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News Maryland Howard County Laurel

Once a Laurel landmark, sanitarium now forgotten

Much of the information on the Internet about the long-gone Laurel Sanitarium is riddled with errors and repeats old rumors and myths. The truth about this legendary Laurel landmark is quite a story.

Sanitariums were common across the country from the late 1800s up to about the 1940s. Laurel had three or four around 1900. Sanitariums commonly treated mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction. The liberal commitment laws of the times were partly responsible for their popularity, according to psychologist Dr. Julie Sasscer-Burgos, who worked at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, a maximum security psychiatric hospital in Jessup. Sanitariums were sometimes used instead of standard hospitals by relatives of the afflicted who found it relatively easy to have someone committed, often for life, she said.

Many sanitariums offered miracle cures, which were always found to be frauds, and also experimented with controversial treatments. There were no empirically supported psychotropic medications yet, according to Sasscer-Burgos, which encouraged the experimentation to find a "cure." Sanitariums were subject to little or no regulation or oversight, and patients had no rights or privacy.

The 'Keeley Cure'

The Brewster Park Hotel was built in the 1880s on the block bordered by Fifth Street, Sixth Street, Talbott Avenue and Carroll Avenue in Laurel. It could accommodate up to 60 guests, but was never a financial success. It eventually closed and sat empty for a few years.

Dr. Lesley E. Keeley operated 32 Keeley Institutes across the country. He bought the Brewster Park Hotel around 1894 and opened another institute in Laurel. A 1901 advertisement in McClure's magazine claimed his success was based on the "Keeley Cure" for "liquor, opium, morphine and tobacco habits," which was based on his revolutionary idea that addiction was not hereditary and could, therefore, be "cured." Alas, the Keeley Cure was eventually proven to be a fraud and the very rich Dr. Keeley went out of business.

In 1906, Laurel's Keeley Institute was sold to Dr. Flora A. Brewster, the second female surgeon in Baltimore's history, who renamed the facility the Dr. Flora A. Brewster Sanitarium. In the Laurel Leader, Brewster advertised that her facility offered "the most modern appliances for the treatment of Rheumatism and Gout; Neurasthenia, and chronic diseases … Hot Air Baths, Electricity, Static, Galvanic and Faradic Massage, Vibratory Treatments and Baths and Rubs of various kind administered by trained assistants." Brewster's tenure in Laurel was brief — she filed for bankruptcy just a few months later.

The Brewster Sanitarium was bought at auction by Drs. Jesse Coggins and Cornelius DeWeese, who had years of experience treating addiction and mental illness. They had big plans for the building. A year earlier, in 1905, the doctors had purchased a 163-acre farm from George Gambrill to build the Laurel Sanitarium. The property extended from Route 1, between Laurel Lake and what would later be the original L-shaped Laurel Shopping Center, and west to what is today the grounds of Laurel High School. Fourth Street ended just past Greenhill Avenue, and what would later become Cherry Lane was a dirt road leading to the sanitarium.

The large farmhouse on the property became a dormitory for patients and a new administrative building was built to the right of the dorm. The buildings sat on the ground that today contains Middletown and Avondale high-rise apartments.

As the practice quickly grew, the doctors knew they needed another dorm so they could separate men and women patients. They had the radical idea to move the old Brewster Park Hotel to the grounds of the Laurel Sanitarium, instead of constructing a new building. Their idea made even more sense when they were able to buy the building very cheaply at auction.

By 1908, the old hotel was ready to move to its new location. With an audacious plan in hand, the movers began in December. Moving a large T-shaped hotel in 1908 seems impossible, but the location was fortunate. The Washington-to-Laurel trolley line was roughly a straight shot from the Brewster Park Hotel to the Laurel Sanitarium. In the early 20th-century, the trolley tracks ran down Sixth Street, behind where the Dona Apartments are now located on Fourth Street, and across the sanitarium grounds behind the two buildings already in operation.

The move was described in the Baltimore Sun as "the largest job of house moving ever attempted in Maryland." The hotel was jacked up onto pilings so it could be pulled forward on a greased track and slid onto greased telephone poles laid across the trolley tracks. A team of horses then slowly pulled the structure along the greased poles, using the tracks as a guide. The hotel was moved a little over a half-mile to its new location in this fashion.

This caused quite a sensation. According to The Sun, "Every day a large crowd of sightseers from all parts of Prince Georges and the neighboring counties throngs about the house and the workmen busy as ants."

Assured by Coggins that the trolley would be shut down for only two days, and that they would provide bus service to go around the work site, the railroad agreed to the plan. When the trolley was out of service for two weeks, it became a major nuisance to Laurel's commuters, who voiced their displeasure loudly to Coggins.

When the building was finally in place in early 1909, Coggins told The Sun that he had saved $5,000 by moving the hotel instead of building a new structure. The hotel was placed to the right of the administrative building and became the men's dormitory. The basement of the men's dorm contained a gymnasium with a bowling alley, billiard table, shuffle board, a rowing machine, and a punching bag.

Over the years, additions to the complex were added, and all the buildings were connected to the administrative building in the middle.

Treatment for the patients ran the gamut from serene to what would be considered abusive by today's standards. According to Johns Hopkins psychologist Dr. Laurence David, "a few things that were very common were prefrontal lobotomies and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Both were used for all kinds of conditions. They don't do lobotomies anymore, but ECT is still used, particularly with treatment-resistant depression."

Sasscer-Burgos added, "There was liberal use of seclusion (locking someone in a room) and/or restraint (straight jackets or handcuffs) when someone was violent to themselves or others. There was the belief that all mental illness could be cured by psychotherapy alone. The belief was held by psychoanalysts —essentially people who bought into Freud's theories. However, there was absolutely no research to support it. People would be analyzed every day for years and if they were still psychotic it was assumed that they had not yet worked through the most deep-seated feelings about their mother."

In an interview in 1995, Coggins' wife, Helen, recalled that her husband was a pioneer in using hydrotherapy at Laurel for the more violent patients. Hydrotherapy became a common treatment for a variety of mental illnesses. The treatment used water to produce desired reactions in patients. Typically, for violent patients, warm baths where the patient was strapped into a tub for hours or even days was used. Another method of hydrotherapy was to wrap the patient like a mummy in towels or sheets soaked in warm or cold water for hours.

Celebrities and scandals

Coggins' obituary in the News Leader claimed "It is to his credit that in his many years of operating the Laurel Sanitarium, his institution never suffered notoriety of any sort." Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Almost from the time it opened, and continuing through its long history, newspapers reported on patient suicides, unexplained deaths, lawsuits against the sanitarium from patients who claimed they were kidnapped or being held against their will and at least one murder on the grounds. Judicial hearings to decide if a patient was truly insane, initiated by the patient or sympathetic family members or friends, were routinely reported in the press.

In factCoggins' first wife, Mabel, hanged herself in the sanitarium in 1931, as reported in a Washington Post article. The story implies that she was a patient but gives no details.

Celebrities of the day were common patients at Laurel. Most were afforded anonymity, but some leaked out. J. Edgar Hoover's father was committed to the Laurel Sanitarium in 1917. Biographies of Hoover are at odds as to how long his father was at the sanitarium, from a few months to a few years. They also differ about Hoover's frequency of visiting his father. They range from frequently, whenever he watched the ponies at Laurel Race Course (a favorite pastime), to never visiting or acknowledging his father's institutionalization.

The biggest scandal involving the Laurel Sanitarium occurred in 1926. Before home rule was enacted in 1973, the District of Columbia was governed by commissioners appointed by the president. Commissioner Frederick A. Fenning, appointed by President Calvin Coolidge, had a lucrative side business. Fenning, dubbed a "one-horse lawyer" during his confirmation hearings, represented a large number of World War I veterans confined at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington and the Laurel Sanitarium as their guardian. Unknown to his clients, Fenning owned a small interest in both facilities and worked with the management of both to secure clients.

When his activities were exposed, Congress moved to impeach him. The charges against him included "acting as an attorney while commissioner … exorbitant remuneration for guardianship of lunatics, among other charges." The Gettysburg Compiler claimed that he had "a virtual monopoly" of guardianship cases.

The newspapers reported daily on the scandal, which dragged on for months and included hearings before Congress. When Fenning put an end to the scandal by resigning, the Washington Post declared, "This was to be expected."

Coggins leaves a legacy

During World War I, the Army used the grounds of the sanitarium to temporarily house soldiers, and Coggins served as a volunteer medical director for the Army camp.

Coggins and DeWeese together ran the sanitarium until DeWeese's death in 1934. Coggins carried on alone until his death in 1963. Margaret Mitchell, who worked at the sanitarium in the 1930s, told the News Leader that "Dr. Coggins was a wonderful person. He was wonderful to everybody."

Coggins married his second wife, Helen, in 1941. She was a nurse at the sanitarium when they wed.

In 1950 the sanitarium gave up its treatment for addiction and became a geriatric hospital for women. After treating 80,000 alcoholics (by his own count), Coggins seemed to change his mind about his methods. He told the News Leader that "there is only one good treatment for them and that's Alcoholics Anonymous."

In the early 1960s, Coggins began to sell some of the property. A large swath on Route 1 was sold to Berman Enterprises to expand the Laurel Shopping Center and build the Montgomery Ward store. Another large tract behind the buildings was sold to the Prince George's County School System, which used it to build the new Laurel High School.

According to the News Leader, Coggins died at the sanitarium in 1963, at the age of 88. He had been confined for about a month after a heart attack. Eight months later, Helen Coggins announced that the sanitarium would close for good. Among the residents who were misplaced was a patient who had lived there since 1910. Eleven patients were in their nineties, and several were 99 years old.

Coggins did not fade away into obscurity. A few weeks before his death, he wrote a new will, which left the bulk of his estate to the Keswick Home, known as the Home for Incurables of Baltimore City. His will directed that the money be used for "white patients who need physical rehabilitation." He further stated that if the terms were "not acceptable to the Keswick Home, then this bequest shall go to the University of Maryland Hospital" without the racially discriminatory condition.

This set off a legal fight between Keswick and the University of Maryland that lasted decades. Ultimately, in 2002, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling and awarded the $31 million estate to Keswick. The court ruled that Keswick could not have been expected to follow illegal discriminatory instructions.

History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society's John Brennan Research Library. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? E-mail Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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