The Asylum Artwork of Adelaide V Hall
Whilst working at Washington DC’s National Museum of Health and Medicine, art historian and author John M Macgregor came across this curious lacework depicting images from the fantasies of Adelaide V Hall, an inmate at St Elizabeth’s insane asylum in 1917.
Hall had been a dressmaker before two incarcerations at St Elizabeths in 1901 and 1911. According to the reports of her psychiatrist, Dr Arrah B Evarts, Hall was “depressed and retarded, timid, apprehensive, and anxious … excited, profane in language, [and] untidy.” She was also prone to bouts of rage.
Her fragile psychological state rendered Hall unfit to do the work some inmates were put to and she was left to continue her sewing, and it was under these circumstances that she created the above piece. She told Evarts that she did not remember where it was she learned to sew, that it was ‘as if she aways knew how.’
The artwork measured just ‘9-and-one-half-by-11-and-one-half-inch’ and shows several figures amidst snakes, insects, and birds, as well as various other symbolic images. Hall explained to Evarts how the work told the story of a woman who longed to be simultaneously a virgin and yet a mother, told with a cast of characters each symbolising some type of sexual relationship: some have anatomically incorrect male genitalia, there is a skeleton, the Virgin Mary, and various couples. Then there is the protagonist, the One Woman, who apparently symbolised Hall herself.
As Hall’s therapy progressed the true meaning of the lacework became increasingly apparent to Evarts: it was associated with the complex relationship Hall had with her father who had molested her as a child. As Macgregor suggests, “In the end [Hall’s] the one caught in the webbing of that lace.” Hall died at St Elizabeths shortly after WW2.
[Sources: Lunatic Fringe (see also for a more in-depth analysis) | See Also: Agnes Richter’s Straight Jacket Embroidery]