Junius Wilson's ``incarceration, his subsequent castration and the many years at Cherry (Hospital) cry out for public scrutiny,' his legal guardian says.
A smile marred only slightly by a decades-old attachment to Red Band chewing tobacco crinkles his face from ear to ear as Junius Wilson's fingers flash through the air, forming the letters of his name.His dexterity, alertness and looks belie his 95-plus years. He could easily be in his early 70s. His eager-to-please cheerfulness belies his surroundings - and his past.
Wilson is in the day room of the geriatrics ward at Cherry Hospital - his home since Nov. 21, 1925. That's when the state declared him insane, unable to stand trial against an attempted rape charge, and shipped him off to what it officially referred to as ``The State Hospital at Goldsboro.'
It was the place everybody knew as the insane asylum for black people.
There, the state castrated him, and held him for 67 years - despite the fact that he was not insane.
He is only deaf and unable to speak.
And he was never convicted of a crime. In fact, the attempted rape charge against him was dismissed long ago.
Authorities have known for a long time that he is not insane, perhaps since he was first locked up at Cherry almost three-quarters of a century ago. Yet, North Carolina officials had him recommitted time after time during the 1970s - actions described recently by volunteer attorneys representing Wilson as ``patently fraudulent.'
The state not only kept him incarcerated for much of this century in conditions described as unconscionable; it didn't even require the people who treated Wilson to be able to communicate with him in sign language.
At least it didn't until forced to a few months ago by his newly appointed guardian, New Hanover County social worker John Wasson, and three lawyers who were outraged when they learned what had happened to Wilson.
``I had heard about things like this happening in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but not here,' said Jim Wall, one of the lawyers who came to Wilson's aid.
Only recently - within the past few weeks - and under the threat of a potentially massive lawsuit, did the state begin teaching sign language to Cherry Hospital staff members who work with Wilson.
The training, including instruction for Wilson and a possible return to the community, is part of an agreement in which the state promised to make his remaining years as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.
This is Wilson's story, a picture of a person incredibly alone, clinging to locked-in memories from long ago, while maintaining his dignity and finding some happiness in an environment that was hellish at times.
It is also a story of Cherry Hospital, an institution struggling with the problem of what to do with Wilson, a man doctors acknowledged was sane but who had been at Cherry for so long that authorities feared he would become insane if allowed to leave the mental hospital.
``I ask you,' said Wall. ``Who is crazy? Junius Wilson or the people at Cherry?'
Not much is known about Wilson. The state not only took away his freedom. It deprived him of much of his past.
There is very little in his Cherry Hospital record until 1970. The state didn't begin keeping anything other than the sketchiest of records at Cherry until the hospital was integrated in 1965.
A note from his social worker in 1947 records a visit from his family. There is a letter from the hospital to his mother.
Junius Wilson was born July 1, 1897, in New Hanover County. His home was in Castle Hayne in the northern part of the county near the Pender County line. His father was Sidney Wilson, who later worked for the Seaboard Coastline Railroad in Waycross, Ga. His mother was Mary Clark.
He had a sister, Carrie, who gave her last name as Gill in 1947. She and Mary Clark had a New York City address then.
Based on his looks and fitness as an old man and stories staff members tell of his strength, Wilson must have been strong as an ox when he was young. At 95, he's still husky and broad-shouldered with a firm, strong handshake.
Wilson obviously had some formal education, although he has forgotten a lot during a lifetime with people who can only communicate with him through crude gestures.
He at least learned to write his name and the names of his mother and sister. He knows some basic sign language, probably a form known as the Raleigh dialect which most black people who were deaf used at that time.
In 1925 Wilson was charged with attempted rape. There are few recorded details about the alleged crime. Information no longer exists, if it ever existed, about Wilson's alleged victim or the incident. One thing is certain, however. Wilson was never convicted of a crime. In fact, at some point after he was sent to Cherry the state dismissed the charge against him.
A hearing was held in November of 1925 to determine whether Wilson was mentally able to defend himself in court. A man identified only as Dr. Britt, an assistant county physician, testified that Wilson's intelligence was below normal but there was no evidence of mental disease.
A jailer, ``Mr. Cook,' according to records, testified that Wilson did not respond coherently to questions that Cook asked in sign language. There is no indication that Cook could understand the Raleigh dialect.
Based on that testimony, the court declared Wilson to be insane and unable to stand trial, and ordered him ``committed to the state hospital in Goldsboro, N.C., to be confined therein ... to be treated, cared for and maintained.'
A document in Wilson's hospital file, yellowed and crumpled with age, states that he was admitted to Cherry Hospital on Nov. 21, 1925, at 4 p.m. Calvin Coolidge was president. Angus W. McLean of Robeson County was governor. The Great Depression was four years in the future. Sixteen years would pass before the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor.
Wilson was 29 when he arrived at his new home, one that was built 44 years earlier, in 1881, to house the state's mentally ill black residents. Wilson must have thought he was entering a nightmare.
For the first time in his life, he might have been thankful he was deaf.
He was to become one of about 2,000 patients who were so crowded that some were occasionally housed in cages on the lawn.
Some patients were actually brought to the hospital in cages. Former Cherry superintendent Dr. Mintaut Vitols remembers that as recently as the late 1950s a patient arrived in a bamboo cage.
``A bamboo cage!' Vitols, now retired in Seattle, still sounds incredulous when he recalls those years. ``Can you imagine that?' exclaimed Vitols, who was Cherry superintendent from 1956 to 1968.
``I protested and got quite a lecture from the sheriff. He said I just didn't understand.'
Wilson's guardian and lawyers suspect that at first he might have been housed with the criminally insane.
If so, here is how a state inspector described that building in 1948 when Wilson had been at Cherry for 23 years:
``The building for the criminally insane is a disgrace to the state. It is inhumane, unsanitary and even cruel. Patients were found locked in cages for long periods of time. One man had been kept in a cage for approximately four years.'
Another inspection describes a building as filthy and rat-infested. As horrible as the cages and rats were, Wilson also had to face a different kind of terror.
He was surgically castrated a few years after he arrived at Cherry. A notation placed in his record by a Cherry physician many years later describes this as ``customary in those quaint and past days for the kind of crime that he is alleged to have committed.'
Although Vitols says he does not remember Wilson, he said it is almost certain that Wilson was soon moved out of the building for the criminally insane and into the general hospital population.
He probably slept on a mattress stuffed with straw; he ate with a spoon while sitting on a bench; and he wore overalls and a shirt, clothes issued by the state. If he got any mail, he was not allowed to open it.
He was constantly crowded and at risk of contracting tuberculosis, a disease common at Cherry well into the 1950s. There were more than 2,000 patients at Cherry from 1940 through the 1960s. There are less than 800 now.
Despite the harsh conditions, Wilson seemed to adjust to life at Cherry. He worked on the hospital's large patient-operated farm and at a car-wash on the hospital grounds, part of an industrial therapy program. The hospital staff became quite fond of him and, as the years passed, he was given more freedom.
He worked at Kelly's Country Store just off the hospital grounds where he'd fill drink cases and sweep the floor.
``He cleaned houses, washed cars and looked after people's dogs, and so on,' said Chris Lancaster, a Cherry Hospital ambulance technician who has known Wilson since 1965.
Wilson built up a sizable bank account from his earnings at the car-wash and country store - as much as $7,000 according to one notation in his record. He bought himself a series of bicycles, which he whizzed around on like an Olympian.
He'd ride into town or to Kelly's, sometimes carrying puppies someone had given him, to buy his beloved Red Band chewing tobacco or another passion - very large, very complex jigsaw puzzles.
His prowess with puzzles was well known around Cherry. ``He could put one together in no time,' Lancaster said. ``I mean big ones - 1,000, 5,000 pieces - and if you tried to put a piece in the wrong slot he'd grab your arm and push you away.'
When Wilson entered Cherry he lost almost all contact with his family and everyone else he had known in his life outside an institution. His record shows he had one visit in 67 years. That was on June 5, 1947, the day his sister, Carrie Gill, and his father, Sidney Wilson, came to Cherry.
That was the last time Wilson saw or heard from any member of his family. He never forgot them, however. In 1980, more than 33 years after that visit, a doctor asked Wilson if he would like to leave Cherry.
``He readily agreed,' the doctor recorded, ``and wrote down Castle Hayne, N.C., where he apparently prefers to go ... and the name of Mrs. Carrie Clark,' referring to his sister.
Again, in 1984, when he was 87, Wilson wrote her name and his mother's and handed them to his doctors.
Conditions improved remarkably at Cherry during the 1960s, especially after 1965 when the hospital was integrated. All of a sudden there were amenities such as water fountains, silverware and napkins.
Patients could wear personal clothes. The cages had been removed years ago. Cherry took on the air of a college campus instead of an insane asylum.
By 1970 when he was 73, Wilson had long been a familiar sight around Cherry, almost a part of the aging institution. Staff members befriended him, went fishing with him, even took him home to supper.
The Cherry staff didn't worry when he failed to come in at sundown, as the rules required. ``We knew he wouldn't escape. This is home. Sometimes it'd be 9 or 10 before he showed up.'
They had known for a long time that Wilson was not insane.
J. Field Montgomery, Cherry's director for the past 20 years, says Cherry has known at least since the early 1960s, and perhaps almost since the time Wilson was committed.
``You didn't have to be insane to be committed back then,' Montgomery said.
But not in recent years, either, at least not Wilson.
Cherry went to court at least eight times during the 1970s to recommend that Wilson remain committed, all the while acknowledging that he had no psychiatric illness. The hospital also knew that the old attempted rape charge against Wilson in New Hanover County had been dismissed.
Mental health professionals say they did this to preserve Wilson's mental health. Wilson had been institutionalized for so long, they say, that he could not possibly make it on the outside, especially being unable to hear or speak.
Although sane inside Cherry, he might go insane outside, they reasoned.
``In the community, he might soon deteriorate physically and psychotically,' Dr. Herman C. Restar wrote in Wilson's record in 1975.
To place Wilson in the community ``would produce a deranged Junius, and he would have to return to Cherry for psychotic reasons,' an examiner wrote in 1981.
``We are very compassionate people here,' declared \ Montgomery. Nobody here is going to kick a 75-or-80-year-old man out on the street.
``I know damn well I wouldn't want to spend my life here, but as old as he was, we knew he couldn't make it.'
That philosophy was about to clash head-on with another.
Beginning in the late 1960s, a strong movement began focusing on and expanding the civil rights of mentally handicapped people. The trend was clearly toward getting patients back into the community, and away from committing people to large institutions such as Cherry.
At the same time, there was a growing belief that the state must treat people it kept. The federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and, later, the Americans With Disabilities Act made it illegal to withhold services or treatment because of someone's disability.
In 1970, Wilson's hospital record, almost nonexistent before that year, begins to reflect this new philosophy and how it was at loggerheads with the old.
On Sept. 9, 1970, Dr. Charles Taylor notes in the record that Wilson ``is a good worker,' and that he ``finger spells and signs' and can write. He believes Wilson's ``education has suffered a loss due to having no one to communicate with in his language.'
Then Taylor becomes the first doctor to suggest that Wilson does not belong at Cherry. He recommends that Wilson be allowed a ``trial visit' with his family - whom he has not seen or heard from since 1947.
On Sept. 17, 1970, a Cherry Hospital social worker writes the New Hanover County Clerk of Superior Court asking the status of the charges against Wilson.
The clerk's office responds in November. There are no charges against Wilson. The state dismissed them after he had been sent to Cherry.
The hospital then wrote Mary Clark, Wilson's mother, who, if she was alive, must have been close to 100 years old. She was told that the hospital was recommending her son's release and that she could come for him at her convenience. The letter was returned, marked ``Addressee Unknown.'
At this point Cherry had no legal authority to hold Wilson, although it had no intention of putting him out on the streets.
The institution turned to a series of voluntary and involuntary commitment procedures, some obtained through what Wilson's legal aid lawyers call the hospital's ``patently fraudulent representations that Mr. Wilson waived his right to appear and contest.'
The law requires that a court review a committed mental patient's case at least once a year. No court review is required if a patient signs into the hospital voluntarily.
Each time Wilson's case came up for court review during the '70s, Cherry asserted through its state attorney that Wilson did not contest the action to commit him. An attorney representing Wilson and other patients - also paid by the state - stipulated that Wilson waived his right to contest the commitment.
To involuntarily commit Wilson, Wayne County District Court judges, who hold court at Cherry Hospital, had to rule he was of imminent danger to himself or others.
They did so despite the fact that Cherry doctors throughout the 1970s described Wilson's mental and physical conditions as good and his behavior as good.
``It was patently a lie to say he was of imminent danger to himself or others,' declared Wall, one of the legal aid lawyers representing Wilson. ``No one could read what his doctors wrote and believe that.'
In late 1979, Dr. Nelson M. Macatangay, chief of Cherry's geropsychiatry unit, again recommended Wilson's release. Wilson was 82.
Macatangay wrote: ``Mr. Wilson, apart from his communication impediment, is fairly well able to attend to his personal needs with minimal assistance and is not presenting any medical problem or acute mental illness to suggest continued hospitalization.
``It was the team's opinion that the patient has received the maximum benefit that this facility can offer, and at this point he is in the hospital more or less in a level of a boarding type situation.'
On Jan. 10, 1980, the court ordered Wilson's discharge. Records show that Wilson signed himself into Cherry that same day. He had refused in 1973 to sign a voluntary admittance form.
Wilson's legal aid lawyers - Jim Wall of Wilmington and Roger Manus and Paul Pooley with Carolina Legal Assistance in Raleigh - question whether Wilson really admitted himself voluntarily in 1980.
``No one there could communicate with him,' Wall said. ``They admit they couldn't. Yet, they say they asked him and he volunteered.'
Since Wilson was at Cherry under a voluntary status beginning in 1980, there was no court review of his case at all during the next decade.
Wilson's life in the 1980s continued pretty much as it had before - he rode his bike a lot, put puzzles together, worked at the country store and car wash and occasionally went fishing.
In 1981, Rachel Wright, a vocational psychologist who knew sign language, evaluated Wilson. It was apparently the first time in many years that he was able to communicate in his language.
Wright said that as she was visiting with Wilson, a staff member approached him and began gesturing. Although the staff member didn't realize it, Wright said, his gesture was actually the deaf sign for ``Can't, can't can't.' Wright said the worker told her his gesture meant: ``Go to work.'
Wright said Cherry should have required people who worked with Wilson to learn true basic sign language ``instead of making up gestures that mean something other than what they are trying to convey.'
Using sign language, Wilson told her the names of his family members and said his home was in Castle Hayne, that he loved to work at the car wash, that he owned a TV and a bicycle, that he loved to ride his bike and that two of his bicycles had been stolen.
Even though he was well into his 80s, Wilson was in excellent physical health, and strong. He could also occasionally show a temper. In 1976, when he was 79, Wilson broke a bone in his right hand when he hit another patient in the jaw. In 1983, when he was 86, his doctor noted he would occasionally throw staff members and patients against the wall when they invaded his space.
``He's never been mean, or anything like that,' said Lancaster, the Cherry staff member who has known Wilson since 1965. ``But if somebody does something he doesn't like, or gets in his space, he'll let them know about it right quick.'
In 1984, the hospital withdrew $3,000 from Wilson's account to buy him a cemetery plot and enter into a burial contract.
In 1986, Wilson suffered a mild stroke but seems to have recovered well. He ``gets around rapidly and confidently,' according to a recent assessment by a Cherry physician.
Because of Wilson's age, Cherry could see the day coming, however, when it might be desirable, for legal reasons, to have a guardian sign off on decisions regarding medical treatment for Wilson.
Wilson turned 93 in 1990. By then, he had been pronounced sane and insane so many times at Cherry that at times it must have been difficult to remember the current diagnosis. He had entered Cherry 65 years earlier under a court commitment that declared him insane. In 1970, the hospital recommended his release.
From 1973 to 1979, the hospital recommended that Wilson be declared insane, and he was involuntarily committed to Cherry during these years. In 1980, however, a court ordered his discharge after a physician recommended his release. From 1980 to 1990 he was at Cherry ``voluntarily.'
The pendulum swung back in 1990. That year, at the request of Cherry Hospital, Wayne County District Court found Wilson to be incompetent. This was the first step toward having a guardian appointed for him.
Hospital social worker Linda Taylor then wrote to John Wasson at the New Hanover County Department of Social Services, asking him to serve as Wilson's guardian. Taylor, who works closely with Wilson, declined to be interviewed about him.
Wasson immediately made it clear he wouldn't be the kind of guardian who simply signed off on whatever the hospital wanted to do.
``I think that's what they were expecting,' Wasson said. ``We take guardianship requests very seriously here. We believe in vigorous advocacy on behalf of our wards.'
Wasson demanded and got detailed answers to questions about Wilson and his long stay at Cherry. He was furious.
In a letter to Cherry he wrote that Wilson's ``incarceration, his subsequent castration, and the many years at Cherry cry out for public scrutiny.' Wasson told the hospital that it was difficult ``to imagine anything else that could be done to hurt him that has not already been done.'
Wasson contacted Wall with Legal Services of the Lower Cape Fear, and Manus and Pooley with Carolina Legal Assistance in Raleigh. Carolina Legal Assistance specializes in defending the rights of the mentally handicapped.
Two specialists retained by Wasson and the volunteer attorneys recommended to the hospital a specific treatment program for Wilson.
More than a year later, Wasson found the hospital's response to be ``woefully inadequate.' Montgomery, the Cherry Hospital director, says Wilson ``just might not want to learn a new language at 95. Isn't that a little harsh, a little cruel, to spring all this on him at his age? Maybe he just wants to lie around and watch TV.' Montgomery said criticism Cherry has received regarding its treatment of Wilson ``has been an affront to a lot of good people here. We have treated him with compassion. We're his family, his home, and he considers us just that,' Montgomery said. On Sept. 23, Wall and Manus wrote to David Flaherty, then state secretary of human resources, outlining the ``enormity of the injustice Mr. Wilson has endured.'
Flaherty had co-sponsored legislation in 1971 that required the state's mental hospitals to check patients to make certain no one was being held who should not be. ``This was tragic,' Flaherty said. ``Mr. Wilson was the type of patient that we were trying to find.' Flaherty, who left office last month when the Hunt administration took office, turned the letter over to state Justice Department lawyers.
Wasson and his lawyers also sent to Flaherty their recommended program for Wilson - which they said the state must begin immediately to remedy Wilson's injuries.
They say they and Junius Wilson cannot, in good conscience, wait much longer.
____________________________________________________________________________\ WHAT'S BEING DONE TO HELP
Only after being threatened with a massive lawsuit did the state agree to provide basic services for Junius Wilson and staff members who work with him.
Some instruction began just weeks ago. Already people see a marked change in Wilson. ``It's obvious that he knew sign language in the past. It's coming back to him,' said Paul Pooley of Carolina Legal Assistance, the volunteer firm that represents Wilson.
The state has promised Wilson that it will:
Teach sign language to Cherry Hospital staff members who work with Wilson.
Hire professionals and use volunteers from the deaf community skilled in sign language, including Raleigh signs, the dialect used by black people years ago.
Coordinate outings and visits with people who can communicate with him.
Provide individual psychological counseling, using the services of a qualified interpreter.
Designate a particular lounge chair or recliner, and other appropriate items, for Wilson's sole use.
Provide Wilson with any needed physical and rehabilitation therapy.
Identify recreational activities he enjoys and provide them for him.
Make certain that everything medically possible is done to maintain Wilson's eyesight.
Regarding Wilson's possible transition to the community, Cherry Hospital and the state promise to:
Recruit and train companions to visit daily.
Rent an apartment for Wilson and the companions in Goldsboro or Wilson, site of the Regional Resource Center for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing.
Have Wilson and the companions begin spending time together in the apartment and then move there together.
Provide management, funding, training and technical assistance to the companions.
Maintain this level of service for the rest of Wilson's life.