Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane

Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane

Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane

The Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane in Cherokee, Iowa was not founded by, or for, Indians. However, like the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, it was a deeply desired institution. The towns of  Sheldon, LeMars, Fort Dodge, and Storm Lake in northwestern Iowa lobbied hard to bring the asylum to their area, since it meant jobs and economic growth. Unlike Canton Asylum, this hospital is still in operation,

In 1911, Iowa began to pass sterilization laws to prevent the procreation of undesirable or defective people. Morons, idiots, drunks, epileptics, and moral perverts were all fair targets, and if they were institutionalized, the managing staff made the determination for sterilization. Later, staff recommended candidates for sterilization to the state eugenics board, who made the final decision. By the early 1960s, nearly 2,000 people in Iowa (the majority female) were sterilized under a variety of these laws.

Dr. Walter Freeman, who had perfected the lobotomy technique, enjoyed the fame he received for his work. He was performing a public lobotomy on a patient at the Cherokee State Hospital and stepped back so a reporter could take his picture. As he did this, Freeman’s ice pick-like instrument went too deep into the patient’s brain and killed him.

In 1924, Dr. Freeman directed St. Elizabeths’ labs. He pioneered his transorbital lobotomy procedure there, but the hospital’s superintended would not allow him to use it any wide scale way.

Dr. Freeman Working

Dr. Freeman Working

Feeble-minded Subjects for Sterilization, courtesy Truman State University

Feeble-minded Subjects for Sterilization, courtesy Truman State University



7 thoughts on “Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane

  1. Deborah Manning

    I have been in touch with the Cherokee State Hospital regarding a relative admitted in 1925. I worked with Ms. Jennifer Boger there. I had to fill out a release form and received some very good information. She said their records were on microfilm. She was most helpful. The last burials on the property were in 1962. There was no cost for genealogy purposes. They keep a “death book” that will likely give information on whether or not someone is buried on site.

  2. Carla Joinson Post author

    It can be very difficult to find out patients’ names if the original records weren’t kept in some way. Some mental hospitals are making an effort to give dignity to these patients by going back in and finding out the names that belong to the numbers, and that is what you might try if you’d like to know more. Ask at the hospital if they would have stored the records anywhere…someplace like public relations or administration might be a good place to start. If they don’t have original records, perhaps they placed them in an archive–many records have been turned over to state historical societies. Good luck, if you plan to pursue this!

    Best regards,

  3. Kim

    For Sharon,

    My hometown is in Cherokee Iowa. There is an old mental health grave yard. Many of the graves are marked with numbers rather then names. I am not sure if there is a way of knowing who the numbers belong to. As kids we would go visit the grave yard. There are hundreds of graves there.

  4. Carla Joinson Post author

    Hi Sharon,

    It can be difficult to find records on ancestors, since so many have been destroyed over the years. I looked on the internet and saw that Cherokee State Hospital seems to now be part of the Cherokee Mental Health Institute. I’d suggest contacting that institution first, just to see if they could have possibly retained old records. If they didn’t, my next thought would be to check with the Iowa State Archives or Historical Association, or a historical association near the old asylum. Sometimes records are transferred to places like that. Keep asking about other places where records might be; it seems unlikely that burial places would be completely lost. I do wish you the best of luck in your search.


  5. Sharon Strike

    I just learned that one of my family members was institutionalized at Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane for 30 years. He’s listed in the 1930 Iowa Census as being a patient there. Are there any records as to where these patients were buried and their death dates?

  6. Carla Joinson Post author

    I don’t really know much about the history of other insane asylums, so I can only guess about your spoon. It was quite common in the 18th and 19th centuries for insane asylums to welcome visitors as well as what were essentially tourists, who just wanted to see what an insane asylum looked like and perhaps glimpse the patients. Canton Asylum (which I write about) had set visiting days, and it was one of the places that many visitors to the area made a special point of visiting. In town, they could buy postcards of the asylum, and there were other souvenir items that I’ve seen, though I don’t know exactly where they were purchased. I can’t be certain, of course, but I doubt that you have a commemorative spoon–I think more likely it’s a souvenir spoon. I hope that helps a bit.

  7. Jan Landt

    I have a commemorative spoon with the words “Hospital for the Insane,” “Cherokee, IA” and an image of what was probably the hospital engraved on the bowl. There is no date. Can you tell me anything about it’s origin/history? Was it made to commemorate an anniversary of some sort? Thanks for your help.

    Jan Landt

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