Tag Archives: Meda Ensign

Hard Decisions

Cato Sells, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1913

Cato Sells, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1913

Many people cared about the insane in their midst and tried to do their best by them. Though there were certainly abuses, many of the family and friends who sent their loved ones to insane asylums thought they were doing the right thing or acting in the patients’ best interests. Even after asylums began to lose their initial glow and were seen for the imperfect places they were, many people still felt mentally ill people were better off in them simply because they could receive consistent, professional care.

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was representative of its times in this matter. in 1913, the superintendent of the Shoshoni [sic] Indian Reservation asked the commissioner of Indian Affairs to admit Meda Ensign to the asylum. At the time, this asylum was overcrowded, as most were. The asylum’s superintendent, Dr. Hummer, still replied that he would admit her once authorization was given. Many would question this decision, since another patient would only lead to greater overcrowding.

Shoshone Encampment, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming, Photographed by W. H. Jackson in 1870

Shoshone Encampment, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming, Photographed by W. H. Jackson in 1870

Dr. Hummer did need his headcount to go up so he could supervise a bigger, more prestigious asylum, and typically did not like to discharge patients or reject new ones. However, that consideration very likely wasn’t the only thing on his mind. In his letter to the commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hummer points out the overcrowding, but adds: “If the conditions under which she is living are as bad as portrayed by Superintendent Norris, this authority (to admit Ensign) should be sent me without delay.”

Crowded Ward at Hudson River State Hospital

Crowded Ward at Hudson River State Hospital

More patients led to overcrowding, which worsened patient care but could justify more money and more buildings so that more patients could be admitted and helped. Superintendents at asylum everywhere juggled these issues, just as Dr. Hummer did. It had to be difficult not to accept patients when it was obvious they would be very poorly cared for elsewhere.

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Another Canton Patient History

Front View of Canton Asylum, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Front View of Canton Asylum, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Some of the only Canton Asylum for Insane Indians’ patient histories available come from assessments St. Elizabeths staff made when patients were transferred in 1933 (see last two posts). Here is one more sample patient history:

Meda Ensign (Tribe Shoshone)

This patient had been admitted to Canton Asylum in 1913 at age 24, at the request of the Superintendent of Shoshone Agency, Wyoming. Medical certificate states, “Patient was crippled, deaf and dumb and of unsound mind and should be sent to the Insane Asylum for Indians. This girl has no one to look after and care for her and very often runs about in winter weather scantily dressed. She suffers very much from cold and hunger.”

During her residence in Canton she was said to have been quiet, well-behaved, apparently comprehended many things said to her but was unable to articulate words and her actions were those of a young child, showed periods of irritability, times of depression, tried to do some ward work but accomplished very little, was no problem in that she was tidy and clean.

The assessment went on to relate that Ensign had fractured her left leg at one time, and then sustained a second fracture near the first one after slipping on the walk. She also had trachoma (a debilitating eye disease that often led to blindness). Her mental diagnosis was “mental deficiency” or imbecility.

Staff assessment at the time of admission showed that “the patient is quiet, apathetic, disinterested. She appeared quite dully mentally, understood almost nothing that was said to her, could not talk. She was quiet and well-behaved on the ward, neat and tidy in her habits, did not aggravate the other patients or get into fights or show irritability.” St. Elizabeths’ staff also diagnosed Ensign with “imbecility.”

Three Photos of a Hysterical Woman Screaming, courtesy Wellcome Library

Three Photos of a Hysterical Woman Screaming, courtesy Wellcome Library

Asylum Patients With Various Disorders

Asylum Patients With Various Disorders

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