In and Out of the Colony

In and Out of the Colony

The police have been asked to be on the lookout for George A. Lewis, 27 years old, who escaped from the Gardner Insane Colony, Sunday. He is of slight build and has dark hair. He was dressed in a gray suit.

Fitchburg Sentinel (Fitchburg, Massachusetts), October 19, 1908

His name was recorded by the Worcester police as “Arthur or George Lewis” when he was arrested on October 4, 1913 for carrying a gun, B & E and larceny. His police identification card carries the following information:

Age: 28 years

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 170 pounds

Descent: African

Skin color: Coffee

Occupation: Hotel Waiter

His right hand had been broken at some point and he had scars on both sides of his head. (The scar on the right side is visible above his temple in his profile photo).

He was held for a grand jury hearing, but no newspaper articles about a charge or conviction were found. In his mug shot photos his eyes don’t quite focus and he looks like he’s unconcerned about his predicament.

George Allen Lewis was born on June 15, 1883 in Littleton, Massachusetts, the youngest of three children born to George and Abby (Smith) Lewis. Abby died of gastroenteritis in 1897. By 1900 George and his father moved to Boston, where his father worked as a day laborer and George attended school.

An article appeared in the Boston Post on November 25, 1901, about the attempted murder of a young, recently married, black man named George Lewis. George’s wife, Mary, hit her husband on the head with a hatchet after a quarrel stemming from visits she received from another man. “My only wish is,” she is reported to have said to Lieutenant Garland, “that the axe was not sharper. I wanted to kill him.” Mary Lewis had a violent past and had been involved in an earlier assault case in which someone threw a lighted lamp at her.

George survived the attack and told police that he loved his wife and simply had asked her to give up her male friend. Police were convinced “he had come pretty near being a model husband.”

Possibly the head injury George suffered, described as deep gash three inches long that bled profusely, caused a traumatic brain injury that eventually made him mentally unstable. By 1908, George was a patient in an asylum called the Gardner State Colony in Worcester County, Massachusetts.

A history of Gardner describes it as a “colony for mentally disturbed patients who were able bodied and sufficiently cooperative to engage in construction work for the institution.” The Colony had both an agricultural and a livestock farm and was self-supporting. Escapes were common, and after George escaped, in October 1908, the police were asked to be on the lookout for him. He was back as a patient in the Colony by 1910, when the federal census listed his occupation there as “housework.”

Gardner Insane Colony

Map of the Gardner State Colony from the 1907 annual report of the institution

His arrest in 1913 may have occurred after another escape, but it’s also possible he had an improvement in his mental health. The goal of the physicians who ran the Colony, according to annual reports published between 1903-1911, was to rehabilitate patients and release them back into the community. The Worcester city directory for 1915 lists a “George Lewis” who worked as a waiter and boarded at 23 Washington Street. The city of Worcester was less than 30 miles south of the Colony.

George was back at the Colony by 1918. In September of that year, a Gardner official filed a World War I draft registration card for him. His father, a resident of Roxbury, Massachusetts, was listed as his next of kin. George was no longer able to write his name, so someone at the institution signed for him with an “X.” The box where his occupation should have been written was instead stamped “INSANE.”

George was still a patient of the Colony when he was counted on the federal census in January 1920. Ominously he was one of the few inmates who had no occupation — apparently his mental condition had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer carry out even simple tasks. George was not listed on the 1930 federal census at the Colony or anywhere else.

In 1935 the Colony’s name was changed to the Gardner State Hospital. The hospital closed in 1976 and in 1981, a prison opened on the site. There’s a cemetery from the Colony years and a list of 132 people who are buried there appears on FindAGrave, but George’s name isn’t on the list. However the description of the cemetery notes that there could be as many as 600 more unidentified souls buried there and it’s likely that George is one of them.

Featured photo: Worcester Police Department Criminal identification card photos taken on October 4, 1913. Collection of the author.

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