A Cost Analysis

Lincoln County Courthouse, circa 1902, located in Canton

Lincoln County Courthouse, circa 1902, located in Canton

Interested parties (mainly in South Dakota) wanted an asylum established exclusively for insane Indians, and tried to make a case for it. They met with a complete lack of support from the superintendent (William W. Godding) of the only other federal institution for the insane, St. Elizabeths. Godding pointed out that the costs to maintain the few insane Indians at St. Elizabeths was less than $3,000 a year, while the proposed asylum in South Dakota would cost $150,000 and need an annual expenditure of at least $25,000 to run it. (See last post.)

However, the Indian Office supported the idea of an asylum, and began to gather figures to show how badly it was needed. St. Elizabeths reported that it had seven Indians in care in 1897 (two had been there close to ten years) for a total cost of $9,506.50 for their entire time as patients. The acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs had no figures as to how many insane Indians might actually need a new asylum’s services, but thought that “an asylum that would accommodate fifty patients would be ample.”

Government Hospital for the Insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia, known commonly as St. Elizabeths

Government Hospital for the Insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia, known commonly as St. Elizabeths

When the Commissioner, William Jones, later canvassed the various reservations to ascertain the number of insane Indians on them, most had none. Of the reservation agents who responded, only 58 Indians were found to be insane, with 7 of that number already in asylums. Agents mentioned other Indians as being “idiotic,” but tellingly, not needing help. One agent said that “a few” on his reservation were slightly insane but not requiring restraint in an asylum. (His estimate is not included in the preceding figure.) Of the 51 potential patients actually on reservations, the agents felt only 34 might need asylum care.

Even if all 58 patients had been taken to St. Elizabeths at a cost of $91/quarter ($364 annually), the total annual cost would have been only slightly over $21,000 a year. That was still under the figure Dr. Godding suggested would be needed to run an asylum in South Dakota each year. Clearly, anyone who did the math could see that even with the added transportation costs to St. Elizabeths, a new asylum really wasn’t worth the money for the few patients that might make use of it. Even paying extra at local state asylums (to offset transporting patients to Washington, DC where St. Elizabeths was located) would have been cheaper.

Yet, the asylum was built, staffed, and infrastructure put in place to support it. A later inspector called the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians a “magnificent political gesture” that had done little good for the recipients it had promised to help.


Click here to order "VANISHED IN HIAWATHA: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians" by Carla Joinson.

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