistant Physician at the Western Virginia Asylum in Staunton.

Susan Milner’s NCpedia article synopsizes Murphy’s guiding principles. Instead of condemning people considered untreatable and incurably “insane” to restraint devices and custodial care, Murphy emphasized humane treatment in a humane environment (good food, single-occupancy rooms, light and air), and occupational and other restorative therapy–much of it “healthful work” in the institution’s farm, dairy, and gardens.

But as Megan Norman’s work shows, these humane provisions could themselves be problematic.  All patients, male or female, were to be treated “humanely,” but that meant different things for males and females. The layout of the hospital grounds, types of supervision, and daily activities, Norman discovered from hospital records,

tended to reinforce the cultural assumption that women in particular needed to be taken care of. . . .  [They] generally remained hospitalized for longer periods than men, . . . were more likely to be admitted after shorter illnesses, for less serious causes, and during their childbearing years. In addition, the reasons given . . . for admission often seemed to reflect an inability to handle ordinary pressures of life.


Dr. Butts’s Married Life and Single Life books. Lenoir Topic, June 1, 1878


Opium and morphine habit cure. Lenoir Topic, June 1, 1878. Opium, an addictive substance either by itself or mixed with other substances, had been widely used to relieve pain during the Civil War.

Streeter’s tabulation of causes for admission during the hospital’s first fifteen years accords agrees with Norman’s contention.


Morganton Herald, February 16, 1899

Such a gendered distribution, as both Streeter and Norman point out, was congruent with the increased medicalization of women’s bodily processes and cycles, the medical and popular association of female reproductive organs with insanity (“hysteria”), and increased marketing of patent medicines for “female complaints.”

While a large percentage of both men’s and women’s insanity was judged to have stemmed from vague “ill health,” and in a few cases from “excessive venery” (sexual activity), women’s more often derived from “domestic trouble,”  “uterine disease,” “puerpery” and “superlactation” (both childbirth related), and menopause.  Men’s insanity (more often than women’s) was charged to “intemperance,” epilepsy, “excessive use of opium,” “religious excitement,” or “blow on head.”Clearly, in some ways the hospital was ahead of its culture, but in others it was not.

These issues notwithstanding, within the asylum’s first decade virtually all press reports had been positive.  Just after Christmas in 1892, some Asheville Daily Citizen writers took a “basement to roof” tour (guided by the Superintendent) of the “scrupulously neat, restful, and home-like” facility.  They effused over the “splendid realization of the hopes” of its early proponents: tasteful grounds laid out on 500-acre site, greenhouses (“a sight never equaled for loveliness outside of the very best greenhouses”). A Christmas dinner (including 620 loaves of bread) was being prepared from “wagon loads of turkeys”–to be served in a dining room “as pretty as any hotel dining room in the state . . . [and] a triumph of the decorator’s art.”

Elsewhere, twenty-five patients were operating a mechanized laundry,  and huge fans were wafting the “purest mountain air” through the rooms.  Patients (some sitting contentedly outside their immaculate rooms, some babbling and morose) were being tended by “skilled nurses [with] practiced hands,” and a model barn housed Gurnsey and Holstein cattle.  And all without asking the state for a dime beyond the facility’s usual modest appropriation.

Men's House, ca. 1906. Patrick L. Murphy Papers, UNC Library

Men’s House, ca. 1906. Patrick L. Murphy Papers, UNC Library

After 1894, Streeter points out, Murphy was able to secure funds for cottage-size buildings housing only thirty or so female patients.  In March 1899 the Lenoir Topic reported that funds had been appropriated for a building for a farm-based “colony system” for males that was already being used in other progressive institutions.

As the years passed, the hospital grew dramatically. Within three years, two new wings were under construction, raising capacity to 500.  By 1906, when the photo below was made, it was a great, sprawling hospital.

State Hospital at Morganton, 1896. Documenting the American South.

State Hospital at Morganton, 1896. Documenting the American South.



By 1907, there were 1,256 patients.  Eventually–as patient Harper Bonds’s 1914 painting shows–there were sixty-seven buildings on 450 acres, and more than 3,500 patients.

Painting of hospital by patient Harper Bond, 1914. From Carrie Streeter M.A. thesis. p. 3.

Painting of hospital by patient Harper Bond, 1914. Via  Carrie Streeter.

In some respects, it turns out, the hospital’s best years were already behind it by the time Supt. Murphy died unexpectedly in 1907–the last year Ella Austin worked there as a nurse. State funds were tightened, Murphy’s guidance was no longer available, care slipped back toward a custodial model, and medical interventions (e.g., lobotomies) entered the treatment regimens.  Some aspects of the rise and decline are evident in the history of its nursing program.

The Nursing Program in Context, 1860-1900

Superintendent Murphy established the State Hospital nurse training program in 1895, close to the time that both Ella Austin and Asbury Whisnant came to work at the hospital. It was a propitious moment in terms of not only the history of nursing (to which I return below; see North Carolina Nursing Timeline 1861-1946), but also–running parallel to that history–of the broad social and cultural changes that impacted women’s identities, social and domestic roles, dress, education and work, and personal freedom.

The Nineteenth Amendment that at long last recognized women’s right to vote still lay twenty-five years in the future, but the nationwide drive for women’s rights was already a century old (timeline), and the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association was formed in Asheville in 1894.

Women’s post-secondary education had developed much earlier, and fared better than these sweeping efforts.  Some women’s colleges in North Carolina (“college” used very

Foster A. Sondley, Asheville and Buncombe County (1922), p. 44.

Foster A. Sondley, Asheville and Buncombe County (1922), p. 44.

generically here) did not last long, but many were established (some private, some by religious denominations) after the turn of the nineteenth century, and especially after the Civil War (see timeline).  Asheville Female College (earlier, Holston [Methodist] Conference Female College) , to take one early example, opened in 1842.

The creation of these institutions was evidence of widespread (though still by no means universal) feeling that the time had come to educate women for new lives and roles. Reprinting an article from the Jewish Messenger in mid-June 1889, the (oddly-named) progressive North Carolina newspaper The Caucasian put the matter succinctly:

The time has passed for regarding a woman as unsexing herself if she becomes a bread winner.  The natural course of events forces a large number to work for their livelihood . . . . The new fields opening for women’s work signify not new links for the olden slavery, but new . . . opportunities for human betterment . . . [and] human happiness.

The point here is that as a woman, Ella Austin (b. 1869) would almost certainly have been aware of the emerging shift of public opinion on education for women.  And from her mid-teens onward there were actually a number of women’s colleges fairly nearby: in Hickory, Charlotte (photo at right), Statesville, and elsewhere.

Lenoir Topic, June 23, 1886

Lenoir Topic, June 23, 1886

Closer home, Davenport Female College opened in 1858 in Ella’s hometown of Lenoir.  It remained open during the Civil War until it was vandalized during Stoneman’s Raid.  It burned to the ground in 1877, despite the heroic effort of local African-American residents, but was  quickly rebuilt and remained open until it closed during the Depression in 1933.

Art students, Davenport Female College, 1890.

Art students, Davenport Female College, 1890.





Davenport would therefore have been re-opened and functioning by the time Ella was, say, eighteen years old (1887).

I had never heard anything at all about her ever having gone to college; no one in the family ever mentioned it.  Very belatedly, however, I noticed in the “Census Data” section of her entry for the 1940 census in the Whisnant Surname Center this notation: “age 70, m[arrie]d, completed 1 year of college.”  Checking back on the not easily legible 1940 manuscript census sheet–tweaked a bit on Photoshop, I could see the code C-1 in the education column.  And the National Archives data on that census did indeed say C-1 meant one year of college.  So yes, apparently Ella did go to college for a year.  And where might that have been? Davenport seems by far the most probable.  But where she went for sure, what she did there, and why she stayed only one year, is a mystery.

Part of the problem for any woman of the period who may have wanted to go to college was that the culturally-ingrained and -normalized “womanly” virtues of  piety, purity, submission and domesticity (later dubbed the Cult of Domesticity or of True Womanhood, were still much in evidence.

To take but one example: Women’s clothing in the 1880s marked–among other things–how far they would have to move to achieve the autonomy and freedom necessary to pursue professional careers just beginning to emerge.

Charlotte Female Institute Students, 1887-1888.

Charlotte Female Institute Students, 1887-1888.

Consider a section of this photo of the Charlotte Female Institute students:

Closeup of Charlotte Female Institute students, 1887-1888

Closeup of Charlotte Female Institute students, 1887-1888

On picture-taking day, clothing may have been somewhat more formal than usual, but in any case: Dresses were full-length (or nearly so) and high-necked.  Arms were covered, and hair is up.  Waist-to-hip and -upper-body ratios make corsets seem likely.

The widely-read, upscale Godey’s Lady’s Book (1830-1898), with 150,000 readers in the 1870s, fawned over the latest designs from Paris, but this image of a fashionably attired woman from the December 1888 issue would not have been unfamiliar to most women:

Godey's Lady's Book, December 1888

Godey’s Lady’s Book, December 1888

In 1888, Ella Austin would have been nineteen years old.  What she and her friends wore (and whatever it was, parental approval would have been required) we do not know for sure.  But as a presumably respectable young lady from Lenoir (not by any means a backward place, judging from the newspaper), she would probably have found this image familiar and worthy of emulation.

For women with less money there was Peterson’s Magazine (1842-1898), where women’s dresses were not of Parisian quality, but the paradigm was the same:

Every-Day dress. Peterson's Magazine, July-December 1888.

Every-Day dress. Peterson’s Magazine, July-December 1888.




The  point of this for my purpose is that in the 1880s and 1890s, when Ella would have been in her teens and twenties, women’s clothing– however colorful and (by contemporary standards) stylish–was bulky, confining and constraining, uncomfortable, and immobilizing.

More specifically, for the emerging corps of trained nurses these characteristics were especially problematic, since nurses’ uniforms (see class photo below) tracked the established paradigm.  Men who worked in mines, mills, factories or fields did not have to do so wearing starched high collars, spats, and stovepipe hats, but women who worked as nurses had to wear white or black versions of ball gowns.

Space does not permit me to outline the complicated history of nursing during and after the Civil War, or of nurse training thereafter–both histories by now carefully examined and widely written upon.  But a few links lead easily to abundant online resources for both North Carolina and the nation at large.

The timeline emerges just before the Civil War with Florence Nightingale’s Notes on

Civil War volunteer nurses. North Carolina Nurses: A Century of Caring.

Civil War volunteer nurses. North Carolina Nurses: A Century of Caring.

Nursing (1860)–an inspiration to the many volunteer nurses who served in that conflict.  Formal nurse training began soon thereafter, with New York City’s Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing–the first in the country (1873)–and the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in 1889.  By 1900 there would be more than 400 of them.

North Carolina’s first civilian hospital, St. Peter’s in Charlotte (white only) opened in 1876, and Good Samaritan (for African Americans) followed in 1891.

Good Samaritan Hospital for African Americans, Charlotte (1891). North Carolina Nurses: A Century of Caring.

Good Samaritan Hospital [for African Americans], Charlotte (1891). North Carolina Nurses: A Century of Caring.

Rex Hospital’s nursing school opened in Raleigh in 1894, Watts Hospital’s in Durham the next year, and St. Agnes for African Americans in Raleigh in 1896.

St. Agnes School of Nursing for African Americans, Raleigh, 1896. North Carolina Nurses: A Century of Caring.

St. Agnes School of Nursing [for African Americans], Raleigh, 1896. North Carolina Nurses: A Century of Caring.

The Morganton program was thus one among several new schools.

Thus training and licensing were slowly becoming available, but to become a socially and culturally attractive path for smart and ambitious young women, nursing had a long ways to go.  Streeter notes that of the eight nurses listed in the 1880 Morganton census, seven were black (at that time almost certainly without professional training) and the eighth was an eleven year-old white girl “in bond.” Thus their prospects were not better than those of most women, who had to accept work in textile mills (whites only) or tobacco factories (black women), or as secretaries, music teachers, seamstresses, laundresses, and cooks.

Streeter aptly observes that, besides responding to a manifest professional need, nurse-training programs appealed to doctors (access to middle-class workforce for lower-level tasks), hospital administrators (ditto, and lower staffing costs), and state legislators (reduced operating budgets).  Employment of trained nurses also “perpetuat[ed] the idea that women were natural caretakers, subordinate to the male hospital leaders, and willing to work for minimal monetary gain.”

Hence Supt. Murphy’s effort was on the leading edge of the emergence of professional nursing programs.  Drawn from local homes in which fathers were farmers and mothers kept house, the young nurses (men and women, it is crucial to note) were, Streeter emphasizes, the “first in their families to work in health care, . . . [and proved] instrumental in developing the hospital’s visibility and acceptance in rural western North Carolina, . . .  [and successfully implemented] the best-known therapeutic methods of the time.”

The program consisted–at least at the beginning–of lectures and clinical training, and appears to have been twelve months (or less) long. In March 1896, the Morganton Herald reported that eight nurses were enrolled.  Available evidence suggests that Ella Austin probably was in the first class of nurses:

Nurses’ training class, State Hospital at Morganton, probably 1895-1896 (although note on back says 1905). Superintendent Patrick Murphy third from L, front row. Ella Austin likely 2nd row, fourth from left. Patrick L. Murphy Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

Waltham nurse's watch, ca. 1895. Courtesy of Jean Johnson

Ella’s Waltham nurse’s watch, ca. 1895. Courtesy of Jean Johnson

As the photo above shows, uniforms were within the Godey’s Lady’s Book paradigm, and were adorned with a

Ella Austin Whisnant, 60 Brownwood Ave., West Asheville, ca. 1930. Note watch on bodice of dress. Courtesy of Norman Whisnant.

Ella Austin Whisnant, 60 Brownwood Ave., West Asheville, ca. 1930. Note watch on bodice of dress. Courtesy of Norman Whisnant.

gold Waltham nurse’s watch (as on the dress of the woman to L of Ella). Ella kept and wore hers throughout her life.

Asbury and Ella Whisnant with children, ca. 1916

Asbury and Ella Whisnant with children, ca. 1916.  Godey’s Lady’s Book-style dress, nurse’s watch on bodice.




The only photograph of nurses at work in the hospital I have encountered adds a few details about their duties and working environment:

Patient ward in main hospital, ca. 1900. Broughton Hospital archive via Carrie Streeter

Patient ward in main hospital, ca. 1900. Broughton Hospital archive via Carrie Streeter

Streeter concluded that “custodial aspects of care likely occupied most of the nurse’s daily work.”  The patients themselves spent their days doing (gendered) tasks necessary to keep the hospital operating: making clothing, canning food, doing laundry, and various farm chores.

In a Raleigh speech in 1900 (quoted here from Streeter), Supt. Murphy sketched the daily lives of patients, providing in the process a few more details about how the nurses spent their time.  The patients, he said,

lead regular, wholesome lives, too regular, I am afraid sometimes, for it is monotonous and wearying. Good officers and nurses have this to contend with constantly. The noisy and disturbed people are soothed by kind words, by allowing them, when possible, to use their surplus energy in work, by long walks, or amusements that take physical exercise. The timid and melancholy are brought forward and made to mix with others, to engage themselves in some way with reading, walking, etc. The helpless and infirm, those who have no minds, and merely vegetate, can only be kept clean—a difficult matter—their simple wants of being clothed and fed, their rooms made warm and light is all that can be done. . . .

Initial results with the nursing program were good.  By 1896, Streeter found, Murphy noted “significant improvement in patient care,” as he emphasized again in his 1897 report.  In the short term, the program grew, and apparently flourished.

The census of 1900 offered bits of demographic data on the program–at the time when Ella had been a part of it for about six years.  Enumeration took place on June 4 (by which time Asbury had been in Asheville for at least three months, so he was not listed), and included all employees and patients.  Nurses were designated as such in the Occupation column, but there was no indication (as there was in the 1910 census) of whether a particular nurse was trained or untrained.  Average age of the female nurses was 29.4, though one was only eighteen and several were in their forties and fifties. Ella was thirty-one.  All were white, single, and lived on the hospital grounds except for two married females and four married males who lived with families in town.

As it turned out, Ella’s first six or so years in the nursing program were better than the six or seven that followed.  Lacking a personal diary or letters, we don’t know why Ella chose to leave State Hospital in 1907.  But it seems reasonable to suppose that, as some problems developed in the nursing program around 1900 (to be explored in some detail in a subsequent post), she may have seen the handwriting on the wall.  And besides, she and Asbury Whisnant had apparently been talking for years of getting married.

Ella, Asbury and Asheville

Exactly how many years is unclear. The earliest mention Asbury being at the hospital I know of appeared in the October 4, 1894 Dysartsville Notes (from a small Rutherford County community near Golden Valley).  It reported that he was “substituting at the State Hospital.” Since the May 1897 “Hospital Notes” column of the Morganton Herald reported that he was visiting Golden Valley, and another in December 1898 said that he had “left for Asheville” (presumably on a visit), it seems likely that he remained at the hospital or about another year.

And what kind of work might he have done?  Despite family rumors that he may have worked somehow with patients, or may even have been offered an opportunity to go to medical school, I have encountered no evidence of either (again, we long for the missing 1890 census).  So if not working with patients, what?

More than seventy-five years after Asbury moved to Asheville, I interviewed my aunt Bertha (b. 1913) about a family story that is possibly related to the question of Asbury’s work at the hospital:

Somebody told me, I said to her,

I don’t know whether it was you or . . .  somebody [else], that when Granddaddy was working at Morganton there was some doctor who wanted to help him go to medical school or something like that.  What do you know about that?  Anything?

“Just what I was told,” she said,

He told me about this Dr. Thompson down there in Rutherford County that offered to help him through medical school if he would go, but evidently he just couldn’t see it.  I think my daddy could have, but I don’t know what his thinking was about it.

A possible clue may lie in his post-1900 employment in Asheville.  In July 1902, more than two years after he got there, the Morganton Herald‘s “Hospital Notes” column reported that Asbury (“a one time employee here”) was “now [a] conductor on the electric car line.”  The Whisnant Surname Center synopsis of 1880-1940 census data tagged him as a “saloon servant” in 1900, an electrician in 1910, and “conductor, street car” in 1920.  He may have worked briefly in a saloon when he first arrived in Asheville, but other evidence indicates that he was a street car conductor from early that year.

This leaves “electrician” accounted for.  Two possibilities: he may have gotten some experience as an electrician (or trainee) while employed at the hospital (the Lenoir Topic referred to the hospital’s “electric plant” as early as March 1891), or later with the (electrified) street railway company in Asheville before he became a conductor.

And what about Ella?  The first “Hospital Notes” mention of her as an employee was in August 1895; by March 1897 the Lenoir Topic said she had been “employed at the Hospital for some time.”  And she turns up several times later in the Herald‘s “Hospital Notes” through August 1904.

And how early did Ella and Asbury become interested in each other?  Lacking letters, diaries, or other such evidence, it is impossible to know for sure.  But in late June 1897, the Herald reported that Asbury and Ella had “made a flying trip” together overnight to visit her parents near Lenoir.  By then she had been working at the hospital for at least two years, and he probably had been there for nearly three, so they likely knew each other.  Another Herald report of July 17, 1902 (five years after the “flying trip”) said that Asbury (“at one time an employee here”) had recently “visited old friends” at the hospital.

One bit of evidence suggests that they may have known each other even before either


Lexington Dispatch, November 13, 1907.

worked there.  A week after their November 1907 marriage, the Lexington Dispatch reported that “After fourteen years of courting,” the two were married.  Fourteen years earlier would have been November 1893, nearly a year earlier than either is known to have been working at the hospital.  But about that end of the timeline, one can only guess.

What we do know for sure is that by census time in Asheville (June 1900), Asbury had been living there for several months, and that seven years later Ella married him and moved there.  In any case, my next post takes up the story with Asbury coming to Asheville early in 1900, and asks what sort of city it was then.

It had been twenty-five years since Christian Reid published “The Land of the Sky”: or, Adventures in Mountain By-Ways, and the great triangle of hotels, railroads, and tourist-oriented commerce had been promoting Asheville unceasingly. But Asbury was no tourist; he went there to get a job.  And in so doing, he encountered economic and  cultural boundaries he was never able to do more than straddle, and never entirely made his peace with.

At the city’s social and cultural center (and its highest elevation) stood the sprawlingly elegant Battery Park Hotel–the place to see and be seen on any grand occasion.  A 1900 Battery Park Hotel menu is as serviceable a boundary marker as one might happen across.

Battery Park Hotel dinner menu, 1900. Buttolph Collection of Menus. New York Public Library.

Battery Park Hotel dinner menu, 1900. Buttolph Collection of Menus. New York Public Library.

Asbury would have found the rice, mashed potatoes, turkey wings, boiled ham and lima beans familiar enough.  But the Caviar on Toast and Salmi of Wild Duck Bigarade were probably off-puttingly unfamiliar.  As for the soup course, he would probably have just passed on the Ox Tail with Barley vs. Consommé Xavier choice, as well as on the next exciting concert at the Grand Opera House.

Secure Tickets now at Office for Asheville Music Festival
Theodore Thomas Chicago Orchestra
Grand Opera House March 21st. and 22nd.


Robert G. Anthony Jr., Ruth E. Homrighaus and J. Field Montgomery Jr., “Psychiatric Hospitals,” NCpedia (2006);  Appalachian State University, North Carolina Nursing History (website); Charles L. Coon, North Carolina Schools and Academies, 1790-1840: A Documentary History (1915); Karen Gilliam, Librarian, Broughton Hospital [formerly Western NC Insane Asylum], Morganton NC; Patrick Murphy, Report of the Western North Carolina Insane Asylum at Morganton, North Carolina (1884, 1890); Megan Norman, A Community, A Permanent Asylum, A Refuge, and A Home –Broughton Hospital; Morganton, North Carolina 1883-1891 (Senior thesis; UNC Asheville 2005); William S. Powell (ed.), Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (1979-1996); Rachel Ryan, “The Gendered Geography of War: Confederate Women as Camp Followers” (M.A. thesis; California Polytechnic State University, 2011); Carrie Anne Streeter, “‘Let Me See Some Insane People’: Progressive-Era Development of the State Hospital at Morganton, 1883-1907” (M.A. thesis; Appalachian State University, 2012); U.S. Commissioner of Labor, Convict Labor (1886); Norman Whisnant, photographs; Richard and Elaine Whisnant, research materials and references.

2 thoughts on “Ella, Asbury and the State Hospital at Morganton: From Social and Institutional to Personal History

  1. Pingback: Glimpses into the Daily Lives of the Whisnants | Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. WhisnantAsheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

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