Conscientious Objectors, Part II; Shedding Light on the Need for Reform

Caring for our neighbors who happen to be mentally ill is among society’s most challenging responsibilities. In fact, during World War II, the federal government deemed it “work of national importance.”

Conscientious objectors–draftees who refused military service but were willing to offer themselves for peaceful endeavors–worked at 44 mental institutions around the country under the direction of the Civilian Public Service, an alternative to the armed forces.

Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville, MD was one such place. The hospital is an active, sprawling complex with many modern accommodations, but some of the buildings on the sweeping campus have been abandoned or transferred to other owners. It’s hard to escape the perception–true or not–that buildings given to the elements, left at the mercy of decay, are burying all that happened within their walls.

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Springfield Hospital Center remains an active facility

Vines creep up the side of stately brick structures. Porches are rotting, crumbling under the weight of time and weather. It’s as if the hospital’s history has been leveraged to ensure that the current patients are getting the attention they deserve. And if it’s an either-or choice, that decision is understandable. But those neglected buildings nevertheless evoke pangs of regret that the good work done there, the lives changed for the better, are memories lost to all but a few.

At Springfield, 119 conscientious objectors worked as hospital attendants, handymen, clerks and food service personnel, among other jobs. They logged nearly 50,000 hours helping the in-house staff and patients there. This work, though challenging and tiresome, furnished the workers a sense of purpose and value. Last week I wrote about the drudgery that disheartened conscientious objectors, how some felt that their service was doing little to make the United States a better place.

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Some of Springfield Hospital Center’s abandoned buildings

Civilian Public Service camps in these hospitals led to greater public scrutiny of the care of people with mental illness because conscientious objectors sometimes spoke up about the conditions they witnessed. At Springfield State Hospital, one conscientious objector noted that patients were often humiliated so that staff could maintain a position of dominance over their charges. The state of affairs at Springfield, however, was good compared to other facilities.

At Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia (the oldest mental hospital in the country), conscientious objectors were so appalled by what they found there that they brought it to the attention of a sympathetic hospital employee who then went to the governor of Virginia. Patients slept in their own waste and were subject to beatings. Violent patients were caged. Poor treatment sometimes aggravated patients’ symptoms. Some of the conscientious objectors, pacifists as they were, had to resort to physical restraint to control their charges.

Eastern State, like other hospitals around the country, faced a staffing crisis as many of the male attendants went off to war. Those shortages worsened what was already substandard care for hospitals’ patients.

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Eastern State, where conscientious objectors served

Photos courtesy of Amy Gulick

These observations spurred some conscientious objectors to action; they hatched a plan to reform mental health based on reports they received from Civilian Public Service camps in hospitals around the country. One result was Out of Sight, Out of Mind, an expose of the deplorable state of mental hospitals, a book Eleanor Roosevelt said “everyone should read.” Later mental health reformers built on the groundwork laid by conscientious objectors.

The vine-covered buildings at Springfield and Eastern State remind us of our own pressing needs at home even amidst international crises, and where there will always be servicemen and women who are willing to protect the country on distant shores, the sacrifices of citizens who tackle challenges in our heartland are just as important if not as readily honored.

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Conscientious objectors serving at New Jersey State Hospital in Marlboro, New Jersey

Photos courtesy of the Mennonite Central Committee

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at
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