Tag Archives: conditions at the Canton Asylum

Scrutinizing the BIA

Hubert Work

Hubert Work

Soon after he took office, Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work contacted the Institute for Government Research; he wanted them to take an intensive look at how his organization was managing the Native American population under its control. The Institute gathered a team of experts headed by Lewis Meriam to survey reservations, schools, and other Indian Bureau facilities. On February 21, 1928, they presented Work  with a report called “The Problem of Indian Administration” that didn’t mince words.

Meriam’s report reviewed the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, and found it lacking. By this time, the institution had several buildings, and the report began with a brief description of them: “At Hiawatha (the local name for the asylum) . . . the central portion of the main building contains the administrative quarters and the culinary section on the first floor, and the employees’ living quarters on the second floor.”

Sample Pages From The Problem of Indian Administration

Sample Pages From The Problem of Indian Administration

The bakery was located in the basement of the building and “was in disorder and the oven was in a bad state of repair.” The inspectors noted the sleeping arrangements for patients and said that: “Equipment is confined almost entirely to iron beds.”

It was a dismal picture, and it seemed consistent. “The hospital building is located about fifty yards from the main building. On the first floor is a good sized dining room in great disorder.” It added later, “The dairy barn was very disorderly,” and that “the power plant and laundry are located in a separate building . . . both were in disorder.”

Much of Meriam's Report Dealt With Indian Boarding Schools Like This One at Fort Spokane

Much of Meriam’s Report Dealt With Indian Boarding Schools Like This One at Fort Spokane

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And the Patients’ Side

Patient Dining Room at West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, 1912

Patient Dining Room at West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, 1912

Employees at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians had clear instructions concerning their duties, including the all-important attendants who were at the heart of patient care. (See last post.) They were charged with keeping rooms neat and clean, attending to their patients’ needs in terms of clothing and personal care–basically what anyone would expect of an institution set up to care for the insane. The reality was often different, and the conditions many patients lived under would have been disheartening.

Though foreign to their own experience on or off a reservation, patients arriving at Canton Asylum when it first opened would have walked into a spacious, light-filled building. Electricity and running water might have been exciting to use, and regular meals supplemented by garden produce would have been tasty and welcome. As the asylum deteriorated over the years, however, patient comfort declined. The early structure had been pretty and airy, with pictures on the walls and nice furniture. As time went on, the pictures disappeared; the floors, clothes, and bedding became dingy and worn; and the nourishing food evolved into a monotonous diet of starches and vegetables. Patients used chamber pots instead of toilets, which allowed human waste to create a stench and promote disease in the midst of crowded rooms.

By the time the asylum closed, one inspector likened patient care at the asylum to that of a prison. Patients who had been sent to the institution for mental problems received no mental health care at all–the whole purpose for the asylum. Ultimately, authorities concluded that almost no amount of money could make the asylum function  as it should and decided to shut it down.

Female Ward at Athens Lunatic Asylum, 1893

Female Ward at Athens Lunatic Asylum, 1893

Women's Sewing Room at Spring Grove, 1910s

Women’s Sewing Room at Spring Grove, 1910s

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