Category Archives: Canton Asylum for Insane Indians

Canton Asylum for Insane Indians in South Dakota was also known as Hiawatha. It opened in December 1902 and closed in 1934 after charges of neglect and abuse were validated. Dr. Harry Reid Hummer and Oscar Sherman Gifford were its only two superintendents. Its only patients were Native Americans, typically called Indians. It was the only federal insane asylum created solely for an ethnic group and served only Indians.

Model Law for Commitment of the Insane

Mrs. Packard Was a Well-Known Victim of Coerced Commitment

Mrs. Packard Was a Well-Known Victim of Coerced Commitment

One of the great tragedies for people judged insane was the ease with which they could be committed to institutions. During certain periods in some states, all it took was the word of family members or “respectable citizens” to commit people to asylums–a practice certain to be abused for personal gain, spite, or control. In 1876, Dr. Alexander E. MacDonald, superintendent of the New York City Asylum for the Insane, explained the way that the state of New York had improved its commitment laws.

Referencing other states that didn’t require physicians to examine the person in question, or only required one doctor to determine insanity, MacDonald cited New York’s requirement that two reputable physicians had to testify that the person was insane and “unfit to be at large.” The latter provision was to protect “harmless” lunatics and chronic cases who weren’t endangering themselves and others. Additionally, the doctors called in to make the examination had to have been in practice at least three years. Though neither of these requirements could curtail all unjust commitments, they seemed to be a step in the right direction.

Illustration from Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Mad-House

Illustration from Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House

Furthermore, the form physicians completed required them to state their reasons for determining that the person in question was insane. Theoretically, this forced doctors to give a somewhat in-depth examination to back up their opinions, and additionally, their remarks would help the doctor at the asylum decide what initial course of treatment to begin.

Hammond May Have Been an Alcoholic or Heavily Medicated

Hammond May Have Been an Alcoholic or Heavily Medicated

Though any of these requirements seem both obvious and fundamental, they came at a time when many doctors simply rubber-stamped family decisions for commitment. Any obstacles to easy, painless commitments had to be a good thing for the helpless people who were often shipped off to asylums for convenience.

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Additional Markers of Insanity

Images of Different Types of Insanity by J.E.D. Esquinol, courtesy Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.u

Images of Different Types of Insanity by J.E.D. Esquinol, courtesy Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.u

In the April, 1879 issue of the American Journal of Insanity, Dr. Judson Andrews gave some tips for family physicians to use in monitoring the possible development of insanity in their patients (see last post). The physical symptoms were disturbingly commonplace, but Dr. Andrews seemed to hit a bit nearer the mark when he described certain mental signs that might indicate the development of insanity. (In general, he thought these mental symptoms would develop after the physical ones.)

— Emotions might be exaggerated (a little or a lot) or the person might be unable to control expression of the emotion even when he tried.There might not be a cause for laughing or crying in a situation, or the reaction might be out of character for the individual.

An Emotional Patient, Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, New Zealand

An Emotional Patient, Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, New Zealand

— Depression might develop, either as a loss of spirits or a “shading off from the natural cheerfulness of disposition.”

— Patients could experience “forebodings of some indefinite, indefinable evil impending, from which no way of escape lies open.”

–Later, patients would begin to be overly introspective; in reviewing their actions, they would judge themselves far too harshly and negatively.

— Patients could develop difficulty making decisions about simple tasks (like what to wear) and important ones alike; any course they decided upon then yielded to “agonies of doubt” or vacillation.

Other changes might be in personality, dress and personal appearance, and “exaltation or exaggeration.”

Insanity Continued to be a Misunderstood Subject, from a Toronto Newspaper, circa 1915 - 1919

Insanity Continued to be a Misunderstood Subject, from a Toronto Newspaper, circa 1915 – 1919

Unfortunately, many of these symptoms could develop so slowly they would be hard to detect; in other cases they might just be an intensification of the person’s normal personality and also hard to spot. At least, though, concluded Dr. Andrews, insanity had lost its mystery and dread, and “the insane man stands forth simply as a sick man: one, who by reason of cerebral disease, is unable to use his brain.”

This viewpoint was undoubtedly kinder than the fear and judgment insanity had faced in the past.

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A Medicine Show

Goodnight Is Credited With Inventing the Chuck Wagon

Goodnight Is Credited With Inventing the Chuck Wagon circa 1866

Medical care on the frontier came in a variety of forms. Doctors could provide care (see last post), but people also relied on their own herbal concoctions and traditional Native cures. Charles Goodnight (who with his partner established the first cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle) believed firmly in the power of buffalo fat. He and his wife made buffalo soap that Goodnight felt would cure almost anything: “I am satisfied it will relieve rheumatism. Try it for tuberculosis. I do believe it will work.”

Medicine shows provided more fun, though, and were always popular when they reached town. These shows might be only one-wagon affairs, or they might contain several wagons and a tent. Even the one-wagon show could cram in plenty of supplies and bottled “cures.”

A Small Medicine Wagon

A Small Medicine Wagon

The wagons were usually brightly painted and splashed with the name of the particular show, but it was mainly up to the pitchman to move products. This person might be a doctor, clergyman, or learned professor–or at least call himself one–and usually enhanced his character by dressing in a fancy long-tailed coat and tall silk hat. The voice was everything, and most pitchmen could whip a crowd into a passion for the alcohol-laden line of remedies they peddled.

Medicine Show Wagon

Medicine Show Wagon

Medicine shows were also shows, often featuring a female who might dance, sing, or play an instrument. A man might do magic tricks like eat fire, trade dialogue with the pitchman in a comedy routine of sorts, or show off with tricks like rope spinning. Early showmen often attacked the competency of the local doctor(s) in order to secure their own business; doctors countered by trying to get the shows run out of town. Later, the two entities learned to co-exist. Doctors quietly allowed the show to run its course, then sold the same (leftover) stock that had so impressed the locals.

 

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Rough and Ready Medicine

Office of Doctors Charles Hathaway and Ross Bazell, 1902, in Winslow, Arizona, courtesy Old Trail Museum

Office of Doctors Charles Hathaway and Ross Bazell, 1902, in Winslow, Arizona, courtesy Old Trail Museum

Medicine in the eastern United States was often hit-or-miss in the early 1800s, but those who pushed to the edge of the constantly changing western frontier were even more apt to suffer at the hands of physicians.

Frontier physicians often took on a variety of jobs: treating horses, pulling teeth, and concocting medicines, in addition to more traditional medical tasks like setting bones and performing simple surgeries. Many physicians were self-taught and consulted a medical manual or two for anything complicated. They relied heavily on substances like morphine; calomel, a compound containing mercury (which the World Health Organization has declared unsafe at any level); and tartar emetic, a toxic laxative containing the carcinogenic, antimony.

Dr. H. M. Greene at Right, in a LaCrosse, Washington Saloon and Pharmacy, courtesy Oregon Health and Science University

Dr. H. M. Greene at Right, in a LaCrosse, Washington Saloon and Pharmacy, courtesy Oregon Health and Science University

Because they typically had few credentials, doctors in the West tried to impress patients with seemingly exclusive or “inside” evidence of their expertise. Doctors’ offices frequently displayed medical instruments and splints; jars of leeches; body parts bottled in alcohol; and beakers, flasks, and perhaps tubing that implied scientific experimentation or the ability to make mysterious concoctions.

Distilling Devices Known as Alembics Impressed Patients

Distilling Devices Known as Alembics Impressed Patients

The local populations would be impressed, but they were equally impressed by Native American remedies and tonics touted in traveling medicine shows. The medical profession itself did not have any kind of a monopoly on public trust or faith.

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Food for Thought

Farm With Hospital Buildings on Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, circa 1886

Farm With Hospital Buildings at Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, circa 1886

A man suffering from acute melancholia and admitted to Stockton State Mental Asylum (likely in the late 1890s or early 1900s) mentioned  that his first noon dinner (lunch) consisted of soup, beans, and potatoes. His 6:00 p.m. supper was only tea and bread. This meager menu was a far cry from the original intentions of asylum founders, who strove to provide nourishing meals to patients as part of their treatment programs.

Weston Insane Asylum Farm, circa 1892, courtesy West Virginia and Regional History Collection

Weston Insane Asylum Farm, circa 1892, courtesy West Virginia and Regional History Collection

Farms were usually incorporated into asylum grounds, both to provide fresh produce for patients and staff, and to provide useful “occupational therapy” for able-bodies patients. Superintendents proudly reported the pounds of produce they had raised, as in Dr. Harvey Black’s report for Southwestern Lunatic Asylum (Virginia) at the end of fiscal year 1887. He noted that their gardens had produced 400 bushels of turnips valued at 25 cents/bushel, 12,000 heads of cabbage at 5 cents each, and 62 dozen squash at 15 cents/dozen. Altogether, the gardens produced nearly $2,000 worth of goods for the asylum’s kitchen.

Piggery at Athens Asylum

Piggery at Athens Asylum

Since the asylum had treated only 162 patients that year, the amount of food grown (Black mentions 16 different crops) probably allowed for a reasonably healthy diet–perhaps better than some patients were able to get at home. Though working on a farm sounds distasteful today, some patients undoubtedly enjoyed it: they got outside, the work was meaningful, and they could both see, share, and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

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Healthy Minds and Bodies

Oregon State Insane Asylum, circa 1900

Oregon State Insane Asylum, circa 1900

Factors in the way alienists (early experts in mental health) treated the insane arose from the medical field’s understanding of the mind. In certain ways, physicians (and alienists) were surprisingly ahead of their time, since they believed that the mind profoundly affected the body. However, they often over-emphasized this aspect of the mind-body connection to arrive at simplistic or sometimes surprising conclusions.

In her 1906 book, The Perfect Woman, Mary R. Melendy discusses this mind-body connection during pregnancy. ” . . . we met with a youth who had finely molded limbs and a symmetrical form throughout,” she says. Melendy stated that the mother did not have this same symmetry or beauty and then continued, “The boy is doubtless indebted for his fine form to the presence of a beautiful French lithograph in his mother’s sleeping apartment, and which is presented for her contemplation the faultless form of a naked child.” Melendy likewise attributed the presence of so many beautiful Italian girls to the prevalence of Madonna images throughout the country.

Melendy's Book on Womanhood

Melendy’s Book on Womanhood

Gibson Girls Were Considered Ideal Images for Womanhood in the 1800s

Gibson Girls Were Considered Ideal Images for Womanhood in the 1890s

This belief that the mind could affect the body so profoundly was one reason alienists felt it was important to take patients from their homes–where their mental illness originated–and shelter them in asylums. There, new habitats and calming scenery could lead disturbed minds toward a new perspective. Recreational activities, mild distractions, and (and at least in the early days of asylums) quality time with a sympathetic asylum physician, were ways to divert a patient’s thoughts from “wrong” views and toward a more beneficial outlook.

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Hiawatha Insane Asylum Honoring Ceremony for 2017

The Keepers of the Canton Native Asylum Story and local historians are hosting the annual Honoring Ceremony at the Asylum cemetery on July 29, 2017. The address is:

2400 E. 5th St.; Canton, SD 57013. Please note that the cemetery is located on the grounds of the Hiawatha Golf Club. The following will be of particular interest:

2:00 p.m.: The Sacred Horse Society will ride through Canton to the Asylum cemetery (address above)

3:00 p.m.: Gathering at the Asylum cemetery site for the Honoring

A potluck will follow, so attendees should bring food to share. This moving, respectful event will be held rain or shine. For further information or with questions, contact:

Ross Lothrop, Chair, Keepers of the Story at 605-261-6717 or

Anne Dilenschneider, Secretary, Keepers of the Story 605-906-5404

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And the Living Wasn’t Easy

Lewis Hines Photo of Oyster Shuckers in Port Royal, South Carolina, early 1900s, courtesy Library of Congress

Lewis Hines Photo of Oyster Shuckers in Port Royal, South Carolina, early 1900s, courtesy Library of Congress

When reformers first began to champion the use of insane asylums in the 1830s, these institutions really did tend to operate as the havens they were meant to be. Life was harsh everywhere for most people: there were few protections for workers, public aid for the weak or disabled scarcely existed, and bodily comfort might mean no more than a slice of bread and a straw-filled sack to sleep on.

It was an age when a professor at the Paris Faculty of Medicine could safely state: “The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it . . . Knife and pain are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patient.”

When surgeons scoffed at the idea of easing pain for (presumably) paying patients, what comfort could lunatics–who supposedly did not feel pain, cold, or hunger–expect? When Dorothea Dix began her crusade to provide compassionate care to the insane, she wrote graphically about the filth and misery she found in jails and outbuildings where the mentally ill were held as prisoners. Once asylums were established, however, these patients could expect decent food, clean bedding, warmth and ventilation, and human attention.

Reformer Dorothea Dix

Reformer Dorothea Dix

Newspaper Article from April 14, 1940

Newspaper Article from April 14, 1940

Conditions deteriorated quickly as families filled asylums with relatives they either did not want or could not handle. Some asylums became little better than the dark and filthy jails they had replaced, and certainly did not help their patients to recover. Coming full circle, reformers again began to agitate on behalf of the insane–to release or “de-institutionalize” them.

 

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An Easy Way to Grab Land

Indian Inspector George Wright, courtesy Oklahoma State Digital Library

Indian Inspector George Wright, courtesy Oklahoma State Digital Library

Many whites wanted access to Indian lands, and there were plenty of politicians who were glad to help them. Guy P. Cobb was typical. He held a position as the Creek Revenue Inspector (appointed through the recommendation of Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Jones, 1897-1904) and had served under Indian Inspector George J. Wright.

While he was a revenue inspector, Cobb was also general manager of the Tribal Development Company, which Cobb said “helped” Indians manage their land. How? Cobb’s company negotiated rental agreements with Indians–with the option to buy their land as soon as any restrictions were removed. He further assisted them by helping them find “good” allotments. Additionally, (and, of course, quite usefully) Cobb was one of the directors of the Bank of the Chickasaw Nation.

Cobb was not the only politician involved in trust companies, and Samuel M. Brosius of the Indian Rights Association named names in his special report on the land speculation. Dawes commissioners Thomas Needles and C. R. Breckinridge, U.S. District Attorney E. Pliny Soper, assistant U.S. District Attorney for the Northern District of the Indian Territory James Huckleberry, Indian Inspector Wright, and many other politicians and Indian Office employees were involved in various trust companies.

Clifton Rodes Breckenridge of the Dawes Commission, courtesy Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

Clifton Rodes Breckenridge of the Dawes Commission, courtesy Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

Indian Land Was Highly Desirable

Indian Land Was Highly Desirable

These companies typically induced Indians to rent their allotted lands for about five years, but then wouldn’t surrender the land after that period and/or refused to pay rent on it. Any heirs of the allottees were then manipulated into selling the land for little money. Even though allotted land was not actually vested in title for 25 years, the courts generally looked the other way at these dealings.

The losers in these arrangements were always the very people the Indian Office and Interior Department had been charged with protecting.

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