Now 95, deaf man was castrated, locked up for decades

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GOLDSBORO, N.C. -- Junius Wilson was accused in 1925 of attempted rape and was jailed. He was never tried or convicted. His punishment, though, was far worse.

Taken from his home and family, he was sent to an insane asylum, castrated, then locked away and forgotten.

Mr. Wilson wasn't mentally ill. He was deaf.

But by the time authorities at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro figured out that he didn't belong in a psychiatric hospital, Mr. Wilson was in his 70s and had been there 45 years.

No one bothered, all those years, to communicate with him using the archaic sign language he knew. No one taught him standard sign language. So he made up his own language.

Through it all, Mr. Wilson managed, somehow, to keep his sanity.

Today, at 95, he is finally being taught to sign. After almost 68 years, he may be released from Cherry Hospital.

"He's a survivor," says John Wasson, a social worker who, as Mr. Wilson's guardian, is fighting to improve his life. "Or he wouldn't have lasted this long.

"I can't imagine what strength of spirit it would take to persevere under those conditions. Not only was he in a mental hospital for 68 years, he couldn't speak. And he couldn't be understood. That makes it all the more remarkable."

These days, Mr. Wilson moves with an ease that belies his age, his stocky, 5-foot-6 body swaying to a shuffling gait. He's remarkably alert, his eyes watching what's happening around him.

He could pass for a farmer, often dressed in overalls, a baseball cap over a full head of gray hair, a wad of Red Man chewing tobacco in his cheek.

Since a stroke seven years ago, his right shoulder sags and his right hand can manage little more than clawlike grasps.

Asked about his family and where he used to live, he shrugs and shakes his head. He signs: "far away" and "long ago."

Mr. Wilson's nightmare began in 1925 near the coast in the New Hanover County town of Castle Hayne.

Jailed at 29

He was 29 when he was jailed -- a black man charged with assault with intent to commit rape. At an inquisition of lunacy -- as the hearings were called then -- Mr. Wilson was declared insane, dangerous and incompetent to defend himself.

In the foot-high stack of medical records, only a handful date to Mr. Wilson's first 40 years at the asylum.

Among them are Judge F. A. Daniels' order committing Mr. Wilson and a three-page transcript of the Nov. 18, 1925, inquisition, at which Mr. Wilson's guilt seems to have been taken for granted.

Both Dr. T. C. Britt, an assistant county physician, and Jailer Carl Cook told the judge they thought Mr. Wilson was insane and dangerous. Mr. Cook testified that he tried to talk to Mr. Wilson in what the prosecutor called "the language of the deaf."

"Do you get intelligent answers from him?" prosecutor Woodus Kellum asked.

"Not one yet," the jailer replied.

So Junius Wilson was committed to what was then North Carolina's asylum for black people, the State Hospital in Goldsboro, 50 miles southeast of Raleigh.

"They locked him up and threw away the keys," says Jim Wall, director of litigation for Legal Services of the Lower Cape Fear in Wilmington. "There was no effort to do anything more than warehouse him. He was written off as a human being."

Shortly after his arrival on Nov. 21, 1925, Mr. Wilson was castrated. Medical records from more than a half-century later called the operation "therapeutic."

Cages and crowds

Mr. Wilson spent years -- the records don't disclose how long -- HTC locked in the building for the criminally insane.

That building was "dank, dark and fetorious [fetid]," according to a state inspection in 1948, and patients were found locked in cages for long periods. One man had been kept in the cage for about four years, the inspection said.

On the second floor, as many as 70 patients were jammed into a room called the "bull pen." They had only two toilets and drank from one water barrel.

Twenty-two years went by before Mr. Wilson saw his family again.

On June 5, 1947, his father, Sidney Wilson, and sister, Carrie Gill, visited and asked for his release. It was not granted, and they did not return.

Finally, in 1970, 45 years after Mr. Wilson arrived, social workers wrote Mr. Wilson's mother, Mary Clark, in New York and his sister, Carrie Gill, in Castle Hayne telling them that they could come for Mr. Wilson at their convenience.

The letters were returned, marked "addressee unknown" and "address unknown."

The psychiatrists and social workers talked about releasing him from the hospital. But they never did.

Mr. Wilson, they reasoned, was better off in the hospital.

The debate continued into the 1980s.

"This is his home," a social worker wrote in 1980, "and I do not think he should be sent away from his home."

As he grew old in Cherry, Mr. Wilson retained what medical records described as "a keen power of observation." His doctors and social workers called him outgoing and intelligent, sociable and charming, playful and industrious.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Wilson worked at the hospital's car wash, earning about $2.50 an hour. By 1983, he had saved about $7,000.

With money earned at the car wash, Mr. Wilson bought bicycles, watches, clocks and, for his room, a television and a recliner. Hospital workers drove him to town to pick out jigsaw puzzles.

He enjoyed fishing in a nearby river. He befriended stray dogs with scraps of food.

But Mr. Wilson, even in his late 80s and early 90s, was "petulant at times, irascible at times, assaultive at times, has been known to throw individuals against the wall in the past, becomes very upset when he doesn't have his tobacco or his money for his tobacco," a psychiatrist wrote.

'No place to go'

Cherry Hospital Director Field Montgomery said recently that hospital officials knew that Mr. Wilson wasn't mentally ill. But they didn't want to release him.

"We were not going to kick him out on the streets," Mr. Montgomery said. "How could he survive on the outside? He was very old man who had lived here almost all his life. He had no place to go. No family. He had no job skills. He couldn't talk. He showed no interest in leaving.

"It would almost be suicide for him by sending him out into the community."

What happened to Mr. Wilson remained a secret -- at least outside Cherry Hospital -- for more than 65 years.

But in September 1990, the hospital petitioned the courts to declare him incompetent. Mr. Wilson, the hospital said, could not communicate well enough to make decisions about his life and )) well-being.

Mr. Wilson was declared incompetent, and in 1991, John Wasson, an assistant director at the New Hanover County Department of Social Services, was appointed his guardian.

Mr. Wasson discovered, reviewing records, that Mr. Wilson had no diagnosis of mental illness.

Astonished, Mr. Wasson enlisted the help of three lawyers to pressure the state, threatening to sue and urging officials to improve Mr. Wilson's living conditions.

In October, the state agreed to settle out of court.

Today, Mr. Wilson is being taught the sign-language skills he lost over the years. Hospital workers are learning, too.

The hospital has found a companion, a deaf man in his 60s who lives in town, to visit Mr. Wilson and go on outings with him.

And Mr. Wilson might finally be released from Cherry Hospital, though Mr. Wasson is leery about uprooting him.

Mr. Wasson thinks it might be best for Mr. Wilson and a longtime friend -- perhaps the mentally retarded man he rooms with -- to move into a cottage on the hospital grounds.

Mr. Wasson knows Mr. Wilson can never reclaim the wasted years.

"You can't give him back those years. My goal is to make his remaining days -- however long that is -- as productive and comfortable as possible.

"I'm not sure we've changed the world. But we changed Mr. Wilson's world."

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