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Prologue: A Confidential History of the Brooklyn Asylum Itself (2)

Brooklyn Asylum inmate, late 19th century

“Salzach had never been right”: this was the widespread agreement in Brooklyn, not only in the hours after the catastrophe but in the days and weeks after it. And in this case the consensus was correct, for when the authorities supervising his case sent back to Europe in an effort to turn up his relations, they unearthed to their astonishment a family of ferocious German Dr. Karlheinz Eiffel, c. 1867dukes, who explained—not personally, of course—that Salzach was in fact the fourth male issue of a creature called the Baron von Salzach, from whose house he had disappeared nine years ago, defeating all his family’s subsequent efforts to find him and restore him to his birthright.

What was not said, at least by any of the stupendously tactful family retainers who wafted in from Bremen to examine the problem, was that the baron had received the news of his youngest son’s discomfiture without so much as slowing the flurry of tiny knife-strokes by which he was just then extracting a precisely judged sliver of veal, nor that he had blotted the corner of his mouth after swallowing his bite with an appearance of untroubled sanguinity. The insane man was fortunate, however, to have an aunt who doted on him, beingBrooklyn Asylum inmate, c. 1873 childless herself, and when the clever physician from New York declared a sea voyage absolutely out of the question, this lady redeemed the family honor by devoting a considerable sum from her personal fortune to the creation of a hospital where her nephew could be cared for where he was. And thus did the Brooklyn Asylum begin its existence.

It had, from the beginning, a reputation for being kinder and more hospitable than was generally expected of a madhouse. Inmates—really they were patients—were seldom beaten, never starved, and confined in isolation only in cases involving the most dangerous and uncontrollable lunatics. There were not many of these, as, perhaps owing to its moderate character, the Asylum tended to attract sufferers from conditions that were temperate or merely partial, who were seldom violent and were frequently capable of reason. Complete cures were not unknown, and inmates who had lived there and been released spoke almost with nostalgia of the mild, slow, undemanding round of life they had found there. This was particularly true under the direction ofBrooklyn Asylum inmate, c. 1867 the third chief administrator, Dr. Karlheinz Eiffel, who held the position from 1863 to 1888. It was he who, in 1871, and despite the almost constant financial pressure to which the institution was exposed after the Countess Mathilde’s death, orchestrated the move to a magnificent new building on Beagle St., behind which the inmates were allowed to roam with relaxed supervision over the surprisingly extensive gardens and grounds.

It was also Dr. Eiffel who granted to the Asylum what might have been its greatest fame, as the site of the successful experiments he conducted throughout the 1880s on patients still known by their nicknames from his case histories: The Spotted Child, The Woman Who Shook Like Leaves, The Jack of Eights, The Rainbow-Watcher (so called because she insisted that the world was a rainbow which she alone could see from the right side), and the Owl-King. Combining mild electrocution with what was then an extremely progressive form of conversation therapy, he anticipated Freud and, from his office on the Asylum’s ground floor, made an ineradicable contribution to the psychiatric literature.Brooklyn Asylum inmate, c. 1880

His approach did nothing for Salzach, however, who spent his life in chains in a small cell at the top of the structure on Beagle St., speaking aloud only if a cat were present. He died in 1867, the cause of his madness unknown. Nor was it ever known was what written on the paper he had attempted to read in his final moment of freedom. The Irish boy, Michael, passed into obscurity, whether as an unremarkable servant of Merrick’s Hotel or as an unlucky emulator of his idol, Captain Wainscot, and the madman’s paper disappeared with him. Speculation died away, and it became as much a mystery as the question, sometimes debated by fans, of whether the dexterity displayed by Salzach, when he kept the balled-up paper from the crowd by kicking it with his feet, had any significance for the sporting club that bore the asylum’s name, which, some ninety years after the lunatic nobleman’s arrest, finished in a surprising and respectable seventh place during its first full season in the American Soccer League.

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Prologue: A Confidential History of the Brooklyn Asylum Itself (2)

by Brian Phillips · April 29, 2010

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