Plain LanguageASLAudio Description

Ruth Ruth Stackhouse

Hard-working women. May, a housemaid, Audrey, a seamstress and Mathilda, a dining room and laundry worker. Together, they put in perhaps as many as 285,000 hours of labour.

They were never paid a nickel.

It was called "Moral Therapy". Labour-intensive jobs, long hours, no vacation, no retirement package, no pay. From the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, such was the preferred ‘treatment’ for psychiatric patients at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane.

Why? Domestic duties were believed to make women inmates more "tractable and contented". Little is known about such so-called therapeutic benefits. What we do know is that the unpaid labours of inmates like May, Audrey and Mathilda saved hospital administrators very significant amounts of money.

They fed and clothed and cared for each other. In so doing, we hope that these women found dignity and belonging in a place that offered neither.
Additional Panels

Archival photo of Mathilda K

Mathilda K.

Mathilda K spent her last 40 years in the asylum until her death at the age of 76 in 1938. She was without financial support throughout her residence and so was a prime candidate for working to earn her board, which she did by daily toil in the dining room and laundry. Her self-esteem in regard to this work is evident in a number of observations about her conduct and views towards institutional labour. This diminutive woman, whose weight was listed as no more than 90 pounds, stated she considered herself a paid employee at 999 and was very protective of her duties, chasing any other patient-labourers out of the dining room where she worked to keep them from assisting her. During the last year of her life, Mathilda’s job was cut back due to her age, ‘to which’, it was noted in her file, ‘she objects and she has become more disagreeable.’
Archival photo of Audrey B

Audrey B.

Audrey B. was a 39-year old mother of three children, whose husband had died four years before her arrest in 1905, after which she was transferred to the asylum. Audrey B was confined for the last 41 years of her life at 999, until her death at the age of 80. During this four decade period documents show that Audrey worked almost constantly in the asylum sewing room – from at least 1910 until early 1943.
Archival photo of May F.

May F.

May F. spent the last 54 years of her life at 999, dying on Christmas Day 1952 at the age of 81. She worked as a housemaid for the medical superintendent and nurses during the 1920’s and was therefore able to enjoy complete freedom to wander at will. As May lived in one of the cottages, access to the grounds was easier for her than for other patients in the more restricted main buildings. Not content to stay indoors at night, as was the rule, she was observed to have ‘rambled about’ the grounds as early as four in the morning.
  • Images of Mathilda, Audrey and May courtesy of the Archives of Ontario.
Chart detailing numbers of items manufactured, repaired and laundered at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane in 1905.

Table 8

Patients' Industrial Operations,
Toronto Hospital for the Insane, 1905
  • Research: Geoffrey Reaume, Remembrance of Patients Past (Canadian Social History Series) Oxford University Press, 2000.

Contributor Bio

Ruth Ruth Stackhouse is a proud member of the psychiatric survivor community. She studied theatre in New York City and is currently Theatre Director of the Friendly Spike Theatre Band. A long-standing activist, she has protested against institutional confinement and the exploitation of patient labour. That passion drives her installation.

Contributor Statement

On August 11th 1993 I tied myself to the sign post at the front door of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (formerly the Toronto Hospital for the Insane), 999 Queen Street West. A group of us, psychiatric survivors and activists, had gathered together to protest the brutality often committed in the name of psychiatry. Fourteen years later, I’m still demanding that attention be paid to the unjust treatment that occurs within institutional walls, both past and present. I am a Disability Studies student and community theatre director at the Friendly Spike Theatre Band, a playhouse that is made up of psychiatric survivors and people with disabilities. I wanted to explore the history of labour exploitation that three women psychiatric patients at the then-Toronto Hospital for the Insane suffered through, because it was something that spoke to me. It spoke of dominance: of the power of medicine, patriarchy, and total institutions. But it also spoke to me of resistance: of women resisting the “norms” of misogyny, social exploitation, and gender submission. It also spoke to me of community: of women working to build a sense of purpose and a life of substance even in the abject environment of an asylum. I felt really connected to these women in their struggles to find meaning in work, something that psychiatric survivors are often excluded from. I also felt that it was important to recognize that they were exploited by not being paid for work just because they were labelled by psychiatry.

Ruth Ruth Stackhouse

Contributor Interview

View a short interview with Ruth Ruth Stackhouse, creator of Labouring.

Ruth Ruth Stackhouse interview

Resources for Further Study


Q: The Digging installation referred to “Vocational programming” and “Forced institutional labour.”  This installation refers to “Moral therapy” and “Labour exploitation”.   Are these all the same thing?

A:  They are all related.   In Europe before the Enlightenment, people deemed to be insane were considered to be less than human and subjected to horrifying indignities and abuse.  Enlightenment thinkers argued for recognition of the humanity of these individuals, and as a result of this shift in thinking, custodial “asylums” were constructed to provide safety and refuge.  However, soon these facilities became over-crowded and dominated by the old ideas once again.  “Moral therapy” was supposed to provide training for meaningful work in a structured environment, leading to useful employment in the community.   Mathilda might have been able to work in a public cafeteria; May might have worked as a housemaid in any wealthy citizen’s home; and Audrey might have made a living sewing and repairing clothes in a little shop of her own.  However, as this installation argues, it became very convenient and “cost-effective” for institutions to use the free labour of patients to run their day-to-day operations, with no community role ever emerging.

Q:  Does this kind of exploitation still occur?

A:  It would be naïve to think that it does not, although North American institutions may be more careful to remunerate labour now, at least minimally.  However, do “sheltered workshops” still exist in your community?  Do people who work there earn as much as others to perform comparable work outside of institutions? 

Q:  Why did families lock people up for 40 years or more?  Had they committed crimes ? 

A:  No, usually admission to an institution was not punitive, and was not intended to be a life sentence, but often it turned out that way.   If there was no family member or friend out in the community advocating release, people would easily be forgotten.   

Q:  I couldn’t help but notice that men dug holes for moral therapy, and women sewed, did laundry, cooked and cleaned.   Have other people noticed this?

A:  Yes, many scholars, such as Geoffrey Reaume, have noticed the gendered nature of forced labour and have commented upon the ways in which institutional labour practices perpetuated gendered roles for male and female patients.