It was the largest asylum in the country, the first to perform lobotomies. These procedures were carried out in the tunnels of the vast hospital. After it closed, in rooms off the tunnels were found vials containing bits of brains from the lobotomies, and the study of the brain.
In 1839 Michigan’s Wayne County purchased 1000 acres of land for $800 in what was then Nankin Township (later renamed Westland).The site was chosen because it was far away from the city. On it they built the Wayne County Poorhouse. The first patient, Bridget Hughes, was 16 when she was admitted in 1842; she died there in 1895.
It became dumping grounds for people whose families couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of them, and for the vagrants, vagabonds and the poor, looking for a home with food and beds.
During the 1840’s there was no distinction made between rational and mentally ill patients. Harsh restraints were used to separate the population. Patients of all ages, sex, indigents and the rational were all kept huddled together. The mentally ill were housed on the second floor of a building used to hold pigs. For the first few years, people in the surrounding areas complained about hearing the roaring and shrieking cries of despair that was in discord with the squealing pigs.
On July 20th, 1894, a U.S. Post Office was established at the Wayne County House under the name “Eloise.” The real Eloise was the 4-year-old daughter of Freeman B. Dickerson, a Detroit postmaster who contributed to improving conditions in institutions for the poor. Mrs. Eloise Dickerson Davock died in 1982 at the age of 93.
A sewage plant was constructed in 1896 because the Rouge River was insufficient to carry away the nearly 80,000 gallons of sewage drained into it daily.
In 1934 the inmate population (not patients) numbered 8,300, about 50% of them mentally ill. People often had to bring their own mattresses in order to be housed there. Boredom was a major problem. Between waking and bed time the people sat and stared at the walls, at their feet and at the windows. Inmates who were given passes to leave the rounds were usually arrested and fined, or they simply disappeared.
Eloise grew into a city onto itself, with 75 buildings including a fire department, and a carpenter shop that doubled for a morgue. There was a greenhouse, dairy and pig farms, fire department, power plant, bakery, a post office and 3 cemeteries. The facility was renamed Wayne County General in 1945, but to the locals it would remain the infamous “Eloise”.
Throughout its boom years, when the complex was caring for as many as 8,000 patients daily, the facility was plagued by reports of patient beatings, employee theft, mismanagement, unsanitary conditions and inmates chained to walls. At one time 3,800 mental patients — including 300 with tuberculosis — were crammed into quarters designed for 2,500. As many as 125 women had to share five toilets.
By the ’50s, Eloise provided the newest forms of treatment for the mentally ill: calming hydrotherapy, sensory deprivation chairs, twirling chairs, steel cabinets in which staff would lock patients and then insert needles to put water directly in their skin, straitjackets, shackles, and the usual – lobotomies.
Eloise’s last patient left in 1979, and Eloise officially closed in 1981, a victim of financial problems and mental health care reform. Wayne County sold most of Eloise’s grounds to the Ford Motor Company and their developers. A radio control aeromodeling club uses some of the land, and the cemetery is located behind their gate. In that cemetery are the graves of between 7,000-8,000 people; their markers are a brick stone containing only a number.
It was a formable place; during its decaying and demolition period, the curious and workers at the site were convinced that the dead weep and walk within those wretched grounds. Maybe they still do – behind the cemetery fence.