Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

30-day term lasted 32 years

Today he sits in a shabbily furnished Bristol apartment decorated with cheap curios and knick-knacks on the tables and pictures of his children and great-grandchildren on the walls.

Seemingly in an effort to display some of the dignity he lost at the hands of the state over three decades, he is dressed in a white shirt and a tie that went in and out of style a couple of times without his even knowing it.

In this setting, Charles Simon, 68, quietly, self-consciously reflects upon a lost life.

It was the summer of 1938, as he vividly recalls it. The depression was still weighing heavily on the average American, especially in the cities of the Northeast.

Simon had begun working 13 years before that, continued to work his way through the University of Pennsylvania night school and earned a degree in accounting, just at the time that the depression left little for a young accountant to account for.

He had a series of jobs and lost each one as businesses folded. But he had a wife and two small children, so he continued to look. He had started a new job, this time with the state government, when his long nightmare began.

It was June and Simon was quarreling with a brother who had given up even looking for a job. They were in the front yard of Simon's mother's house. The quarrel became more bitter. Voices grew louder and fists were raised. Simon's mother began to intercede and was warned to keep out of the way.

Neighbors called police and Simon was taken to the local precinct house.

"I thought the policeman just wanted me to walk to the station house with him to give things a chance to cool down," Simon recalls. "But he put me in a cell."

For this – a quarrel in the front yard on a hot summer day in the Depression – Charles Simon was to spend the next 32 years in cells, most of them at Farview State Hospital, Pennsylvania's facility for the criminally insane.

The next day, without a jury present and without an attorney, because he could not imagine why he needed one, Simon was sentenced by a magistrate to 30 days for disorderly conduct and was sent to Moyamensing Prison.

Simon got angry. And the longer he was held in jail, the angrier he got. But the unhappier he became in jail, the longer he was held. Instead of being released on July 8, 1938, the maximum expiration date, he remained jailed through September and October.

Then, on Nov. 1, 1938, Simon was advised that he would be taking a ride. He did – to Norristown State Hospital. Nobody ever told him why. His family was told that he needed treatment and that he was too dangerous to released. His family was poor, could not afford an attorney, and took the doctors at their word.

So Charles Simon became angrier still.

He so often claimed persecution that the hospital decided he was paranoid.

A notation in his Norristown record says: "Patient's condition is unchanged. He continues to be friendly, talkative and smiling, and at times becomes very insistent about the injustice of being committed here."

After the hospital had induced 31 comas in Simon by pre-insulin therapy, a March 8, 1939, notation was made in his file. It says:

"He repeats continually that there is nothing wrong with him, but he is being tortured by the treatment and held here for no reason."

By the beginning of 1940, the hospital record says, Simon was guilty of "progressive irritableness, insistence upon his rights and... illogical thinking."

On April 6, 1940 – nearly 2 years after the quarrel with his brother – Simon was transferred to Farview State Hospital after threatening a physician. Except for a brief return to Norristown State Hospital in 1949, Charles Simon was to spend the next 30 years of his life at Farview.

"There didn't seem to be many insane people there," Simon recalls. "I found out that most of them had come there from penitentiaries. They were criminals with time to serve. They seem to be perfectly normal as far as sensibilities were concerned. Maybe they were criminals, but they were not insane. At least they didn't get lost on the way to breakfast and dinner and that was better than at Norristown."

Simon says he knew he was in for a long stretch when he asked a doctor "to speak to someone who might be interested in my welfare."

"The doctor told me I was crazier than a bedbug," Simon says. "Then another doctor, now dead, told me that the longer I was there the worse I would get."

Simon did, however, escape most of the brutal treatment that many former patients detailed for The Inquirer during a three-month investigation of Farview. To this day, he does not know why he was so fortunate – unless it was because he was white, he was quiet and kept himself, and he was not a criminal and the guards knew it.

"There was a lot of agitating and making it uncomfortable for you if you got angry or bitter," he says, "and the guards are always setting off firecrackers under a patient's chair or bed, or giving a patient a hot-foot with matches while the patient was sleeping on a bench. Often a guard would throw pillow at a man and knock his head into a wall."

But other than being beaten for taking the side of a new patient one time, Simon says he was never severely injured. But he never forgot, he says, that "the guards were boss."

"It definitely is a prison, even the guards call it a prison. The only treatment I got was no treatment." Simon says, "I received two psychiatric evaluations in recent years, none until 1964 or 1965. And the only medication I got was an occasional aspirin."

But he remained in this state's only maximum-security mental hospital "working like a slave" polishing doors and working in the kitchens, upholstery shop and dining rooms.

Sometimes he played chess, or read books, mostly the Bible.

"I got to the place I figured Farview was home. I had been there so long," he says. "I never saw my children grow up, nor any of my seven grandchildren.

"The world outside had changed quite a bit by the time I came out, styles had changed, it seemed like there were cars everywhere and it was hard to realize that I was free ... that I could do something without permission."

Finally, in 1970, Charles Simon was released from Farview, one of several hundred patients set free by a court ruling declaring unconstitutional a state mental health statute by which he had been committed three decades earlier.

But for Charles Simon, it was too late. He was 30 years old on that summer day when he began quarreling with his brother in his mother's front yard. He was 62 years old when he walked out of Farview and into the free world in a "grand meeting" with a son he had not seen in three decades and grandchildren who had never hugged their grandfather's legs. His wife died while he was at Farview.

Throughout the social workers' reports of Charles Simon's life at Farview there are frequent notations that the patient "is resentful."

"I guess I was," Simon says. "My life was wasted. But I think I held my bearings pretty well. I didn't cry at all."