'The Insane Asylum': The First Twenty Years of Patton State Hospital

Postcard view of Patton State Hospital
Postcard view of Patton State Hospital

It is a quiet Sunday afternoon on the outskirts of Patton State Hospital, the sprawling mental health complex that seems to stretch on forever along an economically depressed road in San Bernardino County. The hospital employs over 2,700 people, and provides treatment to thousands of forensically and civilly committed patients. Inside the compound there are a plethora of mid-century style government buildings and worn out bungalows, a playground, and an isolated memorial honoring the thousands of patients buried in unmarked graves over the past century. Occasionally, a human can be spotted walking in the distance, but on the whole it is eerily peaceful and still.

Today, Patton feels more like a hardscrabble rural town than a home of last resort for the mentally unwell. This was not always the case. Near an employee parking lot is a chunk of a red brick building -- all that is left to remind us of the original hospital, which officially opened its doors in 1893. This towering, gothic building (torn down after 1923) was like a mammoth castle in a terrifying Grimm's fairytale. The sick, the lost, the violent, and the addicted all ended up behind its thick walls.

Some were restored to sanity, some escaped, and others simply succumbed to their fate.

The Insane Asylum

From the beginning, hospitals were big business. In 1889, the California legislature passed a bill to open an insane asylum in Southern California. Governor Robert Waterman was lauded by many for leading the charge to finally deal with the booming state's burgeoning mental health crises. But some, including the Los Angeles Times, said Waterman's real goal was more mercenary. Waterman and his cronies had numerous holdings in San Bernardino County, and unsurprisingly, the board in charge of choosing a site was stacked in their favor. Much to the competing counties' chagrin, a 300+ acre tract in the San Bernardino hamlet of Highland was purchased for the asylum. With the purchase came huge government contracts and ample employment opportunities for people in the small ranching community. In October 1890, a corner-stone laying ceremony was held, capped off by "the most elaborate banquet ever spread in San Bernardino County." (City of San Bernardino)

Construction soon began on the first wing of a massive, red-brick asylum. The asylum was built in the fashion of the popular Kirkbride plan, which called for a central administration building flanked by long wards to separately house male and female "inmates." Gardens and walking paths surrounded the complex (which was forever being added on to), so that those well enough could take exercise and fresh air.

By the summer of 1893, around 100 patients previously held in Northern California hospitals and jails were brought down to the new institution. Dr. M.B. Campbell was named medical director. The asylum had many names in its first years, including "The Insane Asylum," "Southern California Asylum for the Insane and Inebriate," and "Highland Insane Asylum." From the start, a wide variety of unfortunate souls were essentially incarcerated in the facility as wards of the state. These individuals had been adjudged insane by state appointed "lunacy" commissioners.

The diverse group of inmates at Highland included alcoholics, drug addicts, violent delusional criminals, and epileptics. There were also those with mental and genetic disorders such as Down-syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, and dementia. Many, including a woman named Jesse Butler, came to the asylum via the "crazy cell" in local city jails:

By 1895, the inmate population at Highland had already surpassed capacity. With its large transient and immigrant population, California soon became known as the state that committed the most people to mental facilities. Once these people were in their care, government officials often did not know how to help them. In the early years, doctors, nurses and "handlers," mostly in the dark about mental illness and disease, prescribed many strange and disturbing treatments for their patients. Treatments over the first twenty years included forced hydrotherapy, sterilization, rectal loosening, and male and female circumcision (lobotomies were not performed at the asylum until the 1940s). However, there were occasional bright spots in the inmates' days. In 1895, a reporter on a visit to Highland described this encouraging scene:

Despite attempts at levity, charges of cruelty at the asylum would surface repeatedly. Inmates often ran away, some vanishing forever. In a bid to expose the conditions at Highland, Harry A. Warren, an enterprising young reporter for the Los Angeles Herald, attempted to be declared insane by the local judiciary. The Los Angeles Times mockingly described the hearing:

Harry's ploy was successful. He was declared insane and carted off to city jail to await his 70 mile journey to Highland. But he was soon ratted out by a fellow city jail inmate, who had known Harry when he had done undercover work on a chain gang.

Postcard view of Patton State Hospital, circa 1900
Postcard view of Patton State Hospital, circa 1900.


Wooing Back Wandering Thoughts

By 1898, Highland had become so overcrowded that the inmates were sleeping in hallways. Due to an influx of female patients, some inmates had to be transferred to Northern California insane asylums. Lost in this mass of humanity were the individual stories of the people from all across Southern California who were forced to call Highland home. James Silby, an epileptic, committed suicide at Highland by hanging himself from his state issued iron bedstead. Olof Ellson was a ship's carpenter who had been "crazed" by morphine. Richard Shallot was a "weak minded" man who was brought to Highland for ogling women and "trying to make love to them." Eva Davis was a teenage girl who had become violent and deluded after a cow gored her under the eye. R. Frank House, a pioneer resident of Pomona, had "lost his mind" after suffering a stroke in his early 40s.

Elisha Gooden was a mother of nine who had "lost her mind" after her son was killed by a train. The heart-broken woman was sent to Highland after she hitched up a horse and buggy in the middle of the night, and drove around the county in "quest of officers to arrest two men who, she imagined, had killed a boy in front of her home the evening before." (L.A. Times) Tobias Schmidt was a dangerous sex offender known as "Jack the Grabber." And then there was rancher Eugene Copeland, whose "religious mania" led him to believe that he had "committed sins for which he cannot hope for forgiveness." (L.A. Times)

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The inmates came from all walks of life. General A.B. Campbell had been a renowned Los Angeles orator, who was great friends with the crème de la crème of the city's early society. He suffered a mental breakdown after the death of his wife of almost 30 years. In 1896, Campbell was declared insane by the L.A. Superior Court and sent to Highland. Within weeks, he claimed to have fully recovered. He knew that the stigma of being sent to Highland would, in his words, "cast a cloud over my life in the public mind, which it will take a long time to entirely remove." So before his release, he sent a letter to the Los Angeles Times, in which he touted his recovery and praised his treatment at Highland:

Sad and Sweet, Harsh and Hopeless

Despite General Campbell's assertions, many inmates had a very different experience at Highland. Inmates continued to escape their "prison." In 1902, two "dope fiends" named Amos C. Abbot and Albert H. Bell escaped from the asylum. That year, a man named Doerve Vanheuzen was committed for stealing a bicycle. The man was "discharged" a few months later, although the asylum had not been given permission from the Sheriff to do so. It was assumed that he had actually escaped, and that Highland employees were attempting to cover up their mistake, as they had numerous times in the past. In 1903, another escapee named George Huber actually turned himself in to authorities, telling them that he feared he would harm others if not confined. That same year, charges of brutality and mismanagement seem to have led to employee dismissals and a change in leadership.

The asylum expanded rapidly during the first decade of the new century. It also had a new name: Patton Hospital, or Patton Insane Asylum, in honor of Harry W. Patton, one of the first members of the hospital's board of managers. Numerous inmate and employee bungalows were built on the property, following the new institutional "cottage layout," which had replaced the old, centralized Kirkbride system. A 400-acre farm, cannery, piggery, and chicken coop were added. Sewing facilities, industrial workshops, and recreational bungalows were built. Able-bodied inmates worked in the fields and workshops. Some residents were allowed to form powerful bonds, proving that beauty can grow even in the bleakest of circumstances:

By 1913, Patton was home to almost 2,000 wards of the state -- now known as "patients" instead of "inmates." In only twenty years, this isolated fortress had been transformed into a bustling town of the mentally and emotionally infirm. Every one of these people had a history to add to the book of Patton.

There were many more chapters yet to be written.

Part of the Patton State Hospital today | Photo: Hadley Meares
Part of the Patton State Hospital today | Photo: Hadley Meares
Part of the Patton State Hospital today | Photo: Hadley Meares
Part of the Patton State Hospital today | Photo: Hadley Meares

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