Lunacy at St Elizabeths

A. David Moody

December 4, 2015 
The following is from A. David Moody’s third volume of his critical biography on Ezra Pound Ezra Pound: Poet: The Tragic Years 1939-1972. Moody is a Professor Emeritus of the University of York, and the author of the acclaimed Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet .

‘Criminal No. 76028’, as Pound was now officially known although he had been neither tried nor convicted, was removed in the late afternoon of 21 December to St Elizabeths Hospital for the Insane, ‘for treatment and examination’. There he was assigned to Howard Hall, the maximum security ward for the most dangerous and violent of the criminally insane. In the following weeks he would be subjected to a great deal of examination by the psychiatrists of St Elizabeths, but there would be no remedial treatment. He would be kept in that ward for more than a year, until 4 February 1947, with Overholser maintaining, so Cornell would report to Laughlin, that it was ‘an inflexible rule of the hospital to keep patients under indictment in Howard Hall which is the only completely guarded building’. It was Overholser’s hospital and he made the rules.

St Elizabeths had many buildings spread over its mile-wide site. It held ‘just under seven thousand’ patients, and ‘approximately fifty’ doctors serving directly under Overholser. Ida Mapel, writing to Dorothy Pound, made it seem a pleasant ‘place with extensive grounds . . . They have cows, gardens, etc. etc.’ It was the first federal hospital for the insane, built in the 1850s on a tract of land above the Anacostia River known as Saint Elizabeth, and with views across to the distant Capitol building. But Howard Hall was an isolated building of grim aspect, built in 1891 and designed as a prison for the criminally insane. It had ‘a high penitentiary wall’, rows of barred windows, one to each small locked cell, and a dry moat between the prison building and its wall. When Charles Olson visited he was ‘let in through a black iron door with nine peep holes cut in it in 3 horizontal rows’. Pound was shut up in a solitary cell with a similar door with peepholes through which he could be observed. His view through the barred window was of the high outer wall. His things had not been sent on from Gallinger, and for several weeks he would be without the books and manuscripts which had become his sole resource. At first he was not even let out for exercise in the crowded exercise yard, but he must have been with the violently insane at times since he said to Olson in early January, ‘There’s an Indian in my ward who talks all the time about killing people. Last night he got the number up to 10,000 he wanted to bump off.’ Visitors could be overwhelmed by the stench of stale sweat and urine, and there were the madhouse noises of uncontrollable outcries and shouted words. Pound would call it ‘the hell hole’, and compare it unfavourably with the DTC.

He was delivered to St Elizabeths about 5.30 p.m. on 21 December, registered as Case no. 58,102, and given a pre-admission examination by Dr Parker who happened to be on evening duty. Physical examination revealed ‘a well developed, well built, moderately well nourished, middle- aged white male whose general physical fitness appears excellent’. There was much more to the effect that ‘The lungs are clear to auscultation and percussion’, etc., etc. Neurological examination revealed normal reflexes, etc. etc. ‘The blood pressure is 134/82. The pulse is 80 per minute. The respirations are 18 per minute.’ So far the examination was thoroughly professional in its application of established tests and measurements. Then there were some simple questions to test the patient’s ‘orientation’. Did he know the date? ‘Patient replies, after a slight pause, “I believe it is some time after the 20th of December”, knows that Christmas has not yet occurred.’ Patient also ‘knows the name of the hospital, the place from which he has just been transferred, as well as the reason for the transfer’.

In fact, as the long and detailed report on the non-medical part of the examination reveals, the patient’s understanding of how and why he came to be there went well beyond the doctor’s comprehension, and beyond his competence. Invited to give a brief account of himself, Pound evidently let loose with everything that had happened to him since his arrest, together with the defence of his broadcasts that he was supposedly incapable of giving, and with an outline of his social, economic, and political philosophy complete with, or so it seemed to Dr Parker, ‘a voluminous bibliography of authors and their writings’. ‘At no time does he falter for lack of memory on any subject’, the doctor noted, ‘and tells his own story in a chronologically systematic fashion.’ However, he also exhibited ‘traits of egotism, intellectual haughtiness, dogmatism, and a tendency toward the belief that he is infallible and practically omniscient along certain lines of philosophy, economics and political science’. Dr Parker was not testing and measuring there, but merely dressing up his subjective reactions to make them appear scientific. Then, as Pound insisted that he had broadcast ‘with a sense of performing a patriotic duty’, and ‘with a sense of duty to humanity’, in attempting to acquaint the United States with the terrible destruction and waste in wealth and lives which it was causing by ‘wrecking Europe’, the doctor’s professional objectivity lapsed completely, and he wrote breathlessly into his report that ‘Apparently the patient is unaware or refuses to ignore [sic] the very bald fact that in carrying on his activities he was acting as a puppet who, because of the nature of his opinions, performed appropriately for the purposes of the Italian Fascist Government and with only a modicum of manipulation being necessary’. That was neither a professional nor an informed opinion, but it wore a white coat and would enter into the official record. Moreover, with a fine unconscious irony, the doctor remarked that ‘He speaks about the undemocratic processes in the American system but does not mention that he owes his present situation in a mental hospital to a democratic judicial system.’ Being observed and judged by doctors with conventional ideas and regular expectations would be a refinement of Pound’s hell.

It was probably the next day, the 22nd, that he wrote to Mary, dating the note ‘vers le noel’:

Dearest Child:

Tell your mother I bless the day I first saw her. & thank her for all the happiness she has brought me.

a gleam of hope now the sun is reborn.

Then turning the page sideways he wrote two lines from canto 47, (but with ‘Circe’s’ for ‘Ceres’ daughter’): ‘First must thou go the road to hell | & to the bower of Circe’s daughter Proserpine’. He was trying to give meaning and purpose to his descent into hell, and thinking of how Odysseus was sent by Circe to consult Tiresias who even in hell ‘yet hath his mind entire’. But the photograph taken for the hospital’s records on 26 December is the mugshot of a man unable to comprehend the hell he has got himself into, his eyes pleading without hope for help.

Yet when Charles Olson was allowed a fifteen-minute visit on 4 January he was struck by his surprising ‘eagerness and vigor as he came forward into the waiting room’, and the firmness and strength of his handshake. ‘Gallinger was better than this’, he said, but also that he ‘wanted something to do’. Olson kept blanking out anything at all political that Pound said, but could not resist ‘the charm and attraction of his person’,

For he is as handsome and quick and at work as ever. His jumps in conversation are no more than I or any active mind would make. Once in a while he seems to speak with an obsession, but even this I do, and at his age, after the fullness of his life, I imagine I might be a hell of a lot worse.

As he was leaving Howard Hall Olson was stopped and ‘formally interviewed’ by Dr Jerome Kavka, a very young trainee psychiatrist who had just been given charge of Pound. Olson expressed surprise ‘that the patient’s attorney had not yet visited the patient here’, and enquired after ‘the patient’s personal belongings not yet received from Gallinger Hospital’. Kavka noted that, but did nothing about it; and noted also that he felt Olson was making ‘a disguised plea for sympathy toward the patient’. The next day he began his ‘psychiatric examination’ of Pound—this would continue through the following three weeks with almost daily interviews probing into the patient’s family background and personal history.

For Pound these interviews meant a brief escape from the boredom of his cell and the hubbub of the ward, but at the cost of subjecting himself to the intrusive questioning of a careful young clinician who would take down everything he said and probably understand nothing. Writing up his notes on 24 January, Kavka wrote that, ‘Occasionally becoming angry and irritated over his status, he would refuse to follow orthodox methods of questioning, and would ramble on in a devious fashion, skipping rapidly from one topic to another, with his own “trials and tribulations” always the centre of discussion’—

The patient spoke rapidly, with a faint suggestion of an ‘English’ accent, and modulated his voice frequently from a barely audible whisper to shouting ‘at the top of his lungs’. He was exceptionally literate, but uninhibited in the choice of words, often using the most profane language and vilification. Gesticulation was frequently used to press home points, and his facial expressions were animated, expressive and emotionally appropriate.

In a retrospect written many years later Kavka would give a rather different impression of Pound on these occasions, calling him a ‘dramatic conversationalist’, and saying that

It was pleasurable listening to this man as if he were making poetry in his normal verbal discourse. There was drama in every moment of it, quick changes of mood, intonations that rose and fell, pauses that amplified and raised expectations, and constant exciting changes that kept one alert. From time to time he synthesised all of this in a cogent psychological statement.

One of the more dramatic moments must have occurred on Monday 21 January. Kavka wanted Pound to go on about his schooling, and Pound wouldn’t. ‘This is all very dull. Talk to me about other things outside,’ he said, and then,

The birds are chirping. Are they coming or going? What did they stop for? I don’t often get so excited about minor matters. It’s not being able to count on anything; I obviously am not violent and do not shit on the floor. When will they get me out of this ward?

Kavka said, ‘Recalling those years from college seems to bother you’, and ended the session. In the next session he probed, ‘What made you suddenly angry?’, and Pound burst out,

I am angry . . . irate! You know God-damned well I’m suffering from claustrophobia and you put me in a locked room with bars and locks and lock me up at night. The attendants kid me about the article in the magazine. You are in Soviet Russia here; one is completely at the whim of these attendants. [NB: The magazine was probably Newsweek which ran an article in which Pound was described as America’s ‘Haw Haw’.]

The psychiatrist registered this episode as showing that the patient ‘was easily distractible’. In his retrospective analysis, however, he wrote that ‘At this point he showed grandiose feelings and almost delusional behaviour when he noticed the cessation of the bird’s song . . . Almost uncontrollable anal-sadistic violence erupted’; and again, ‘he referred to the birds and his wish to get out of the confined ward to a freer area. This, to some extent, was a reflection of a regressed state of grandiosity.’ That the prisoner might just naturally wish to be free, freed from a place where the inmates did shit on the floor, and freed from this dull interrogation, was apparently too simple an explanation. Kavka did note at the time, but with an air of reproof, that the patient ‘does not appreciate his status as a patient   in Howard Hall, and continually makes extraordinary requests, even so far as to ask permission to roam beyond the “wall” surrounding Howard Hall. He is adamant to this request and cannot see the “logic” in his incarceration.’

No doubt Pound’s way of adjusting to his status as a prisoner was not all that it should have been. ‘During his stay in the hospital’, Kavka reported, probably on the evidence of the guards’ observations,

the patient has co-operated with hospital procedures and has in no way obstructed normal routines except by his persistent demands for extra attention. He spends most of his time lying upon his bed in his room, reading a Chinese text and a few slim volumes of poetry, making a few notes on random slips of paper. He complains about the doors being locked and states that the security precautions used in Howard Hall do, in no way, help his claustrophobia. Often he is very sensitive to the noise created by other patients, and refused to accept an offered radio—‘just plain noise’. He is moderately tidy, makes no exceptional attempt to wear a consistent outfit of clothes, but tends to his personal needs. He does no ward work, eats regularly without complaint, and manages to sleep well. He has arranged to receive a newspaper daily, a pint of milk every other day, and ice cream at intervals. Provided with shower privileges, at his request, he insisted upon tub baths, which were provided. He has made the acquaintance of several patients, but engages only in brief conversation with them.

Kavka did not report what those random slips of paper revealed, though he must have seen them. On one Pound scribbled to Cornell, ‘young doctors absolutely useless’.

Pound’s ‘status’ as a prisoner in Howard Hall, and ‘the “logic” of his incarceration’, were more deeply disturbing than the young psychiatrist could recognize. He was imprisoned   because his ‘defense counsel’ had entered   a plea of insanity, and because Dr Overholser and the other psychiatrists had confirmed that he was indeed in a state of paranoid insanity. Yet Dr Kavka, after three weeks of interviews with him, had elicited ‘No well-devined [sic] or systematized delusions, hallucinations or ideas of reference’, thus in near textbook terms contradicting the experts’ finding. The worst he could say about his patient was that he exhibited ‘considerable egocentricity’; that his views on economic and monetary problems ‘cannot be considered logical or reasonable’; that his judgment was impaired ‘with regard to the seriousness of his situation’, as evidenced by his having intended to defend himself. Leaving aside his incompetence to pass judgment on Pound’s views, Kavka clearly felt himself to be dealing with someone who for all his eccentricity, egocentricity, and singularity, was not insane. And yet he was treating Pound as a ‘patient’, and holding it against him that he did not accept his ‘status’ as an imprisoned patient in a ward for the criminally insane. Pound’s reaction to finding himself in that predicament was even more problematical. By agreeing to plead insanity, in the expectation that he would be well treated and soon released, he had betrayed himself into an impossible situation where, while being sane, he had to submit to being treated as if he were not.

When Kavka asked him directly, ‘Do you believe you are insane?’, Pound chose his terms very carefully, giving a direct answer but also attempting to deal with the complexities and contradictions of his situation:

No, I don’t think I am insane, but I am so shot to pieces that it will take me years to write a sensible piece of prose. I think I am of unsound mind, and I don’t think I’ve been shown good therapy here. I was absolutely unfit to transact any business.

That was as much as to say, I am here only because of what happened to my mind in the gorilla cage—that rendered me unfit to plead—but it does not mean that I am insane, and you are not helping to put my mind together again.


From EZRA POUND: POET: VOLUME III: THE TRAGIC YEARS 1939-1972.  Used with permission of Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2015 A. David Moody 2015.

More Story
Why I Bought PANK M. Bartley Seigel and Roxane Gay started PANK Magazine in 2006 to publish “emerging and innovative poetry and prose, publishing...