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

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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
 

San Bernardino is full of people who have turned out from all over Southern California to witness the laying of the corner-stone of the Insane Asylum...Three long trains, carrying the military companies, Knights Templar, State officers, Masons, invited guests and a large crowd left for the asylum grounds at 2:30pm this afternoon. Thousands of people also went in carriages from this city and all parts of the country to witness the corner-stone ceremonies. It was estimated that the assemblage on the grounds would number from eight to ten thousand... The grand officers then proceeded with the programme, vocal music being furnished by a Masonic quartette from Los Angeles. Governor Waterman made a short address, designating this as the proudest day of his life. (L.A. Times)

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:

When she [Miss Butler] was taken to the county jail and placed in the crazy cell a few days ago, a little yellow dog followed her to the jail and raised such a row when the jailers refused to let him in that he was admitted, and he and the woman were as happy as possible until the train was about to leave...and Miss Butler was informed that the dog could not accompany her. Before the dog could be put out of her sight, she grabbed it and held on with such a deadly grip that the officers could not take the little brute from her, and both had to be placed on the train...it is hard to tell how she will act when they reach the asylum, but it is safe to say that they will not be able to take the dog from her, and it will have to be admitted to the asylum with her, which will be an unheard of thing on this Coast. (L.A. Times)

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:

They have erected a stage and supplied it with scenery in their large hall, and every week or oftener give the inmates an entertainment of a musical and rhetorical character, with an occasional light comedy, the whole always winding up with a dance in which the inmates are only allowed to participate in square dances, while the attendants and sometimes a few invited friends amuse the inmates with illustrations of the waltz, polka, schottische or gallop, at which they look on with considerable interest, but the instant a square dance is announced they make a rush for partners and it is the rule of the institution that no visitors or attendant is allowed to refuse an invitation from whomsoever it comes. At the musical and literary programme the inmates seem to appreciate the good things, and often show much greater taste and judgement in applauding than is sometimes seen at the opera house or other entertainments among so called sane persons. (L.A. Times)

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:

Judge Clark sat behind a table looking majestically bored...at last the crank was trotted out, or rather in, for two burly officials entered, holding firmly by the elbows a small, dejected idiotic-looking specimen of humanity, in seedy attire, and with a mop of light-red hair straggling over his eyes. His soft felt hat, crushed in at one side, was planted firmly on the back of his head, and he wobbled helplessly around as he was shunted into a chair. The judge sat up straight and looked interested, and the doctors bent forward and looked him over with a critical air, patting him paternally on the knee and shoulder as they questioned him regarding his name, age and antecedents. All in vain; the fishes are not more dumb than was "Harry McKnight" under the medical examination for insanity.(L.A.Times)

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

One feature of the asylum attracted universal attention. Surely it is as clean and bright from one end to the other as a well-kept ship, and the conspicuous neatness of the asylum received its merited praise. Of course nothing can appease the sorrow of those unfortunate enough to have friends in an institution of this character. But all that nature can do is being done in Highland to charm eyes of the inmates, and if beautiful surroundings and delightful climate can woo back wandering thoughts, Highland is an ideal place for the asylum, and if there be aught amiss in this grand castle there is no hint of it discernable to the writer.(L.A. Times)

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)

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:

I find here a management fully up to the very latest and best thought in the matter of caring for the insane. The discipline is excellent without undue severity. There is no punishment at all. Every statement of cruelty which has been published is wrong. It grows out of some disordered brain, or some man's bad heart who has not been able to appreciate the good which was done for him. The officers are all kind, humane and intelligent in their treatment of patients, and nine-tenths of all who are treated here will so testify. The food is good, wholesome and plentiful. The water is good, the sanitary arrangements are fine; the scenery is lovely, the climate is mild and healthful, and in all ways the asylum is as nearly perfect as any in the United States. If a man is not incurable, and will come here and live fully up to the opportunities given him, he will be restored to health as I have been. I will never cease to be grateful in my heart to my friends for placing me here when they did.(L.A. Times)

Sad and Sweet, Harsh and Hopeless

John A. Brek, an escapee from the State Hospital at Patton, was found in the brush near Rosena today. He had been dead a number of days. Brek escaped from the hospital...by lowering himself to the ground from a second story window. When committed to the hospital about a year ago from Los Angeles he was suffering from tuberculosis as well as being mentally unbalanced. From the appearance of the body, which is greatly emaciated, it is believed that starvation and exposure were contributory causes to his death. Tuberculosis being the primary cause. In his pockets he had several crusts of bread, which it is believed he picked up where a Southern Pacific section crew had camped.(L.A. Times)

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:

Sad and sweet in its beauty, but harsh and hopeless in its awful truth is the love of two inmates of Highland Insane Asylum - Ching, an old, demented {Chinese man}, and Joe, an imbecile boy, upon whom light of intellect has never shown. Day after day this strange pair play together, like the "old, old lady and the boy that was half past two," and at night their little iron cots are drawn so close that Ching can reach over and keep the covers on his young friend, or quiet him when he grows restless. Of all the odd situations that have come under his observation in a lifetime of work among the insane, superintendent Williamson of the asylum says that the attachment of Ching and Joe has no equal.(LA. Times)

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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