The Topeka State hospital was located in Topeka, Kansas and first opened its doors in 1879. During its 118 years in operation, the asylum gained a notorious reputation. Some experts claim that it was a pioneering hospital, at the forefront of the industry, whist others claim it to be one of the most horrific and barbaric asylums in creation.
The Osawatomie State hospital was severely overcrowded, and to combat this, Governor Osborn approved an act of legislature in 1875, appropriating $25,000 to build an additional asylum in the city of Topeka. The act declared that the chosen site should be no less than 80 acres, which should be acquired at no cost to the state, and that three trustees from Osawatomie must form a board of commissioners to oversee the construction. George Wyman, Levi Woodard and William Grimes were selected in June 1875, and they chose an 80 acre plot of land, which belonged to the ex governor, James Harvey. The city of Topeka and the county of Shawnee each contributed $6,000 to purchase the land from Mr. Harvey, and the construction began shortly afterwards.
It was decided that the asylum would be built upon the Kirkbride Plan, and on 28 July 1875 bids were opened for the first building contracts. By 1 June 1879, the first building was completed, and formally opened by the superintendent Dr. Barnard D. Eastman. The hospital contained a central administration building, with domestic departments leading off the back such as the laundry, bakery and boiler room. Patient quarters were situated to the left and right of the central building, each connected by a single tier corridor. Upon opening, the institution was called the Topeka Insane Asylum, but this was changed in 1901 to the Topeka State Hospital.
Six years later, a grant of $12,000 was appropriated to the institution to build a tuberculosis ward, and a further $70,000 for two further cottages for female patients. A sum of $50,000 was also granted for adaptations to the male wards. Superintendent, Dr Barnard Eastman described the asylum as a “removal from the worriment, the overwork, the unsanitary conditions and the unsuitable food of many homes.” He went on to describe his methods as “occupying body and mind in the new employment, cheering the dropping melancholy and soothing the excited and irritable.”
Until 1919, the only way to be admitted into the asylum was by court order, which meant that the entire population was, for several decades, criminally insane. Superintendent Eastman strongly opposed this title, and the surrounding insanity trials, claiming “the insane are sick, not criminal.”
Horror stories of the treatment at Topeka State Hospital emerged from the early 20th century onwards, casting a deep shadow over any success stories. Patients were neglected, abused, restrained and even raped at the hands of the attendants. A newspaper reporter visited the asylum, and was appalled at the conditions the patients were forced to live in. He spoke about one patient in particular, who had been restrained in leather straps so long that their skin was growing around the straps.
Alarm rose once again in 1948 over the terrible conditions upheld at the Topeka State Hospital. The state had reduced funding, and a distinct shortage of professional personnel led to patients lingering in corridors aimlessly all day, with out partaking in any other activities.
New patients admitted to the hospital did not have their conditions evaluated, and were simply deposited with the rest of the patients. Despite the majority of patients being admitted via court orders, legal papers for many of them could not be found, and several patients could not be accurately identified.
After receiving reports of overcrowding and neglect, Kansas Governor Frank Carlson constructed a five-member panel to investigate the conditions inside the asylum. The committee published their report in October 1948, finding inadequacies in all areas of hospital management. It was decided that hospital funding would be doubled, patients would be given a daily structure and examined closely, and corrupt staff would be expelled.
Psychiatrists from the Menninger Foundation volunteered to work temporarily at the asylum to examine patients and organise a department of psychology. The following year, the first social worker was hired at the hospital and began discharge plans for patients who were well enough to be released. She prepared them for their forthcoming discharge, teaching patients how to use modern appliances and how to look after themselves.
By 1951, patients were able to receive outpatient treatment at the Topeka State Hospital, which granted partial liberty for many patients who otherwise would have been detained for years. This transformation saw the asylum go from being a ‘snake-pit’ of horror, to a leading psychiatric facility, complete with a training school, specialised doctors and dentists and an operating theatre.
- Forced Sterilisation
The first sterilisation law in Kansas was passed in 1913, and despite some concerns, it gained mainstream acceptance for almost five decades. The law was specifically directed at “habitual criminals, idiots, epileptics, imbeciles and the insane,” and was amended for the first time in 1917, when the need for the courts’ approval was eliminated.
Between 1913 and 1920, a total of 54 sterilisations took place. This was considered a minuscule amount, due to the fact that there was a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the law at that time. After 1920, forced sterilisations became widely acceptable, and thousands took place before they were banned in 1961.
There were three main reasons why compulsory sterilisations took place:
- Eugenic: Heredity concerns. Patients with learning disabilities and deformities were the principle targets.
- Therapeutic: Used as a cure for sexual traits, such as masturbation and high libidos.
- Punitive: A punishment for the badly behaved.
Death of Stephanie Uhlrig
Kenneth D. Waddell was found not guilty by reasons of insanity in 1984 for stabbing a woman in Emporia. He was initially sent to the Larned State Security Hospital, but after almost three years, he was transferred to the Adult Forensic Ward in the Topeka State Hospital. Containing high risk patients, the forensic ward was segregated from the rest of the hospital, but was eventually closed due to financial restraints. When it closed, many forensic patients, including Waddell, were moved into general population.
Stephanie Uhlrig worked as a music and activity therapist in the general population section of the Topeka State Hospital. On 23 February 1992, she, and another therapist took a number of patients on an excursion out of the hospital to see a film. Upon their return, Uhlrig went to check on Waddell in a men’s rest room, where he strangled her. He was convicted of felony murder and aggravated sexual battery, and was sentenced to life in prison, plus three to ten years for the sexual battery conviction. Waddell appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming that there was insufficient evidence to support the murder charge, and that his confession was false. He then later claimed that Uhlrig was already dead when the sexual battery took place, so the conviction could be nullified. Both convictions were upheld.
As community-based care grew in popularity, the need for large asylums diminished. The Kansas Legislature decided to close one of its three mental hospitals, and the Topeka State Hospital was selected. The remaining patients were transferred to the Osawatomie State Hospital, and Topeka Hospital closed its doors officially on 17th May 1997.
The majority of the buildings have now been demolished, but the hospital cemetery still stands with a plaque commemorating all those who have died within the walls of the Topeka State hospital.