Diary Written in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum
Mary Huestis Pengilly
By Ruby M Cusack
Each evening, I closed my bedroom door to have complete privacy while writing in my diary. Once I finished, I locked it and placed the key in a secret spot. Next I hid the book so no one would be able to find it and read my most inner thoughts.
Now way back in the 1880s, Mary Huestis Pengilly wrote in her diary to keep the day’s happenings fresh in her mind. She too hid it, but with the plans to some day release the contents.
Mary Huestis was the daughter of Lewis Huestis who was living in Queensbury, York County when she married Robert Pengilly of Saint John on February 16, 1847.
According to the 1871 Census of Saint John, Mary and Robert had five sons and one daughter.
The Great Fire of Saint John in 1877 destroyed her home and by 1883, she was living in Massachusetts.
On October 29, 1883, Mary was admitted to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Saint John. The first entry in her diary is simply dated -December - “They will not allow me to go home, and I must write these things down for fear I forget. It will help to pass the time away. It is very hard to endure this prison life and know that my sons think me insane when I am not.”
Mary states in her diary that while living in Massachusetts, she became engaged in writing a book on the laws of health and became so absorbed with her work, she forgot to eat for eight days. Upon visiting her and observing her physical and mental state, son Lewis sent for his brother Thomas M. Pengilly who was the proprietor of a drug store in Saint John. By this time Mary had become a bit irrational.
The sons brought her by train to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Saint John, where Mary spent her days trying to make life a bit easier for some of the other patients and faithfully recorded the treatment and injustices and the conditions she felt they were being exposed to.
March 24 - “Two years ago today I was watching by the bedside of my dying child - (Clara). Driven from our home by the fire, I was tarrying for her to complete her education in the city of Lowell.”
On April 03, she wrote, "Yesterday was election day of the Aldermen of the City of St. John. Dr. Steeves came in this morning and congratulated me very pleasantly that my son (Thomas M. Pengilly) was elected Alderman. . . My son Lewis has gone 800 miles beyond Winnipeg surveying"
April 30, while staying at the St. John’s Hotel, the entry was, “At last I am free! Seated in my own room at the hotel, I look back at that prison on the hill.”
Tuesday - “I have been to the Solicitor-General and left with him a copy of parts of my diary, and I am prepared to attest to its truth before the Board of Commissioners, whenever it shall meet.”
June - "I have spent three weeks in Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, while waiting for the Board of Commissioners to meet and discuss the affairs of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum which my time at present is devoted.”
Before leaving Fredericton, she called at the Government House, “Governor Wilmot did not doubt me. He received me very kindly, as did his good lady”. As Mary was leaving, she was informed by the Governor that he knew her father well and he then picked her a large bunch of lilacs.
On the final page of the diary, "I have lost my home and business by the fire; my sons are scattered abroad in the world and do not need my care; I would like to devote my remaining years, as far as I am able, to better the condition of those poor sufferers in the asylum."
The 26 page, “Diary Written in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum”
by Mary Huestis Pengilly published by the author in 1885 can be viewed at
the Library and Archives of the New Brunswick Museum or on line at
Mary Pengilly died in Dubuque, Iowa in 1893. It appears from the obituary notice that she travelled through the country selling her poems and copies of her diary criticizing the management of the St. John Asylum in her crusade to draw attention to the treatment and care given to the mentally ill.
There are several documents concerning the Provincial Lunatic Asylum
at the Library and Archives of the New Brunswick Museum, Douglas Avenue,
Saint John, N.B. - two of them being, “Commission to ascertain the most
eligible site, near the City of Saint John for a Provincial Lunatic Asylum,
1836" and the “Royal Commission 1945 Inquiry [into] the Provincial
Hospital” which are also on line at: http://www.lib.unb.ca/Texts/NBHistory/Commissions/browse.htm
Ruby is a genealogy buff. Readers are invited to send their New Brunswick genealogical queries to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. When E-Mailing please put Yesteryear Families in the Subject line. Please include in the query, your name and postal address as someone reading the newspaper, may have information to share with you but not have access to E-mail. Queries should be no more than 45 words in length.