TORONTO — Their lives had been reduced to a few sentences by the men who wrote them off as “criminally insane.”
When musician Simone Schmidt gained access to the archived case files on the female wards of the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane, she expected to uncover 19th-century tales of murder and revenge.
But as she put on white gloves and rifled through the delicate scraps of faded paper, what she found was a series of blanks. In the records scrawled by male police officers, judges and doctors, the women’s stories had been all but erased.
This weekend, the Toronto-based singer-songwriter will debut the theatrical adaptation of her album “Audible Songs from Rockwood” in a show that gives voice to the women of the asylum, and tells the story of how Schmidt pieced their world together through two years of archival research.
“It’s important to remember people who are difficult to remember,” said Schmidt, who performs under the stage name Fiver.
“There are a lot of people in our histories who are not given an inch in the textbook, so I hope to at least gesture at trying to remember that these people did exist.”
Schmidt became captivated by the Rockwood Asylum in 2012 after reading an article about the founding of the Kingston, Ont., institution in the mid-1800s. The asylum later accepted private admissions and patients who weren’t criminals, and stopped treating the “criminally insane” in 1875, according to Schmidt.
The institution was built by the prisoners of the Kingston Penitentiary to house their fellow inmates who had been determined too mentally ill to serve out their sentences at the jail.
Over 12 years of construction, the asylum’s male patients lived in the house once occupied by the estate’s former owner, while the horse stables were converted into lodging for the women.
This detail spurred Schmidt to write a song, which she performed for years before realizing she knew little about the patients who served as its inspiration.
When she tried to learn more about Rockwood Asylum, Schmidt found there was scant literature on the subject. To get more information, she would have to turn to the original source.
Schmidt dove headlong into Ontario’s archives on a two-year mission to exhume the women’s stories, fleshing out her understanding with secondary sources on law and history.
“I just tried to sketch out characters that were forming through the pieces of information that I could get and journal as those characters,” said Schmidt. “Through that, I carved their journals into verse.”
The result was Schmidt’s folk album “Audible Songs from Rockwood,” released in 2017, featuring songs told from the perspective of 10 women who were in the asylum between 1856 and 1881.
“Waltz for One” centres on a teenage girl who became pregnant, so her father fed her the folk abortive of salt and lye, then sued the man purportedly responsible under the tort of seduction.
“House of Lost Words” is based on correspondence about a woman who was institutionalized for more than three decades despite being deemed fit for release shortly into her stay, because none of her relatives would come pick her up from the asylum.
The album came with more than 30 pages of liner notes detailing the historical context for these semi-fictionalized vignettes.
And as Schmidt toured the album in rock clubs, coffee houses and barns across Canada, she said more of this background began to spill out on stage in between songs.
Eventually, she teamed up with director Frank Cox-O’Connell, whom she has known for nearly two decades, to refine these spoken interludes for the theatre as part of Toronto’s SummerWorks festival.
Schmidt, who will be accompanied by a fiddle player and bassist, said she hopes the show gives theatregoers a chance to reflect on how our notions of criminality and mental illness are rooted in these early institutions like the Rockwood Asylum.
“I want people to think about the way things are now in relationship to how they were,” she said.
“Audible Songs from Rockwood” kicks off its five-show run at Franco Boni Theatre in west-end Toronto on Saturday.
Adina Bresge ~ The Canadian Press