When Abraham Van Norstrand took the superintendent’s position at the Wisconsin Insane Hospital he would have had an inkling of what lay head of him. The mental institute had proved the undoing of other doctors as shame and scandal followed them out the door. But Van Norstrand was a determined soul. As a teen he had walked 14 miles to take a teacher-training course, he had survived the Civil War when so many others had died and managed to come out of it a little bit richer after selling liquor to soldiers. However, he could be conceited and by what can be gathered from his memoirs he considered himself the victim. His patients, though, knew the true story. Van Norstrand was as firm as he was determined. If a patient spit on him he would repeatedly choke or box the patient’s ears until they finally quit. Yet the hospital had a “good” reputation as far as hospital’s go. Despite the reputation there lurked potential corruption; a number of family members were employed, rotting produce was purchased from Van Norstrand’s grocery store and used for the patients, produce bought from family members was paid for at a price that benfited the family members the most. Eventually word leaked back to officials. And when it did Van Nortstrand’s happy little world came tumbling down on him.
Viewing the ordeal from both sides, Thomas Doherty allows readers a look into a rather dark, and what must have been frustrating for all involved, period in history. I requested The Best Specimen of a Tyrant because 1) it’s history and 2) it involves 19th century mental institute practices, which I have a passing interest in. The prologue immediately grabbed my attention as it introduces one of the most mysterious deaths to occur under Van Norstrand’s management. However after that it seemed to slow down. A large portion of the story deals with Van Norstrand’s Civil War service and I don’t have enough interest in the man to want to know all that. But that’s just me – I’m certain other readers will find the information very beneficial. That said, the writing style was easy to follow along with but at the same time had a “voice”. One can almost see the raving patients and tortured soul in the wards.
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