Category Archives: 1900s newspapers

Newspapers in the 1900s were full of opinion and misinformation. They usually contained personal tidbits about local people

A Deadly Fear

A Comforting Advertisement

A Comforting Advertisement

Doctors’ competency during the 1800s was not always comforting to patients facing a dire illness, and Victorians developed a great fear of being buried prematurely. Though a well-known device called Bateson’s Revival Device or Bateson’s Belfry, is actually a fictional account (by author Michael Crichton in The Great Train Robbery) of a device to rescue patients buried during comas and so on, many “safety coffins” did exist.

Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger in Germany invented an elaborate system of ropes that linked a corpse’s limbs and head to an above-ground bell. Theoretically, if the “corpse” woke from a coma or similar state, he or she could alert the living to come to the rescue. One problem with this device was that decomposition and the bloating that accompanied it would shift the body and cause the bell to ring. Rescuers were undoubtedly horrified with these false alarms, and Taberger’s invention fell out of favor.

Dr. Taberger's Safety Coffin

Dr. Taberger’s Safety Coffin

A system that made more sense had already been invented by Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick in the late 1700s. He incorporated a window and air tube in his coffin, along with a lid with a lock (rather than one nailed shut) that included a key to keep in the pocket of his shroud. This was a private device for his own burial, but it must have provided good ideas to others.

Franz Vester of Newark, New Jersey invented an improved coffin that included a tube which allowed an interested person to see the corpse, and through which the revived “corpse” could climb to escape. It also included a bell in case the victim was too weak to climb the provided ladder.

Franz Vester's Burial Case

Franz Vester’s Burial Case

Though modern fears are not as pronounced as in the Victorian era, they still exist–a U. S. patent for a portable alarm system was filed January 7, 2013. The system includes a signal-transmitter secured in the coffin or tomb and a light source to keep the victim from panicking; a receiving device is monitored by security or other personnel. After a predetermined period, the system can be removed from the coffin for reuse.

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Tub Therapy

Dr. Charles Pilgrim, 1908

Dr. Charles Pilgrim, 1908

Physicians used hydrotherapy (various sorts of baths and showers) extensively in the treatment of the insane. The treatments could sometimes be helpful; a nice, warm bath might relax a patient or help him sleep, or a bracing shower could stimulate a patient who felt sluggish and tired. Dr. Charles Pilgrim, however, took water treatments to an extreme with what he called “Tub Therapy.”

Dr. Pilgrim arrived at the Hudson River State Hospital from the Willard Asylum in1893. He quickly made physical improvements to the institution, installing electric lights to replace the gas lamps, and building new 50-bed cottages for patients, a new mortuary, and a lab. In 1908, Pilgrim introduced Tub Therapy, a form of the continuous bath. Patients entered the tub room and reclined on a canvas hammock in a tub of warm water, a rubber pillow behind their necks for additional comfort. Water temperature was monitored so that it remained at the proper therapeutic level.

Tub Therapy at Pilgrim State Hospital, the Former Hudson River State Hospital

Tub Therapy at Pilgrim State Hospital, the Former Hudson River State Hospital

Most patients would have enjoyed this for an hour or two, but Pilgrim’s treatment was of much longer duration. A September 17, 1908 article in The Beaver Herald (Oklahoma) stated: “You sleep for six hours . . . next morning breakfast is served to you in the tub, then dinner, then supper.” Occasionally the doctor would come in to chat or take a blood sample, and the patient grew calmer, more rested, and more cheerful all the while. After at least several days (the title of the article was “Live for Weeks in the Bathtub”), the patient finally got out of the tub with the help of a nurse and found him or herself well again.

This treatment was primarily for patients who felt madness coming on, either just fearing a breakdown or actually close to one in their own or others’ opinion. The therapy was voluntary, though it is hard to see anyone in good physical health actually enjoying the forced inactivity.

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Reasons and Rationalizing

The Law of Nations by Vattel

The Law of Nations by Vattel

When the U.S. government first dealt with native peoples, its position for the most part was that they were sovereign nations with whom the U.S. needed to negotiate treaties. Once some time had passed and more Europeans crowded into the new land, that position became inconvenient. President Andrew Jackson turned to the reasoning of Emer (or Emmerich) de Vattel (1714 – 1767), who had published The Law of Nations in 1758.

Vattel held the opinion that land use made all the difference. He posed the question: “It is asked if a nation may lawfully take possession of a part of a vast country, in which there are found none but erratic nations, incapable by the smallness of their numbers, to people the whole?” Vattel’s position was that the earth belonged to the human race in general and that “these nations cannot exclusively appropriate for themselves more land than they have occasion for and which they are unable to settle and cultivate.”

President Andrew Jackson

President Andrew Jackson

This argument suited Jackson, who wanted to set aside land beyond the Mississippi River and force Indians to settle on it so that whites could have the bountiful land Indians currently occupied. This idea of removal was fiercely debated in the press and within Congress, who ordered much of the resulting material printed. More documents seem to have come down against removal, but Congress passed the removal agenda by a small majority in 1830. Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Marshall, disagreed with the action and upheld that Indian tribes possessed their land; he additionally pointed out that official acts of the U.S. involving trade and treaties had already recognized their rights.

Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall

Jackson refused to be bound by Marshall’s decision and proceeded with Indian removal through the Act which had been approved in 1830. Among other atrocities, the notorious Trail of Tears resulted.

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Social Interests

Railroad Depot in Canton, South Dakota

Railroad Depot in Canton, South Dakota

Throughout history, social ties have been important. Citizens in small towns certainly kept tabs on their neighbors, but even in large cities, prominent people were reported on in the “society pages.” Many small-town newspapers kept tabs on the comings and goings of the locals, and reported on visits from their relatives and friends. On September 30, 1910, the Sioux Valley News reported that:

— Ed L. Wendt took a trip up to Lake Preston Tuesday to attend to some business matters

— Col. Arthur Linn went to Hot Springs last Saturday to attend a meeting of the Soldiers’ Home board

Soldiers' Home in Hot Springs, South Dakota

Soldiers’ Home in Hot Springs, South Dakota

— Mrs. C. F. Neighbors came up from Sioux City Monday to spend a few days with her friend Miss Grace Hanson

— Miss Ethel McClanahan arrived in Canton a few days ago and has been a guest of Dr. Hummer and family at the Indian Asylum. Miss McClanahan was for a number of years chief nurse in St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington, D. C. . . .

Unidentified Asylum Nurses

Unidentified Asylum Nurses

McClanahan was working on a special case in the west at the time, and presumably stopped in to see Dr. Hummer on her way to¬† “visit friends further east” as the paper reported. Still, despite Dr. Hummer’s reputation for temper and haughtiness at the asylum, he could evidently be quite cordial to those he felt were his social or professional equals.

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High Society

East Side of Main Street, Canton, SD circa 1912

East Side of Main Street, Canton, SD circa 1912

“Out West” was a remote place in the public imagination, and Canton, South Dakota was a small town compared to the population centers of the East. However, Canton was a lively place, with many shops and amusements for the public. People also enjoyed visiting each other and providing their own entertainment in the form of card games and music. In December, 1912, the Sioux Valley News reported on a social event that would have been typical for the people involved.

Parlor Entertainment

Parlor Entertainment

“On Tuesday evening of last week, in the pretty parlors of Judge and Mrs. Gifford were gathered about twenty friends for an evening at cards,” the item began. The minutes passed into hours, and at midnight, Mrs. Gifford provided a “delicious luncheon” for her guests. After eating, the guests lingered and talked, or smoked cigars. The paper mentioned that one of the guests gave a piano solo, and probably other guests sang or played a song as well. “At a late hour, all departed for their several homes,” the item noted, “bearing with them the happiest of memories.”

Parlor in the Chester Wickwire House in Cortland, New York, circa 1890 to 1900, courtesy the 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art in Cortland, New York

Parlor in the Chester Wickwire House in Cortland, New York, circa 1890 to 1900, courtesy the 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Art in Cortland, New York

Such an evening would be enjoyable for many people even in modern times, and these events likely bonded the social ties of the town’s leading citizens. They certainly did not lead the bored, dreary lives that many “back East” probably thought they did.

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A Taste of Small Town Life

Canton, S.D. High School, 1911

Canton, S.D. High School, 1911

Newspapers can give intimate glimpses of a community and its concerns, and the Sioux Valley News zeroed in on the activities in Canton, South Dakota and its neighboring communities every Friday. On June 10, 1904, the paper reported on the efforts of the Misses Rudolph and Cooper to bring a high school alumni association into being. Interested people held a meeting in which they elected officers, listened to entertainment (singing), and then ate. The paper listed attendees, mostly alumni, as well as some of the town’s leading citizens such as Mr. and Mrs. O. Gifford (the superintendent of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians and his wife).

Canton S.D. Courthouse with Buggy in Front, circa 1907

Canton S.D. Courthouse with Buggy in Front, circa 1907

Small details were the life of the paper. It further reported that Mrs. Gifford had recently been out of town to attend a meeting of the Women’s Federated Clubs, that William Robinson had arrived from Chicago on Monday for a brief visit with his parents–and that he had “grown much heavier since becoming a resident of Chicago,” and that the Wentzys had passed through Canton on their way home from the World’s Fair.

State Asylum at Yankton, SD

State Asylum at Yankton, SD

This edition also had an item that must have saddened the hearts of the people involved: “An attendant came up from Yankton and returned on the afternoon train, taking with him John Bergstrom and Axel Olson who will be placed in the hospital for the insane for treatment.” At least in this respect, white citizens were not spared the publicity surrounding a commitment to an asylum any more than Native Americans.

 

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Christmas Festivities

Christmas Tree in Wisconsin State Hospital, 1895

Christmas Tree in Wisconsin State Hospital, 1895

Though attendants at times ignored, and the public itself often forgot about patients in insane asylums, the Christmas season brought out a desire to remember even the most removed members of society. Many civic organizations donated food and clothing to insane asylums, or sought to make the patients more comfortable. Churches, school bands, and choral groups would visit asylums to sing and entertain patients, and money was usually set aside in some way for improved meals. The Milwaukee Sentinel wrote on December 25, 1903 that:

“Inmates of the county insane asylum will enjoy rabbit stew, oysters, and plum pudding for dinner today. The Christmas tree entertainment was held last evening, and the program of music and recitations was followed by dancing and bags of candy and fruit were distributed.

Christmas Decorations in Ward of Bellevue Hospital, 1920

Christmas Decorations in Ward of Bellevue Hospital, 1920

“The usual Christmas festival for the patients of the Milwaukee Hospital for Insane was given on last evening. A Christmas tree, illuminated by colored electric lamps and laden with presents, a concert by the hospital orchestra, and dancing, comprised the entertainment. Every patient received a present and refreshments were served. A special breakfast and dinner will be served today, and skating on the lake will be indulged in.”

Christmas Turkeys Displayed Outside Spencer State Hospital, formerly Second Hospital for the Insane, circa 1924, courtesy WVU Libraries

Christmas Turkeys Displayed Outside Spencer State Hospital, formerly Second Hospital for the Insane, circa 1924, courtesy WVU Libraries

These and similar festivities elsewhere were aimed at patients, but very likely heartened the staff as well.

 

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Anyone Could Be Insane

Alsa Thompson, Age 4

Alsa Thompson, Age 4

Early alienists did not spare many conditions when it came to assessing insanity. Alcohol abuse, syphilis, and epilepsy, were often considered forms of insanity, as were the physical manifestations of a severe form of niacin deficiency called pellagra. Women with severe PMS or menopausal symptoms, or even too much interest in sex, could also be considered insane. Children did not escape that label, either.

Publicity Surrounded This Unusual Case

Publicity Surrounded This Unusual Case

In 1925, seven-year-old Alsa Thompson confessed to poisoning her family by putting sulphuric acid and ant paste in their evening meal. Fortunately, her intended victims found the taste so awful that they didn’t eat more than a bite or two of the meal, but the child’s troubled psyche had been exposed. Further investigation found that she had slashed her five-year-old sister’s wrists with a safety razor (which didn’t kill her), and had poisoned two canaries and a cat.

Judge Walter Gates dismissed the insanity complaint that had been brought against Alsa, but he did feel she needed to be under observation. He remanded Alsa into the custody of parole officer Jean McCracken of the local lunacy commission until she could be transferred to a state institution.

Some Contemporaries Obviously Doubted Alsa's Confession

Some Contemporaries Obviously Doubted Alsa’s Confession

Newspaper accounts of the time mentioned that she did not seem bothered by the accusation and simply stated, “I like to see them die,” when questioned about her motives. Her father vigorously defended her, and others thought she was simply impressionable and confessed to a crime she did not commit.

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1906 Investigation

The Washington Herald, 1911

The Washington Herald, 1911

When the Medico-Legal Society leveled charges of abuse against St. Elizabeths’s staff in 1906 (see last post), the public was understandably outraged. However, when the Society would not assist in an investigation nor even let others review its supposed records of the abuse, it lost credibility.

The Washington Herald sent a reporter to St. Elizabeths to investigate one of the “horrors” the Medico-Legal Society had particularly mentioned, the needle bath. “Evidently the informant of the committee as to this particular instrument of torture, was one of those individuals who never take a bath unless it is forced,” wrote the Herald’s reporter. He then described the needle bath (a form of hydrotherapy) as a “scientific shower bath,” and said that a patient undergoing “this particular ‘torture’ seemed to enjoy it.”

Though it is likely that certain attendants were rougher than they needed to be, or disobeyed orders against restraining patients, a subsequent investigation showed that rampant abuse did not exist. A surviving letter from a patient to his sister asserted that “the reports you have seen in the papers in Boston are not so.”

The patient went on to give a practical example of the care he was receiving. “Well, take me for a sample, I weigh more at present than I ever did before, then this should be sufficient to show that we have plenty to eat, and it is good, too.”

My next two posts will conclude the investigation.

Even a Useful Therapy Could be Misused and Abused

Even a Useful Therapy Could be Misused and Abused

A Style of Needle Shower

A Style of Needle Shower

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Investigations Elsewhere

Government Hospital for the Insane Administration Building

Government Hospital for the Insane Administration Building

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians had its share of investigations, which often were a result of staff complaints. It was not unique in this respect–other asylums were also investigated with regularity, sometimes because of staff complaints, but often through outside intervention. In 1906, the Medico-Legal Society of the District of Columbia made a number of spectacular charges against the Government Hospital for the Insane (St. Elizabeths). The charges included allegations of brutal restraint through the use of “toweling” and the “saddle,” as well as “kicking and cuffing by attendants.”

Toweling involved placing dry towels around a patient’s neck and twisting from behind, to physically subdue a patient who was out of control. The allegations included a charge that the towels were twisted until the patient fell over semi-conscious. The saddle was a device which held patients in a reclining position, bound hand, foot, and neck, so that they couldn’t move at all; many were supposedly left for hours in this condition.

Patients were abused this way for their failure to obey orders or to do work properly, or for “taking an extra spoonful of beans” at table. Additionally, attendants were charged with using the feeding tube (which was pushed down through to nostril to feed patients who would not willingly eat on their own) as a punishment.

The charges were sensational, but were they true? St. Elizabeths’s board of visitors (its oversight group) asked the Medico-Legal society to help them investigate the charges they had made, but the group refused to appear before them or to submit its records concerning the abuse.

My next few posts will continue to discuss this investigation.

Utica Crib, Another Notorious Restraining Device

Utica Crib, Another Notorious Restraining Device

Force Feeding

Force Feeding

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