Built between 1859 and 1870 on the north shore of Lake Ontario and operational until the year 2000, Rockwood Criminal Lunatic Asylum housed criminals and people that the Kingston Penitentiary and Toronto psychiatric institution could not handle. Upon completion, about 300 men and women resided at Rockwood Asylum. Canadian singer-songwriter Simone Schmidt researched the infamous asylum and gave voices to real women institutionalized there. Her latest album, Audible Songs from Rockwood tells those stories.
Schmidt sat down with Lulu Garcia-Navarro from NPR and the conversation is quite fascinating. You should take a listen to it here if you have the time. If not, here are some of the highlights.
When researching the inmates living at Rockwood Asylum, Schmidt commented:
“The case files of anyone who was incarcerated in a public institution over 100 years ago are available to any member of the public. So these ones were in the archives of Ontario…And they have all kinds of information — although very little, when you think of these case files being the only thing left of a lot of the people”.
Schmidt also explains the research behind the narrator in the song “House of Lost Words”:
“I got everything from a series of letters between a superintendent and one of the inmates’ husbands. The husband writes to the superintendent to check on his wife, and he’s writing from Temple, Texas. And the superintendent writes back to tell him, “Your wife’s fine, you should come pick her up,” and what happens over the course of these letters is you realize that the husband never comes. Then there’s another letter that was dated 30 years later, from the inmate’s daughter, who wonders where her mother was and if she was still alive. And the superintendent, of course, writes back and says “Yeah, your mom’s totally fine, you should come pick her up. She’s in sound body and sound mind.” And then you look at the case file and it also says that the same woman died a year after that letter was sent. So you know that she lived 33 years in the asylum”.
The songwriter further explains that she takes refuge in the songs’ characters. “It’s that feeling of displacing oneself into the consciousness of another. And so, if I were to tell you more about my life, then I would be describing what it is that I’d be taking refuge from. … It’s that joy of obsession, I find. And even when it’s somber material, or when it’s difficult material, I don’t necessarily find it that much [more] difficult than what it is to live in this world”.