Tag Archives: Oscar Gifford

Impossible Tasks?

Supervisor-in-Chief, Attendants & Employees, Detached Building No. 4, Willard Asylum

Supervisor-in-Chief, Attendants & Employees, Detached Building No. 4, Willard Asylum

Though superintendents and other professional staff were inherently in charge of insane asylums, attendants were the true backbones of them. What attendants did or did not do, the way they treated patients, and their attitudes in general could provide some sort of therapeutic benefit or make a patient’s stay as miserable as possible.

At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, attendants were never trained. They likely watched what other attendants did and followed suit, also bringing in their own attitudes and experience to patient care. There were guidelines for attendants–provided after inspectors discovered that the asylum’s first superintendent (Oscar Gifford) had never disseminated them to staff–but they would have been difficult to follow due to the asylum’s perpetual short-staffing. In fact, any number of subsequent inspections showed that most guidelines obviously were not followed. The government did make its priorities clear, however:

A Group of the Asylum Staff, Willard Asylum

A Group of the Asylum Staff, Willard Asylum

“In the event of a fire, your first duty is to save the lives of all the patients under your charge. Your second duty is to save government property. Your third duty is to yourself. These duties are always to be considered in this order.”

Attendants at Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane

Attendants at Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane

Clearly, human staff were of least value to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is little wonder that the agency allowed its one asylum to fall into neglect simply because it would not provide enough people to adequately care for their charges.

My next post will discuss the enormity of attendants’ responsibilities.

 

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Spinning . . . and Spinning

Carnegie Library in Canton, South Dakota, Built With a 1904 Grant

Carnegie Library in Canton, South Dakota, Built With a 1904 Grant

The editor of the Canton, South Dakota newspaper, The Sioux Valley News, was like many people everywhere and during any time period, a great supporter of his community. The paper printed almost nothing of a negative nature about the city and its projects, and generally had glowing accolades for whatever event or institution it discussed. In an article about the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians (“Asylum Needs Larger Quarters”) from 1926, the paper’s writer gave a sanitized and spectacularly positive spin to the creation and ongoing administration of the facility.

Following a summary concerning the asylum’s creation after Senator Pettigrew became aware of the need for it, the writer briefly described its early years under Oscar Gifford’s leadership. Then he discussed the arrival of its first patients:

“A queer particular about the early admissions was that in-as-much as an asylum was a new experience for the untutored Indian, and there lurked in his mind some misgivings as to the treatment their afflicted ones might receive in an asylum, the whole family, in some cases, came along with the patient to satisfy themselves that everything was honest and above board.

Canton, S.D. Railroad Depot

Canton, S.D. Railroad Depot

“This suspicious attitude gradually gave place to an air of confidence in the good intentions of the government. Those whose fears had been thus allayed, no doubt spread the word of their satisfaction among their brethren, and of late years, these family accompanyings have about entirely disappeared.”

Young Oglala Girl In Front of Tipi, Probably On or Near Pine Ridge Reservation, courtesy Library of Congress

Young Oglala Girl In Front of Tipi, Probably On or Near Pine Ridge Reservation, courtesy Library of Congress

These latter statements are difficult to believe, since there is no evidence whatsoever that Canton Asylum held a good reputation within the Native community. It is only slightly less difficult to believe that many families had the money to accompany their loved one to the asylum unless they lived nearby.

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A Home of One’s Own

Plaque at Newton Hills State Park

Plaque at Newton Hills State Park

Many people in today’s workforce complain that it’s difficult to get away from the job–they’re available to their employers through phones and email almost constantly. Superintendents and other staff at insane asylums were also tied to the workplace, actually living on the premises and usually right in the same building as patients. Many superintendents felt that this was a good idea, since it gave staff the opportunity to know the patients better, and of course, made them immediately available if a situation arose that needed attention.

Though room and board were nice perks for employees, most would doubtlessly have preferred living off the premises or at least away from patients. The superintendents at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians were no different. For one thing, staff quarters were crowded. Canton Asylum’s first superintendent, Oscar Gifford, had a home in town and simply gave his assistant superintendent, Dr. Turner, the space they would have otherwise shared. The asylum’s second superintendent, Dr. Harry Hummer, came from out of state and needed to live in the available quarters. He shared these with Dr. Turner and with his replacement, Dr. Hardin, until Hardin left the Indian Service.

Former Canton Asylum Superintendent's Home

The Canton Asylum Superintendent’s Home As It Now Stands in Newton Hills State Park

Dr. Hummer always wanted his own, separate home, however, and finally gained approval for a residential cottage. Hummer received two bids for the project and recommended accepting the bid from Martin Granos: “He agrees to give us three coats of plaster, a larger basement [than the other bidder], a larger cistern, beamed ceiling in the living-room, stained shingles, a $58.00 range, a $31.00 ice-box built in, oak finish throughout the interior, fireproofed fireplace and three kinds of water in the bath-room.”

Decades after the asylum closed, Dr. Hummer’s cottage was removed from the premises and taken to Newton Hills State Park in South Dakota, where it is available for rent to vacationers and other members of the public. The reconstructed cottage differs just slightly from the original.

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An Impossible Job?

Superintendent Oscar Gifford

Superintendent Oscar Gifford

Though the rules and duties of each asylum position had been formulated by 1903, they were not initially given to employees at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. Its first superintendent, Oscar Gifford, told an inspector that he hadn’t done so because employees often had to assume whatever tasks came up, and he didn’t want to constantly make exceptions to a job description. He may have also feared that no one would want the job of attendant in particular, if they had had a chance to read the extent of their duties.

An attendant’s duties included the obvious ones of feeding, dressing, bathing, supervising exercise and manual labor for patients, preserving order at all times, taking patients to the toilet and meals, waiting on them at meals, etc.

Female Patients Farming in the early 1900s

Female Patients Farming in the early 1900s

However, they were also expected to be housekeepers extraordinaire. Attendants were to: make beds, dust, sweep, and “brighten the floors, hardware, plumbing fixtures, etc. . . . They shall have special care of the lavatories and toilet rooms, keeping them thoroughly clean.” Every portion of the ward was to be kept “well aired and of proper temperature and as free as possible for objectionable odor.” Attendants were to scrub the floors, walls, and windows when needed, and make beds. In the case of female attendants, all this work would have been done in a long, cumbersome dress and perhaps an apron.

Patients Making Rugs, Hammocks, etc. at Hudson River State Hospital, 1909

Patients Making Rugs, Hammocks, etc. at Hudson River State Hospital, 1909

It would have taken a large staff to do all the work properly, and Canton Asylum never had that luxury. Nurses were supposed to administer medicine (and probably change bandages, etc.), but were never hired until the last few years of the asylum’s existence. Attendants undoubtedly had those additional duties thrust on them, and it is little wonder that patient care deteriorated as the asylum filled up.

 

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A Taste of Small Town Life

Canton, S.D. High School, 1911

Canton, S.D. High School, 1911

Newspapers can give intimate glimpses of a community and its concerns, and the Sioux Valley News zeroed in on the activities in Canton, South Dakota and its neighboring communities every Friday. On June 10, 1904, the paper reported on the efforts of the Misses Rudolph and Cooper to bring a high school alumni association into being. Interested people held a meeting in which they elected officers, listened to entertainment (singing), and then ate. The paper listed attendees, mostly alumni, as well as some of the town’s leading citizens such as Mr. and Mrs. O. Gifford (the superintendent of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians and his wife).

Canton S.D. Courthouse with Buggy in Front, circa 1907

Canton S.D. Courthouse with Buggy in Front, circa 1907

Small details were the life of the paper. It further reported that Mrs. Gifford had recently been out of town to attend a meeting of the Women’s Federated Clubs, that William Robinson had arrived from Chicago on Monday for a brief visit with his parents–and that he had “grown much heavier since becoming a resident of Chicago,” and that the Wentzys had passed through Canton on their way home from the World’s Fair.

State Asylum at Yankton, SD

State Asylum at Yankton, SD

This edition also had an item that must have saddened the hearts of the people involved: “An attendant came up from Yankton and returned on the afternoon train, taking with him John Bergstrom and Axel Olson who will be placed in the hospital for the insane for treatment.” At least in this respect, white citizens were not spared the publicity surrounding a commitment to an asylum any more than Native Americans.

 

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Insanity is Lucrative

Oscar Gifford

Oscar Gifford

Early alienists tried to keep their profession closed from outsiders, both to maintain prestige and to ensure adequate salaries. They were very successful for many years, and superintendents of insane asylums were among the highest paid physicians in the field of medicine.

At a time when many family doctors earned annual salaries in the hundreds of dollars, asylum superintendents almost always earned at least two thousand.

 

Dr. John W. Givens, Idaho's First Licensed Alienist

Dr. John W. Givens, Idaho’s First Licensed Alienist

The superintendency of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was a plum position, particularly for the sparsely-populated area in which it was located. Its first superintendent, Oscar Gifford, was appointed strictly through political favoritism, since he was not a medical doctor. With only one or two exceptions over many decades, other asylum superintendents held medical degrees that were often from prestigious universities abroad.

Bloodletting As a Treatment for Agitation in Insanity, Essex Lunatic Asylum, 1860, courtesy Burns Archives

Bloodletting As a Treatment for Agitation in Insanity, Essex Lunatic Asylum, 1860, courtesy Burns Archives

In 1901, the Sioux Valley News triumphantly announced Gifford’s appointment while noting that it “was one of the best jobs in sight.” The position paid $2,500 annually. According to one inflation calculator, that salary would translate to $69,444.44 today. For someone without the proper education, training, or experience to hold it, the position was indeed a financial windfall. Gifford must have realized quite soon that he wasn’t qualified to run an asylum, but he held onto the job for as long as he could. His lack of medical knowledge cost at least one life, however, and the consequences of his mistakes eventually forced him out.

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Building Plans

Epileptic Cottage in Abilene, Texas

Epileptic Cottage in Abilene, Texas

In 1915, the 47 patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians filled the building to capacity. Both the present superintendent, Dr. Harry Hummer, and the previous one, Oscar Gifford, had made requests for additional buildings. The buildings were not only for the purpose of expansion, but also to separate types of patients. Dr. Hummer was extremely happy to see his capacity almost double when a requested hospital was approved; he mentioned that he would initially use it to separate epileptics from the rest of Canton Asylum’s patients.

Hummer was also delighted when he gained approval for a residential cottage. He, his wife, and two sons could live separately from the patients and gain a bit of privacy and respite from the constant activity inherent in an asylum. Hummer received two bids for the project and recommended accepting the bid from Martin Granos:

“He agrees to give us three coats of plaster, a larger basement [than the other bidder], a larger cistern, beamed ceiling in the living-room, stained shingles, a $58.00 range, a $31.00 ice-box built in, oak finish throughout the interior, fireproofed fireplace and three kinds of water in the bath-room.”

Later inspectors found this cottage very nice, indeed, especially in contrast to the living quarters of the rest of the asylum’s employees.

From a Bathroom Catalog, 1915

From a Bathroom Catalog, 1915

1915 Kitchen Range

1915 Kitchen Range

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A New Asylum

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

In his first official report, when the asylum was new and Superintendent Oscar Gifford had fewer than 20 patients, his glowing words probably did not fall too fall short of what was actually going on at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. “The patients are provided with a healthful, well cooked diet” which included eggs, milk, and fresh vegetables grown in the asylum garden. It is not too difficult to believe that a cook could have provided such meals for the relatively small staff and patient population that existed, and at that point, actually took great pride in her part of the new enterprise.

“The medical treatment has been tonic in character excepting in such cases and at such times, where antispasmodics, eliminants or other special treatments were indicated. . . . .In the treatment of melancholia an unlimited amount of patience and forbearance is required to insure good results, and our work in this regard I think has been a success. The epileptics require constant oversight, but the convulsions have been largely controlled, not alone by sedatives but by tonics . . . .”

Though no one likely wanted to come to the asylum, patients probably did receive far more individual attention from the full-time physician on staff (Dr. John F. Turner) than they would have received at any reservation.

A Sample Eliminant

Various Tonics, courtesy National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

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Asylum Winters

1911 View of Canton, S.D.

1911 View of Canton, S.D.

When the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was new, its electric lights and coal heat were luxuries many of its patients had not experienced before. It seems undeniable that they received attention for their physical problems or illnesses, though any psychiatric treatment was rudimentary at best. However, as more patients arrived and the ratio of attendants to patients increased, care in this relatively tiny asylum began to decline in quality. Continue reading

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Garden Problems

A South Dakota Farm During the Depression

A South Dakota Farm During the Depression

Many insane asylums had gardens which grew both flowers and produce. The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians included a garden that provided supplemental fresh food for staff and patients, but sometimes with indifferent results.

South Dakota was subject to harsh and unpredictable weather, with great temperature swings at times, drought, and pests. Continue reading

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