Tag Archives: Texas State Lunatic Asylum

He Didn’t Even Try

Texas State Lunatic Asylum, circa 1861

Texas State Lunatic Asylum, circa 1861

By the end of what might be called the “asylum era,” most superintendents or administrators were buried under mountains of paperwork. Almost all public facilities were overcrowded and understaffed, which meant poor care and  more problems and incidents that needed the administrator’s attention than if they had been smaller and better manned. However, the situation at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was always somewhat different.

The asylum’s administrator, Dr. Harry Hummer, ran an extremely small facility. The organization of superintendents that developed standardized asylum care in the 1840s decided that 250 patients was the maximum that any good facility should contain. They later raised it to 500, which was still considered a manageable number. During the bulk of his time at the Canton Asylum, however, Dr. Hummer had well under 100 patients.

Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, courtesy Robert Bogdan Collection

Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, courtesy Robert Bogdan Collection

When Canton Asylum was inspected in 1933 by St. Elizabeths’ psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Silk, he noted that Dr. Hummer could give him next to no information about most of his patients: “the patients’ behavior or other events which led to their admission. . . . Apparently Dr. Hummer did not consider such information necessary and he took no steps to obtain it.

“In the cases of various patients who were alleged to have assaulted others, Dr. Hummer knew nothing about the circumstances of such assault . . . . Many such patients have been in the institution six, eight or more years and for a number of years they have showed no abnormal behavior justifying their detention.”

Danvers State Hospital, circa 1893, Was Huge in Comparison to Canton Asylum

Danvers State Hospital, circa 1893, Was Huge in Comparison to Canton Asylum

Many of Canton Asylum’s patients would have been better off with a jail sentence for their behavior, since a sentence for assault would have come with a limit. At the asylum, Dr. Hummer’s indifference generally led to a life sentence unless some sort of outside intervention occurred.

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Details, Details

Dairy Farm at Colorado State Insane Asylum, courtesy CMHIP Museum

Though Dr. Harry Hummer, like most insane asylum superintendents, had almost unlimited authority, he was also subject to countless petty annoyances that had to be handled in the course of the day. One of them involved accounting for equipment and supplies. Like many facilities, a certain amount of loss and breakage occurred at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, due in part to the nature of the patients who worked there and normal human oversight and carelessness. Because Hummer ran a government facility, however, he had to inventory and report all these losses (over $1.00 in value) and have the items formally deleted from his account. One typical letter from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs began with an acknowledgement that a government inspector named W. R. Beyer had explained that the asylum’s inmates, “on account of their mental condition are irresponsible . . . and many of these items are lost, mislaid, and cannot be located.” Beyer had advised the Indian Office to “drop items such as shovels, etc., as soon as they leave the warehouse, and are placed in the hands of the inmates.”

The assistant Commissioner, E. B. Meritt went on to say: “The Office holds, that though the inmates are irresponsible on account of their mental condition, they are under the supervision of employees whose duty it is to see that the shovels are taken care of, therefore does not see its way clear to grant a blanket authority for dropping said items.”

Though the Indian Office granted Hummer considerable leeway in the asylum’s management, it was adamant that he account for every penny they gave him.

Patients Working in Laundry Room at Texas State Lunatic Asylum, 1898

Nebraska State Lunatic Asylum

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Skimping on Pay

Patients Working in Laundry Room at Texas State Lunatic Asylum, 1898

How much attendants were paid (see last post) mattered a great deal to superintendents, and generally not for the right reasons. The public began to exert extraordinary pressure on institutions to accept their afflicted family members, which resulted in overcrowding at nearly every insane asylum in the country. Doctors couldn’t cure patients when they had too many to properly care for, and asylums began to lose their roles as sanctuaries and restorative institutions.

With cure rates down, superintendents had to look for other reasons the public should continue to endorse the use of asylums. One argument was that it was much cheaper to keep patients at an asylum than at home or in jails. Many superintendents prided themselves on how cheaply they could run their asylums, and often compared their rates with unfavorably high rates at other asylums. Salaries were nearly always the largest single expense  at asylums, so superintendents had an incentive to hire the cheapest staff they could find. Unfortunately, as Beers pointed out, one could expect very little from an attendant who would work for eighteen dollars a month.

Patients on Floor in Eloise Women's Mental Ward in Michigan

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Waiting and Wondering

Though some families initiated their member’s confinement to an asylum, others missed their presence very much. Particularly in the case of patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, who may have been sent to the facility for reasons other than insanity, families often pleaded to have  a patient released. Dr. Hummer usually dodged responsibility by claiming he could not release anyone without the permission of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The reality was that the commissioner would almost always take his cue from Hummer’s assessment and wishes in the matter.

Frank Cox wrote to the commissioner on July 14, 1926, saying that Dr. Hummer had told him he needed the commissioner’s permission to release his son, John Charles. Cox said, “I am his father and all his family would like to have him home if possible. I am 52 yeas old, I know I can provide for him. I have lost my wife and John being around me it would me a little joy to live for.”

Edgar B. Meritt, courtesy Library of Congress

The assistant commissioner (Edgar Meritt) replied, “You are advised that this is not deemed for the best interests either of you or of your son, inasmuch as it is not shown that John Charles Cox has been pronounced sane, and having once been committed to an insane asylum it would not be safe to have him returned to your home until a cure has been effected. For this reason your request will have to be denied unless Dr. Hummer can give a certificate of sanity.”

Visitors to the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, courtesy Austin Library

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Saving Money at the Insane Asylum

Patients Working in Laundry Room at Texas State Lunatic Asylum, 1898

Patients Working in Laundry Room at Texas State Lunatic Asylum, 1898

Most insane asylums tried to use patient labor as a way of holding down costs, or as a sort of occupational therapy. At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, Dr. Harry Hummer had a real mission to hold down expenses, since he knew that his small facility didn’t have the economies of scale that larger institutions did.

Female patients generally worked on household tasks, like sewing and laundry. Susan Wishecoby, an epileptic patient, wrote about scrubbing the floors, and other women complained about the amount of work they had to do. Men usually worked in the gardens or helped with livestock. Dr. Hummer couldn’t actually force patients to work, but many did because it helped them pass the time. They may have also wanted to please the attendants or Dr. Hummer by appearing cooperative.

Patients Sewing at the Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane, early 1900s

Patients Sewing at the Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane, early 1900s

Patients Picking Cotton at Alabama Insane Hospital

Patients Picking Cotton at Alabama Insane Hospital

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