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.

Asylums and Public Inspections, part 2

Pamphlet for Visiting Board Members

Pamphlet for Visiting Board Members

When Drs. Billings and Hurd created a short pamphlet with suggestions for Boards of Hospital and Asylum Visitors (see last post), they were anxious to help these independent “eyes and ears” of the public understand what they should look for during their inspections. Though they urged these visitors not to come in with preconceived ideas or to be excessively judgmental, the doctors did urge them to take their responsibilities seriously and really look at conditions.

One detailed admonition was for visitors to “rub or press a surface [such as the tops of cabinets and shelves or the valves of fresh air registers] with the tips of the fingers, or with a white handkerchief,” to see whether the surface had been actually cleaned, rather than merely dusted. Visitors were to take note of odors and try to discover what caused them: “. . . iodoform or some other drug; to a recent discharge from the bowels; . . . or is it merely a vague, slightly dusty odor, which gives a sense of oppression, indicating insufficient ventilation?” The authors asked them to note whether rooms were neat and clean, if bedside tables were in the proper position, whether dishes or clothes were ever rinsed in the bathroom tubs, etc. First-time offenses should be brought to the attention of the superintendent so he could have a chance to correct them, rather than immediately to outside authorities.

Dr. Henry M. Hurd

Dr. Henry M. Hurd

When Billings and Hurd moved on specifically to asylums, their concern for the well-being of patients was evident. Many questions concerned attendants. Besides asking if they were well-trained, tactful, and respectful, the doctors asked: “Do they have the manner of nurses upon the sick, or of guards in a house of detention?”

Boards of Visitors Were Created to Prevent Scenes Like These at Byberry Farms in 1938, courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Boards of Visitors Were Created to Prevent Scenes Like These at Byberry Farms in 1938, courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The answer to this question would have likely made all the difference in the world to patients.

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Asylums and Public Inspection

Staff at the Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane, 1903

Staff at the Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane, 1903

Public insane asylums and hospitals were monitored in part by committees whose members inspected the facilities and made recommendations for changes and improvements. These committee members were laypeople who took an interest in a particular institution and volunteered their time to visit and inspect it.

Sometimes outsiders get a different sense of a situation than people who are immersed in the field, and can be useful in pointing out conditions professionals have gotten used to seeing. However, asylum and hospital professionals were wary of these public “visitors” simply because they didn’t understand institutions and their limitations. In 1895, two physicians (Dr. John S. Billings and Dr. Henry M. Hurd) created a short pamphlet with suggestions for hospital visitors. They urged these laypeople to come “in a friendly spirit”–not to find fault or with preconceived notions, but with an open mind that sought to understand what was going on.

John Shaw Billings, circa 1896

John Shaw Billings, circa 1896

The authors explained that any visitor would find shortcomings. “No hospital, however wealthy it may be, has means sufficient to furnish the best known means of treatment and the best care to all who apply to it for relief,” they acknowledged. Few, if any, hospitals (or asylums) had all the medical equipment its doctors wanted, or served the best food, and so on. With these limitations in mind, the authors asked visitors to go through the institution with the idea that they could help its administrators improve its function.

Patients Playing Billiards at Bryce Hospital in Alabama, 1916

Patients Playing Billiards at Bryce Hospital in Alabama, 1916

Though Drs. Billings and Hurd may have begun their pamphlet sounding as though they wanted to protect medical institutions from hard scrutiny, they made it plain that visitors were to examine the place thoroughly. Some of the things visitors were to look out for will be mentioned in my next post.

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Attempts at Christmas Cheer

Christmas Tree in Wisconsin State Hospital, 1895

Christmas Tree in Wisconsin State Hospital, 1895

Even when overcrowding and underfunding began to eat away at the effectiveness and relative comfort of asylum care, superintendents often went to great lengths to create a festive atmosphere during Christmas and other major holidays. These efforts eased the monotony of asylum life for patients as well as for staff.

 

Ward Decorated For Christmas, Fulton State Hospital, 1910

Ward Decorated For Christmas, Fulton State Hospital, 1910

 

 

At Northern Hospital for the Insane, staff decorated the chapel with a Christmas tree and placed evergreens and candles throughout the room. Many patients had received presents from their friends and family, and the superintendent, Dr. Wigginton, and his staff had purchased additional gifts to place under the tree so that no one would be forgotten.

Christmas at Morningside Hospital, Portland, Oregon, circa 1920s, courtesy Oregon Historical Society

Christmas at Morningside Hospital, Portland, Oregon, circa 1920s, courtesy Oregon Historical Society

At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, patients also celebrated Christmas with a decorated tree, special meals, and stockings filled with edible treats. In 1927, the asylum received additional holiday help from the Chilocco, Oklahoma YWCA; its girls gathered (and likely contributed) gifts like dolls, games, and books to the asylum’s patients as a service project. These were delivered on Christmas Eve, to the delight of the patients. Hummer asked the coordinator to continue with the service project, and the girls evidently did so, since there is record of the asylum receiving gifts again in 1932 or 1933.

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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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Were Cures Worse Than the Condition?

Medicine Chest circa 1850 and Pocket Pill Case circa 1820, courtesy University of Virginia Historical Collection at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Museum

Medicine Chest circa 1850, and Pocket Pill Case circa 1820, courtesy University of Virginia Historical Collection at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Museum

By the middle and late 1800s, so-called “heroic” medicine (in which extraordinary measures to cure a condition often endangered the patient) had been abandoned. However, patients were sometimes little better off calling a doctor than if they had simply endured the illness they suffered.

To treat diarrhea, for instance, doctors may have first ordered a cathartic–a medicine to accelerate the evacuation of the bowels, and then followed it with laudanum, Dover’s powder (a combination of ipecac and opium), or morphine. The latter concoctions probably relieved distress, and opium does slow the gut so that it will treat diarrhea, but they certainly shouldn’t have been taken for any chronic condition.

Popular Cathartic Medicine

Popular Cathartic Medicine

Head lice were common in crowded living conditions, and patients were advised to soak the hair on their heads with kerosene and wrap it up in a cloth for 24 hours. Since smoking was also common during this era, patients would have to take great care that nothing worse happened to their hair than an invasion of lice.

Calomel

Calomel

Doctors commonly used arsenic and mercury–both deadly–to treat syphilis in the 1800s. They also used mercury to treat typhoid fever, parasites, depression, cholera, teething pain in babies, and scurvy, usually through a mercury-based compound called calomel. Heroin, opium, and morphine were commonly used by physicians and dispensed readily (and without prescriptions) by town druggists; these ingredients permeated common medicines or what we now call “patent” medicines, sold over the counter throughout the country.

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The Price of Convenience

Great Blizzard of 1909, Canton, SD

Great Blizzard of 1909, Canton, SD

The vast majority of employees at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians lived on the premises as part of their compensation package. Though it could certainly be a bit restrictive to seldom leave the asylum grounds, they benefited by not having to trudge through blizzards and ice to get to work in the winter, and very likely saved a great deal of time each day by not having to add travel time to what was usually a very long work shift.

Employees' Dining Room, Clark County Insane Asylum, Wisc., 1922, courtesy Clark County History Buff

Employees’ Dining Room, Clark County Insane Asylum, Wisc., 1922, courtesy Clark County History Buffs

Dr. Hummer, the asylum’s superintendent (evidently in answer to a letter from the Indian Office about the availability of quarters), wrote a letter to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in September, 1916 about his financial clerk’s living arrangements. Hummer stated that it would be possible to furnish quarters at the asylum for the clerk, except for the inconvenience it would cause. The clerk had a wife and daughter, and the family would need three rooms to live in–which wouldn’t be possible unless Hummer gave up his office, the matron’s kitchen, or the sitting room “now used by all the employees.” The financial clerk didn’t want to cause this hardship, and asked that the government provide coal for him to use in his home in Canton.

Hummer’s position was that “I would prefer to furnish him with this coal, rather than make it unpleasant for him or any of the employees.” The commissioner’s office replied: “The Office does not believe it advisable to furnish Mr. T. T. Smith, Financial Clerk, with coal for his home at Canton.”

Jamison No 7 Mines, October 16, 1916, Barrickville, WVa

Jamison No 7 Mines, October 16, 1916, Barrickville, WVa

The price of coal was about $1.24/ton wholesale at this time, and the clerk had estimated he would need about five tons of it each winter.

 

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Many Thanks

Corn Dance, Taos Pueblo, circa 1920s

Though the majority of the U.S. population celebrates an official day of gratitude called Thanksgiving, Native Americans have always had a deep tradition of routinely giving thanks. They have particularly given attention and gratitude to the animals and plants which gave their lives to provide sustenance or medicine.

 

Planting ceremonies were also important, as were dances and feasts to celebrate good crops. Among others, the Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Yuchi, and Iroquois tribes celebrated the Green Corn Festival, which marked the beginning of the first corn harvest. It was a time to thank Mother Earth and all living things for providing food  and other usable items that made life good. The Maple Syrup Ceremony (late spring), Strawberry Ceremony (early summer), Bean Dance and Buffalo Dance (winter), are only a few of the times that Native Americans set aside to acknowledge their dependence upon the bounty of the earth.

Buffalo Dance at Hano, courtesy www.firstpeoples.us

Buffalo Dance at Hano, courtesy www.firstpeoples.us

Qahatika Women Resting in Harvest Field, courtesy Library of Congress

Qahatika Women Resting in Harvest Field, courtesy Library of Congress

The Iroquois particularly formalized times of thanksgiving, which would include a special Thanksgiving Address. A speaker was chosen to give thanks on behalf of all the people. The thanksgiving prayer then offered gratitude to the Creator for the earth and the living things upon it. The prayer could be quite long, encompassing specific things the speaker wanted to call special attention to, like birds, rivers, medicinal grasses and herbs, wind, rain, sunshine, the moon and stars, and so on. Thanksgiving festivals provided opportunities to feast, express gratitude, and enjoy good things, and also provided times of cleansing, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

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A Remarkable Woman

Susan La Flesche Picotte, courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Susan La Flesche Picotte was born in 1865 to the last recognized chief of the Omaha Indian tribe, Chief Joseph La Flesche (Iron Eye). She went to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey and then returned to her reservation to teach at a Quaker school. She became interested in medicine and returned east to attend the Hampton Institute, and later, the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She graduated at the top of her class in 1889 and became the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree.

After an internship in Philadelphia, Picotte returned to her reservation where she provided health care at its boarding school. She was the only doctor on the reservation and served at least 1,244 patients while covering 1,350 square miles of territory to do so. She was also the nation’s first Indian medical missionary, and taught Sunday School, led hymn singing, and presided at funerals, amid her many other duties.

Left to Right, Nattie Fremont?, Mary Tyndall, Susan La Flesche, and Susan's Sister, Marguerite, 1880, courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society

Left to Right, Nattie Fremont?, Mary Tyndall, Susan La Flesche, and Susan’s Sister, Marguerite, 1880, courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society

Front Entrance, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital, Omaha Indian Reservation, National Historic Landmark Photogragh

Front Entrance, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital, Omaha Indian Reservation, National Historic Landmark Photograph

La Flesche resigned from her duties in 1893 due to her own poor health, andmarried Henry Picotte in 1894. They moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, where she set up a private practice. Picotte was passionate about improving the health of Native Americans; she was especially passionate about the evil effects of alcohol on her people and did everything in her power to prevent alcohol abuse on reservations. La Flesche eventually built a privately-funded hospital on the Omaha Reservation at Walthill, Nebraska. She died two years later at only fifty years of age, of bone cancer.

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Horror Abounds

Danvers State Hospital

Danvers State Hospital

Many people enjoy the frights and chills of a good Halloween “haunted house” . . . but some thrill-seekers zero in on former insane asylums. The suffering and fear hanging over these structures offer an atmosphere attractive to a variety of people: the simply curious, paranormal investigators–and unfortunately–vandals and occultists who want to tap into the sites’ evil reputations. A few former asylums conduct ghost tours which are extremely popular, and much of it has to do with the dark atmosphere these places inspire. Could there really be anything to the emotional pull these places seem to have?

One particular asylum is steeped in eerie history. The Danvers State Lunatic Asylum was built on property which was part of the former Salem Village, where the original witchcraft attacks on Reverend Samuel Parris’s family took place. The family’s slave, Tituba, was one of the first accused of witchcraft by the Parris children. and her confession led to the accusation of many others. Trials were later moved to what is now modern Salem. John Proctor (the first male to be accused of being a witch during the trials) George Burroughs, John Willard, George Jacobs Sr., and Martha Carrier were hung on Gallows Hill in 1692–also on the Danvers Asylum property.

Images of Salem During Witchcraft Trials

Images of Salem During Witchcraft Trials

One of the Salem witch trial judges, John Hathorne–an ancestor of famed writer Nathaniel Hawthorne*–lived in a house at the top of the hill (called both Hawthorne and Hathorne Hill) where the asylum would later be sited. He was both quick to pass sentence and defiantly against reconsidering it even if witnesses recanted; some historians speculate that he may have been making money off his victims’ property.

Two Homes of Villagers Accused of Witchcraft

Two Homes of Villagers Involved in the Witchcraft Trials

Whether the property where this asylum (now a residential space) once stood is haunted or not is up to individual experience, but it is safe to say that it’s history might lead to it.**

*Nathaniel added the “w” to his name.

** Illustrations are from a book, Chronicles of Danvers, 1923

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Bon Appétit

Dr. William Whittington Herbert Force Feeding a Patient, 1894, courtesy Wellcome Images

Dr. William Whittington Herbert Force Feeding a Patient, 1894, courtesy Wellcome Images

Force was used far too often in U.S. insane asylums (see last post), but one of the worst acts of coercion had to be forced alimentation, or force-feeding. Some patients simply would not eat, either because they feared being poisoned, were too sick or stressed to have an appetite, or simply didn’t want to cooperate with attendants. Many superintendents did allow a certain amount of patient freedom in this area, but when they feared patients were going to actually hurt themselves by refusing to eat, they acted. Doctors had several ways to force food upon their patients.

— In cases of “great physical weakness,” they injected “nutritive substances” into the rectum

— One recommended practice was to force open the mouth, close the nostrils, and pour liquid food down the throat.

Tools That Could Be Used for Force Feeding

Tools That Could Be Used for Force Feeding

This practice was dangerous and resulted in more than one death by strangulation/drowning, and was terrifying for patients

— Another procedure involved securing the patient “so that resistance is impossible” and forcing his mouth open with screw wedge. The patient’s head would be thrown back and kept fixed in order to “introduce the gag, made of smooth wood”, which had a hole in the center. The doctor inserted a stomach-tube, and then liquid or semi-liquid food would be poured into the funnel shaped entrance of the tube to let it “readily pass into the stomach.”

— Finally, doctors could insert a tube through the nostril and down the throat into the stomach. In these cases, they could give the patient only very thin liquids.

Force Feeding a Suffragette in Prison, 1912

Force Feeding a Suffragette in Prison, 1912

Doctors often did try to simply persuade patients to eat, allow a patient to have a favorite attendant assist at meals, or just give in to little quirks patients insisted upon before they would eat. However, when they made the decision to force-feed, it was traumatic for patients. Even worse, some attendants force-fed patients as a punishment, or threatened them with it to make them behave.

 

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