Christi and I left Villisca and headed for Clarinda. No mass murders there, thankfully! But it was a place we’d both been once before.
We first visited in 2012 after I arranged a visit to what began as the Clarinda State Hospital (CSH) in 1885. By 2012, the name had changed to the Clarinda Treatment Complex (CTC). The huge rambling building (500,000 square feet) only had about 50 or so geriatric patients still living there, along with a school for delinquent youths called the Clarinda Academy
Why did I want to visit a mental institution? One of my own ancestors lived in such an institution in Athens, Ohio during his final years, which I wrote about in 2014. That made me curious and such places are usually off limits to the public. In 2012, the CTC had a museum devoted to its past that could be toured if you contacted them. So that’s what we did. I didn’t take many photos but the ones I did take have been lost.
Brandon Hunter, who was in charge of activities for the geriatric patients, showed us around the facility. The museum was enlightening, featuring some of the outdated devices used for psychiatric treatment. The facility itself was full of windows and let in lots of light. It was not a dreary place in general. The only place I did not like was when Brandon took us to where they kept recycling until collection day, the former solitary cells for what I took to be possibly violent patients (no longer used, thankfully). They were dark and scary, and we got out of there as soon as possible.
The CTC closed in 2015, deemed too large and too empty to keep operating. Clarinda residents fought to keep it open because it did employ a number of people, including several farmers who provided food. But Iowa’s legislature said no and it closed.
We drove to the main building first and it looked very much as it did in 2012. No plans for it seem imminent. According to a 2017 article, substance abuse treatment center Zion Recovery is using part of the building. The basement kitchens are still being used by the nearby prison. Also on campus is the Clarinda Academy, a facility for delinquent youth sent from across the country which was in the news recently for troubling reasons. So its future is in question as well.
The CSH was the third asylum built in Iowa, with plans to house alcoholics, geriatrics, drug addicts, the mentally ill, and the criminally insane. An act of the Twentieth General Assembly of the State of Iowa authorized the appropriation of $150,000 for that purpose. Building began in 1885, with a section for men opening in 1888. Women patients arrived later.
The building’s design follows several other mental institutions built in the Victorian era originally thought up by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a style now known as the Kirkbride plan. He envisioned an asylum with a central administration building flanked by two wings comprised of tiered wards.
This “linear plan” followed a segregation of residents according to sex and symptoms of illness. Male patients were housed in one wing, female patients in the other. Each wing was sub-divided by ward with the more “excited” patients placed on the lower floors, farthest from the central administrative structure, and the better-behaved, more rational patients situated in the upper floors and closer to the administrative center.
Ideally, this arrangement was intended to make patients’ asylum experience more comfortable and productive by isolating them from other patients with illnesses antagonistic to their own while still allowing fresh air, natural light, and views of the asylum grounds from all sides of each ward.
Brandon told us that while many asylums had very bad reputations, Clarinda was better than most in treating its patients humanely. But like many asylums, overcrowding caused lots of problems until the advent of psychotropic medications like lithium made the need for institutions less pressing.
Also, as I learned from my research about the Athens Asylum, anyone could be committed to a mental asylum in those days for several reasons. If you were tired of caring for your elderly parent, you could drop him or her off at the asylum with few questions asked. Epileptics, post-partum mothers, disobedient teens…all were possible candidates for residency.
I didn’t have time to visit the cemetery in 2012 so it was a “must do” this time. Unlike other mental institutions that have cemeteries featuring only a marker with a number, Clarinda’s cemetery has stones with actual names and death years on them. There are even a few markers scattered about that were provided by families.
The cemetery is located about a quarter of a mile from the main building between a large cornfield and a cow pasture. The cows were quite intrigued with us and came over to see what we were up to.
Knowing few of these small markers were photographed, I took pictures of as many as I could. Some had faded so greatly that you couldn’t make out the name or date. But I added what I could read to Find a Grave later and looked up some of the stories written about them.
This particular marker for George M. Bird (1842-1912) indicates he did have family that cared about him. Born in 1842 in Illinois, George enlisted in Company A of the Iowa 12th Infantry Regiment on Oct. 17, 1861 at the age of 19. It appears he never married.
George appears in the 1900 U.S. Census as living with his sister, Jerusia Steen, and her family in Watkins, Okla. as an invalid. He was still living with his sister and her husband in 1910 in Harrison County, Iowa. George’s veteran administration records indicate he began receiving a pension in 1892, listing that he had a “disease of the chest” and is also marked “imbecile”.
I don’t know what George’s exact cause of death was. Only that he likely only spent the last year or so at Clarinda State Hospital (CSH). It’s possible Jerusia and her husband, getting older themselves, could no longer care for him.
Many of the people buried in the cemetery that I researched were elderly and only spent the last few years of their lives at CSH, with “exhaustion from psychosis” being listed as past of their cause of death. However, there was a pair of stones beside each other for William J. Dunlap and Elizabeth Dunlap that puzzled me. I think they may be siblings but I am not certain.
William J. Dunlap was born in 1861 somewhere in Iowa. His death certificate lists him as having been a farmer and a schoolteacher in Ringgold, Iowa when he entered the Clarinda State Hospital in December 1888. He was 28 at the time. Listed as single, he lived there for 45 years until his death on Jan. 7, 1934 from “exhaustion from psychosis” and “cerebral arteriosclerosis”.
Elizabeth Dunlap, born in 1866, is also listed as a schoolteacher from Ringgold, Iowa when she entered CSH in 1892. She was 26 at the time. Listed as single, she lived there for 41 years before dying on Nov. 3, 1933 of lobar pneumonia. This was only about two months before William died.
I could not find out anything about William or Elizabeth’s parents, neither of them appears in census records before their time at CSH. Because they are listed as being single, school teachers from Ringgold, and are buried next to each other, I think they must have been siblings. At least in once record, Elizabeth is listed as insane on an Iowa state census record. I like to think perhaps that if they were brother and sister, they took comfort from each other’s presence over the years.
There are many more stories to share from Clarinda. I hope you’ll join me next time to learn about them.
Lisa Fish said:
Loved reading your blog! I especially liked how you visited, photographed and researched some of the people buried on the asylum grounds. Have you ever checked out the Danvers (Massachusetts) State Hospital? They also had a Kirkbride building. About a third of it survives today and it’s still pretty impressive. The hospital has been converted into condos. The cemetery is still there, but I believe most of the markets just have numbers on them.
Hi, Lisa! I have never been to Danvers but I have seen pictures and read quite a bit about it. Those Kirkbrides were quite something to see. Would love to get there someday to see what is left of it. So many of the mental institution cemeteries just have numbers on them. I find that very sad. To have found these was quite a surprise to me. Come back on Friday to read some more stories!
Gloria Hayes said:
Lisa, as someone whose family history includes state mental hospital admissions (all for depression) as far back as the 1800’s right on up until Georgia’s was closed in the 1970’s , I have done a lot of research on the causes and stories of patients’ diagnoses and admissions. I also read Part two of this cemetery post, and I can probably help out with something. “Exhaustion from psychosis” was uncontrollable mania, and was also referred to as “Manic exhaustion”. The patient was probably what we today refer to as BiPolar. The child who was born blind and institutionalized for mental deficits and who died as a fairly young woman, as well as siblings who died there and had siblings who died at birth could have been victims of syphilis in a pregnant mother, and Gonorrhea would cause blindness as well. Syphilis would drive its victim insane, cause paralysis-all sorts of horrible symptoms, and the mother could have been infected from her husband and never known it until she, too showed the symptoms and had to be institutionalized. I believe the term for last stage syphilitic disease and insanity was “General Paresis of the Insane” or “General Paralysis of the Insane”, due to its effects on the brain, but still preserving the Victorian need for protection of the reputation at all costs.
Hi, Gloria! Thank you for your input. I knew that many children were affected by mothers who had syphilis (as you say the mother often got it unknowingly from the husband) but I had not thought to connect it in cases of blindness or mental deficits in children put into mental institutions. I saw a LOT of “exhaustion from psychosis” cause of death for the Clarinda patients. I really appreciate this information and may contact you via your email in the future if I run into something I need help with. Is that okay with you?
16 Tiles said:
Do you know if there are records of patients who lived there? DNA has pointed to an uncle that fathered a child and the birth mom has limited documented history as she placed the baby up for adoption. My cousin has since died (his wife got a DNA sample prior his recent death.) My best guess is that they were both residents at the same time.
I wish I could tell you that those records are readily available but I can’t. I was able to find online death certificates for many of the people whose stones I photographed in the cemetery. I just found a Feb. 2021 article today that says the Clarinda Academy, which was housed at the facility, is slated to be closed soon.
There’s a phone number on this website that you might want to call to try getting records. If you have any success, let me know. I get emails on occasion from folks hoping to find more about their loved ones that were there. http://sites.rootsweb.com/~iapage/insane/INSANE1.HTM
16 Tiles said:
Fascinating. I’m researching the possibility of an uncle that could have been placed there and fathered a child. Any chance records survived? We have DNA leading to him with a cousin placed up for adoption. Very sad.
Greg Wood said:
This interesting i worked there from 1985 to 2001 many items were stolen when academy joined the campus the museum was fascinating all electric shock theo0pry machine and total surgery suite from hope hall log book fire brigade wagon helmets and pictures of the canning building shoemaker equipment they were totally self sufficient milk barns meat locker wood shop sewing room and greenhouse men wore white pants and white shirt with bow ties it was its own little city its a shame it sets empty I wish the walls could talk
Hi, Greg! Yes, touring the facility was an eye-opening experience. I think I read recently that the Academy is being closed down. Makes me wonder yet again what they are going to do with the building. It shouldn’t be left to just rot away, it has too much potential.