Just about an hour north of Kansas City, in St. Joseph, Missouri, is one of the more unusual and disturbing places I have ever visited – the Glore Psychiatric Museum.
At the site of Missouri’s former State Lunatic Asylum No. 2, which opened in 1874, a thorough and even-handed 4-floor museum walks visitors through how psychiatric patients have been treated throughout modern history. Though the narratives are fairly non-judgemental and straight-forward, the content is disturbing enough that the museum promotes itself with a warning label that it may not be suitable for children.
That said, Barbie and other dolls certainly do a great job explaining how some of the therapeutic treatments work. That’s right – Barbie and friends are right there in that photo on the right, rocking away in rockers, strapped in with straight jackets.
Barbie in this photo represents just one of thousands and thousands of people who were “treated” within these walls. When State Lunatic Asylum No. 2 opened, it was intended for only 250 patients, but it expanded quickly to house a capacity of 3000 patients at a time in the 30s.
The museum takes great care to show how nice the original construction was and how the doctors believed they were helping patients to get better though various methods. Some even seemed quite helpful. For instance, the Kirkbride Plan was designed to keep Asylums away from big cities so that the patients could heal in small communities with outdoor activities. That was the original design and plan for State Lunatic Asylum No. 2, but the economics made that nurturing approach unsustainable.
As more doctors developed their own ideas of psychiatric care, more and more crazy theories popped up in the psychiatric field of medical care. Fever therapy, enema therapy, electroshock therapy, dental therapy, tranquilizer chair therapy, lobotomies, insulin coma therapy, restraint and rocking chair therapy were all on prominent display with straight-forward explanations.
A display on trepanation – removing skull to expose the brain – features early modern trepanation tools and stone age trepanation tools, as the procedure dates back at least 7000 years.
The visitor is normally left to decide whether the theory behind the therapy was logical or whether the doctor was his own kind of crazy.
As a visitor, I decided that most of these doctors were their own kind of crazy.
That is not to say that the patients did not need legitimate help. Some of them just suffered from basic depression, while others had legitimate and terrifying psychoses.
The most fascinating display, in my mind, was a table of contents from a surgery to remove items eaten by a woman suffering from Pica. That is a condition where an individual feels compelled to eat non-food items. Today, that could get you an episode of a TLC documentary series, but it is definitely a dangerous psychiatric disease that needs treated.
The contents of this particular woman’s stomach included:
- 453 nails of various sizes
- 42 screws of various sizes
- 9 bolts
- 7 broken coat rack hooks
- 1 4-foot long string of beads
- 70 large, loose beads
- 85 small stones and pieces of glass
- 7 prune seeds
- 54 pieces of metal
- 19 hooks and eyes
- 148 grape and other seeds
- 5 bent teaspoon handles
- 1 nail file
- 3 pieces of steel
- 5 thimbles
- 3 salt shaker tops
- 10 bolt tops
- 63 buttons
- 105 safety pins
- 115 hair pins
- 52 carpet tacks
- 136 common pins
- 16 white head pins
- 37 needles
That’s 1,446 total pieces hanging around in one woman’s gut. They tried to help her by surgically removing all of them, but she did not survive the surgery.
Clearly, this woman was in desperate need of help. However, when you consider that disinterest in housework was seen as an indicator for organic brain disease, one realizes that the social norms of the time dictate what mental illness really is.
Consider even the treatment of the staff. One display featured staff tools and rules. “Any nurse who uses rouge will give the Director of Nurses good reason to suspect their intentions.” A bejeweled cigarette case sits next to a sign that states “Any nurse who smokes will be asked for her resignation.”
While the staff and patients are treated better today, some of the treatments – including electroconvulsive therapy – are still in use, but we’ve come a long way since doctors could stick an ice pick through your brain in an effort to change your personality.
Really, that’s a large part of the purpose of the Glore Psychiatric Museum, because we really have come a long way from the days that schizophrenic people were not diagnosed with a disorder but instead labeled as witches.
Even with the limitations of treatment that linger today, it is comforting to realize that we’re very unlikely to burn mentally ill people at the stake anymore.
While you’re at the Glore Museum, stick around for a couple other displays in the St. Joseph Museums complex, including the St. Joseph Museum, a Doll Exhibit, the Civil War Medicine Museum and the St. Joseph Black Archives.