Osawatomie State Hospital

I traveled to Garnett, Kansas on my first 'on-site' genealogy trip in 1986. While there I visited the cemetery in Garnett to find the graves of my great-great-great grandparents, Martin and Adelaide Hawley. Not being able to find them, I went to the cemetery office to view a map of the cemetery. Both grandparents were listed on the map, so I soon realized that they had no headtone (picture left). The map also provided the cause of death and I noticed that Adelaide had died at Osawatomie State Hospital in Osawatomie, Kansas. Not realizing at the time that the hospital was a mental hospital, I drove to Osawatomie immediately to look for it. While on a main highway I noticed an ominous looking building with turrets in the distance thought that perhaps this was the building I was looking for.

As I got closer to the hospital, I realized that this indeed was the Osawatomie State Hospital. I remember vividly that it was almost 5pm on a Friday afternoon. I found a main office on the hospital grounds where I found a kind lady who happened to be working late. I explained that I was looking for any records on my grandmother, Adelaide Hawley, and in no time she was able to retrieve Adelaide's committment papers (see documents on right) from 1906. Adelaide Amanda Richardson Hawley was admitted to Osawatomie State Hospital, March 30, 1906 and died there three months later, June 24, 1906.

She was housed in one of the two wings that extended out from either side of the main building.

The Building

The Old Main Building was built in 1869 at a cost of $20,000. It was built to replace all of the existing structures on the Osawatomie State Hospital grounds. It was built exactly to the specifications of the "Kirkbride Plan", having a central building and two wings, swept back in sections.

The central structure, which is the only part of the building remaining today, is five stories high. It has an auditorium with a stage in it to provide patients with their entertainment. It had a balcony looking down on the stage too. The central part of the building held the workers, nurses, and the superintentdent. Its wings were east and west and they were tore down in 1971. The wings were 300 feet long each with them being swept back every 50 feet or so. The wings were two stories high and accommodated about 700 patients in each wing. It is one mammoth of a structure looking down over Marais des Cygnes River down on the small town of Osawatomie, Kansas it looks like a castle from the town.

Patient Treatment

Doctors still did not understand what caused their patients' behavior. They listed such things as religious excitement, sunstroke, and reading novels as possible causes of mental illness. Additionally, they believed that patients had lost all control over their morals, and strict discipline was necessary to help the patient regain self-control. The asylum provided the restraint a patient could not supply himself. Confining the patient in a straitjacket was one way to do this.

Many doctors considered straitjackets to be a humane form of treatment, far gentler than the chains patients encountered in prisons. The restraint supposedly applied no pressure to the body or limbs and did not cause skin abrasions. Moreover, straitjackets allowed some freedom of movement. Unlike patients anchored to a chair or bed by straps or cuffs, those in a straitjacket could walk. Some doctors even recommended restrained individuals stroll outdoors, thereby reaping the benefits of both control and fresh air.

While considered humane by some, straitjackets were frequently misused. Over time, asylums filled with patients and lacked adequate staff to provide proper care. The attendants generally were not trained to work with the mentally ill. Some feared the patients and resorted to restraints to maintain order and calm. Patients might remain in restraints for days.

Such was the case at the Osawatomie State Hospital, established by the State of Kansas in 1866. The facility had beds for 12 patients when it opened. By the end of the next year it housed 22 with applications for 50 more. In 1945, the ratio of patients to physicians was 854 to one. As a result of such conditions, restraints were used longer at Osawatomie than in Kansas' other mental health facilities. The documented use of straitjackets continued until at least 1956.

Photo above: Once used at the Osawatomie State Hospital, the straitjacket pictured here is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History. Its small size and general shape indicate it probably was used in the women's ward.

Around 1950, Charles H. Graham, a reporter with the Kansas City Star, wrote a series of articles on the conditions at Kansas' state hospitals. At Osawatomie he found that force was commonly used to restrain male patients, while females wore straitjackets and wrist cuffs. One attendant reported that of the 70 patients on the ward, half might be in straitjackets at any given time. Graham saw no apparent abuse in the women's ward, but described the scene as bedlam:

"These women were doing the best they could in a building that is utterly unfit for the care of mental patients, or any other kind. . . . There is no place to which any patient can retire to escape momentarily the Bedlamic scene, and as a result, some of them 'blow up.' That brings on the restraints."

Graham found it interesting that Osawatomie continued to use restraints while Larned State Hospital, a facility for the criminally insane in western Kansas, had abandoned them by 1948.

Osawatomie was eventually able to phase out the use of restraints through increasing staff and improving facilities. Advances in psychology, including the development of tranquilizing drugs, made the devices unnecessary. Attendants were still leery of removing the restraints, though. According to one, "They were convinced that the patients would kill us. We couldn't get a mental image of any other way than repression."

Source: Kansas State Historical Society website

More on Osawatomie Sources Photos In Books
Reform at Osawatomie State Hospital - Treatment of the Mentally Ill 1866-1970
by Lowell Gish Published 1972