Haunting Portraits from Washington’s Oldest Asylum

Photos courtesy of Washington State Historical Society

These portraits were taken in 1918 by Marvin D. Boland, a prolific Tacoma-based photographer. Thousands of his photos are held in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society and Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room.

Boland covered a wide range of subjects but much of his work centered on portraiture. His portraits were notable, though, in that they were often of average citizens—factory workers, football players, race car drivers, and, evidently, psychiatric hospital patients. The vast majority of them were taken on location, rather than in a studio like most portraiture of the time.

It may be hard to believe, but these photographs that were made 100 years ago were, in many ways, superior to anything made with today’s digital cameras. These images were made on 5×7” glass plate negatives compared to the 1.4” digital sensors found on most modern cameras today. That, combined with lens technology that has changed very little since then, resulted in extremely high quality and uniquely compelling images.

Originally known as the Fort Steilacoom Asylum, then Western Washington Hospital for the Insane, the institution opened in 1871, 18 years before Washington became a state. It now operates as Western State Hospital across the street from the original location in Lakewood. A raised foundation is all that’s left of the old building.

Marvin Boland’s reason for taking these portraits more than a century ago is unknown. It’s possible that this was a personal project by the photographer for his own artistic pursuits. They may also have been commissioned by the hospital or the State of Washington.

When you look through these photos, please know that our intent in sharing them was not to present them as a curiosity to gawk at, but simply as a poignant look into our past. In the context of 21st century medical practices, it’s impossible to look at the subjects and not feel compassion for them. 

Whatever the reason the photographer had for making these portraits, they stand out from the rest of his work in Tacoma and the surrounding area. The patients here are humanized in a setting that, unfortunately, often stripped them of their humanity.

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