A Songwriter Gives Voice To The Silenced Women Of Rockwood Asylum

May 14, 2017

Canadian singer-songwriter Simone Schmidt, who performs under the name Fiver, undertook an ambitious project with her latest album. Audible Songs From Rockwood is Schmidt's way of telling the stories of real people committed to Rockwood Asylum, a 19th-century institution near what's now Kingston, Ontario.

"The Rockwood Asylum was built between 1856 and 1868 on the north shore of Lake Ontario," Schmidt says. "It was built as a way to deal with a class of criminals and persons designated insane that the Kingston Penitentiary and the Toronto psychiatric institution couldn't handle."

In a conversation with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Schmidt explains how she researched the women who became the characters in her songs and provides context for a few of those songs. Hear the interview at the audio link, and find highlights below.

Interview Highlights

On the process of researching the inmates at Rockwood Asylum

The case files of anyone who was incarcerated in a public institution over 100 years ago are available to any member of the public. So these ones were in the archives of Ontario ... They're handwritten, and so you really get a sense of the script of the superintendent who would have been filling them out. And they have all kinds of information — although very little, when you think of these case files being the only thing left of a lot of the people.

On the story of the narrator of "House Of Lost Words"

I got everything from a series of letters between a superintendent and one of the inmates' husbands. The husband writes to the superintendent to check on his wife, and he's writing from Temple, Texas. And the superintendent writes back to tell him, "Your wife's fine, you should come pick her up," and what happens over the course of these letters is you realize that the husband never comes.

Then there's another letter that was dated 30 years later, from the inmate's daughter, who wonders where her mother was and if she was still alive. And the superintendent, of course, writes back and says "Yeah, your mom's totally fine, you should come pick her up. She's in sound body and sound mind." And then you look at the case file and it also says that the same woman died a year after that letter was sent. So you know that she lived 33 years in the asylum.

On taking refuge in the characters in her songs

It's that feeling of displacing oneself into the consciousness of another. And so, if I were to tell you more about my life, then I would be describing what it is that I'd be taking refuge from. ... It's that joy of obsession, I find. And even when it's somber material, or when it's difficult material, I don't necessarily find it that much [more] difficult than what it is to live in this world.

Web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Simone Schmidt is a Canadian singer-songwriter who does solo work under the name Fiver. Her latest album is an ambitious project, a novelistic undertaking to tell the stories of real people who were committed to an institution for the criminally insane. It's called "Audible Songs From Rockwood."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STABLE SONG")

FIVER: (Singing) When first was forced entry to Rockwood's misery, the nurses sat me opposite a doctor's scrutiny. He said, my girl, your file read you've led your life to mess. Now what might be the matter here, do you hazard any guess?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about the Rockwood Asylum. It's a real place?

SIMONE SCHMIDT: Yeah. The Rockwood Asylum was built between 1856 and 1868 on the north shore of Lake Ontario, right around what's known as Kingston now. And it was built as a way to deal with a class of criminal and person designated insane that the Kingston Penitentiary and the Toronto psychiatric institution couldn't handle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Each of the songs on the album is in the voice of a different person who was committed at the Rockwood Asylum. Let's listen to some of "Worship The Sun (Not The Golden Boy)."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORSHIP THE SUN (NOT THE GOLDEN BOY)")

FIVER: (Singing) James had a wide mouth that all men trusted, told a good story, caught a good game. His eyes were the eyes of a wise man gone busted. Strong were his hands and the marks they made.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's the singer's story?

SCHMIDT: Well, this singer would have been the last member of the Brook's Bush Gang. Effectively, this gang just hung out in the Don Valley, which is on the eastern edge of Toronto, and they would feed themselves by stealing eggs from local farmers and do all sorts of things like brew their own whiskey. And one way that they made a living was they collected tolls on the bridge that crossed the Don River.

Anyways, they were very famous for this murder that happened. And it was the murder of a local member of government who tried to cross the bridge and refused to pay a toll. And as a result, he was murdered by a few members of the Brook's Bush Gang. And it's widely agreed that the man who was punished for his murder didn't actually do the murdering. And so the character that I kind of carved out of this case file gives an alternate perspective from the peripheral perspective of a woman who was in that gang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORSHIP THE SUN (NOT THE GOLDEN BOY)")

FIVER: (Singing) There are all kinds of tales a well-oiled mouth will tell you if ever she's pressured to recall that day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've mentioned case files. Tell me how you researched this.

SCHMIDT: The case files of anyone who was incarcerated in a public institution over 100 years ago are available to any member of the public. So these ones were in the archives of Ontario. And I just put an order in for them, and they came to me eventually.

And I flipped through these brittle papers. They're blue and cover a lot of them. The warrants are white, and they're handwritten. And so you really get a sense of the script of the superintendent who would have been filling them out. And they have all kinds of information, although very little when you think of these case files being the only thing left of a lot of the people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you were looking over the documents, what kind of things emerged? What were you - what were the themes or stories that you kind of got to glimpse into?

SCHMIDT: You know a lot of them are very sparse. So I got everything from a series of letters between a superintendent and one of the inmate's husbands. The husband writes to the superintendent to check on his wife, and he's writing from Temple, Texas. And the superintendent writes back to tell him, you're wife's fine. You should come pick her up. And what happens over the course of these letters is you realize that the husband never comes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE OF LOST WORDS")

FIVER: (Singing) Temple town Texas can hear me (ph).

SCHMIDT: And then there's another letter that was dated 30 years later from the inmate's daughter who wonders where her mother was and if she was still alive. And the superintendent, of course, writes back and says, yeah, your mom is totally fine. You should come pick her up. She's in sound body and sound mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE OF LOST WORDS")

FIVER: (Singing) With sound body and sound mind, how could heaven left behind. Temple town Texas, can hear me (ph).

SCHMIDT: And then you look at the case file, and it also says that this same woman died a year after that letter was sent. So you know that she lived 33 years in the asylum.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIVER SONG, "HOUSE OF LOST WORDS")")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I read in an interview that you gave a few years ago where you said, I often take refuge in the characters that I write. What refuge did your Rockwood characters give you?

SCHMIDT: When I say I take refuge, it's that feeling of displacing oneself into the consciousness of another. And so if I were to tell you more about my life, then I would be describing what it is that I'd be taking refuge from. But it's that joy of obsession, I find. And even when it's somber material or when it's difficult material, I don't necessarily find it that much difficult than what it is to live in this world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAIR OF THE DEAD")

FIVER: (Singing) Rushed to the bottom of the pearly gates...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Fiver. Her new album is called "Audible Songs From Rockwood." She spoke to us from the CBC studios in Toronto. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Thanks for listening. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAIR OF THE DEAD")

FIVER: (Singing) Return my mind to me. I dreamed I sat on a porcelain fence. Then he had you come to reconvince me (ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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