To charge; The story of a Chicago madhouse. (2023)



In 1851, the Cook County Poor Farm was established in the town of Jefferson, Illinois, about 12 miles northwest of Chicago. The farm consisted of 160 acres of fairly improved land and was formerly owned by Peter Ludby, who purchased it in 1839. By November, 1854, the county almshouse was nearing completion. The building was brick, three stories with a basement, and cost about $25,000 ($706,000 today). Additional land was purchased in 1860 and 1884. In 1915, the land consisted of 234 acres.

The old lunatic wards was of brick, with small barred windows, iron doors, and heavy wooden doors on the outside, with hatches and hinged shutters through which food passed. The cells were about eight feet by eight feet; they were not heated, except for the stove in the corridor, which in some did not raise the temperature above zero; the cold however did not freeze the worms whose beds, walls and floors were alive with these creatures running about. The number of cells in this ward was 21, 10 on the lower and 11 on the upper floor; many of them contained two beds.

The complex occupied 320 acres of land between Irving Park Road and Montrose Avenue, stretching west from Narragansett Avenue to Oak Park Avenue.

Chicagoans have long feared Dunning. The very name "Dunning" made them cringe. People were afraid that they would end up in that place.

Today, the Chicago neighborhood in the extreme northwest of the city looks like a middle-class suburb. "If peace and quiet is what you're looking for, look no further, Dunning," wrote the Chicago Tribune in 2009. Some of the area's younger residents have no idea what was once there: an insane asylum, a home for the city's poorest, and cemeteries where were buried poor.

"I grew up in this area," says 29-year-old Michael Dotson. "I've passed this region hundreds of times and never knew anything about it." Dotson recently found a website that mentions the old Dunningasylum. And then he saw a headline claiming that 38,000 bodies could lie beneath Dunning's old homestead, with unmarked graves.

This led Dotson to ask this question:

What is the story behind the former Cook County Dunning Insane Asylum and the people buried near it?

It is a long story with many dark chapters. Curious City can't work out the full story, so we've focused on finding out who lived in Dunning - and who's still in the unmarked Dunning tombs. In both life and death, the people who ended up in Dunning were some of Chicago's less fortunate residents.

Here's how historian Perry Duis describes Dunning's reputation in his 1998 book, "Challenging Chicago":

For many generations of Chicago kids, misbehavior was stopped with a stern warning: "Be careful or you'll go to Dunning." The possibility gave chills to the young people who considered the place to be the most terrifying place imaginable.

Steven Hill, a 60-year-old Chicago resident, recalls, "It was a phrase used in the 1950s and 1960s: 'If you and your brothers and sisters don't behave, we'll send you to Dunning.' to scare the children because they knew it was a mental institution.

Cook County Mental Asylum and Hospitalin Dunning began in 1885.

Mundelein resident Ross Goodrich, 81, heard a similar expression growing up on the West Side in the 1930s and 1940s for Dunning. It was a fairly common expression," he says.

Hill and Goodrich are interested in Dunning's history because they both had great-grandparents who died at the institution in the early 20th century.

In fact, his name was never Dunning. But the property to the south belonged to the Dunning family - so when the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul extended the line to that area in 1882, the station was named Dunning Station. And then people started calling the institution "Dunning". (In the early years people sometimes called him "Jefferson" since he is partJefferson Township.)

When it was opened in 1854, it was not an insane asylum. CookCounty Infirmary was a "poor farm" and asylum. County authorities opened their doors to people who fell into hard times and could not earn a living.

"They didn't provide a lot of services," said Joseph J. Mehr, a clinical psychologist in Springfield who wrote about Dunning in his 2002 book, "An Illustrated History of Public Mental Health Services in Illinois."

"What they really provided was a place to sleep and food," he says. "And that was actually the extent."

But from the beginning, many of the poor people who were sent to live in the asylum were mentally ill. “In a way, it's almost similar to what we have today,” says Mehr, “in the sense that we have a lot of people who are homeless and living on the streets, and a significant number of them were people with mental illness. "

Thus, the county added the "Department of the Insane" to the asylum. And then in 1870 he built the separate Cook County Asylum on the site.

"The feeling was that it was better to isolate the mentally handicapped population, the poor, and keep them out of the inner city," says Chicago historian Richard C. Lindberg.

But Mehr sees another motivation behind the shelter's location far from downtown Chicago. "The idea was to get upset people out of stressful situations," he says. "Asylums were built inland and were really pastoral and bucolic places where people could relax."

That was the idea anyway. In reality, Dunning was chronically overcrowded and patients neglected and abused.

"You can think of this place as a prototype of a dark haven of literature," says Mehr. "There wasn't a lot of treatment. The people... were not well fed. The food was terrible - full of weevils. People were not receiving the medical care they should have received. For many, many years, it really was a terrible place.”

abuse and corruption

In 1874, a Tribune reporter described Dunning's workhouse as "a dilapidated and unkempt row of wooden buildings" in which drunken-looking men with disheveled hair and ragged clothes were "crammed and herded together like sheep in a slaughterhouse or pigs in a slaughterhouse."

"The rooms are full of maggots," the server told the reporter. “Cribs and bedding are literally alive with them. We cannot keep men clean and we cannot drive out parasites if they are not clean.”

The journalist could not stand the smell of the room and exclaimed: “For God's sake, let's go outside; this stench is unbearable.”

Political corruption was part of the problem at Dunning. The county authorities treated it as a haven for clientelism, hiring friends and cronies who had no experience working with the mentally ill. Employees got drunk on duty, partied and danced late into the night in the asylum. Some of the asylum's top officials used taxpayers' money to decorate their offices and throw lavish parties while patients languished in misery.

"They were all political mercenaries," says Al Opitz, a neighborhood historian. "Consequently, they had no one to report to except the political boss."

In an 1889 court filing, Cook County Judge Richard Prendergast described Dunning as "a grave for the living." He criticized the asylum for cramming 1,000 patients into a space better suited for 500. "The presence of so many lunatics in one room irritates everybody," Prendergast said. "Night fights among patients are common."

That same year, two attendants at Dunning Asylum were charged with the murder of patient Robert Burns. They kicked him in the stomach and cut him on the head. The defense attorney argued that these "kicks and punches ... were beneficial to the lunatic because they were a type of Ortonian stimulus," the Tribune reported. Jurors acquitted the attendants, blaming Dunning's overcrowding rather than the actions of individual employees.

Even under the best of circumstances, doctors did not have many effective treatments for people suffering from mental illness. The only drugs they had available were sedatives. "If the person was very agitated, they could dose them with chloral hydrate, which would make them practically pass out," says Mehr. "It's an ingredient in what used to be called Mickey Finn's bar."

According to an 1886 state investigation, one such sedative used on Dunning was a mixture containing chloral hydrate as well as cannabis, hops and potassium. The investigation also revealed that Dunning was serving two kegs of beer a day; the patients, as well as the staff, had apparently drunk beer.

The same state investigation harshly criticized the food Dunning served to his inmates. The lack of fresh fruits and vegetables caused an epidemic of scurvy, from which about 200 patients fell ill. "The food, we are convinced, was bad," the investigators said.

For all their dire findings, the investigators quoted the doctor as saying that "there were some very excellent attendants, who were conscientious and sought to alleviate the suffering of the insane in every possible way." But these employees were in the minority and were intimidated by Dunning's irresponsible workers.

The situation inside Dunning's workshop looked a little better in 1892. A journalist who visited that year did not find the same horrors that others had witnessed in earlier times. But she reported that many of the inmates of the poor asylum were "too old and infirm to do anything but sit in sad groups." The chief told him that many people ended up in nursing homes because of alcoholism. "Whisky brings them out the most," he said, adding, "It's mostly foreigners."

Cases of insanity in the news

At the time, Chicago newspapers often carried stories of local people suffering from mental illness, openly describing their symptoms and sometimes publishing their names. In many of those stories, patients were first taken to the Cook County Detention Hospital (at the northwest corner of Polk and Wood streets), where judges ordered them admitted to Dunning.

Here is a sampling of a few cases reported in 1897:

  • Frank Johnsonit was given to Dunning after he cut off his right hand in a fit of religious mania. "I think it's going to grow back," he told the judge.
  • John E.N., 28 years old, believed that Jesus was the Christ.
  • Timothy O'B.became a "raving maniac" after being punched in the head by a police officer.
  • William Mitchell, 43, a very thin African-American man said he hears "ghostly voices" and believes people are "pursuing him for murderous purposes."
  • Teresa K., 35, was sent to Dunning after she refused to eat, declaring her food poisonous.
  • Katarina T., 56, "was something like a wild cat". Maggie Mc., who may have fractured her skull five years earlier, is described as "silly, helpless, Irish, very poor, and 28 years old."
  • Frederick W.., 35, who looked disheveled and disheveled, was sent to Dunning after an officer found her sitting in a park. She said she was "looking for a prince, who promised her marriage".
  • William L.The 45-year-old was arrested when a policeman found him "wandering the avenues lusting after women and girls." After hearing the details of the case, the judge declared, "Dunning." As the bailiff quickly pushed William L. toward the door, the patient turned and shouted, "It doesn't take long to kill a man here!"

Such patients were sent by a special servicetreetcar, kao i Minneapolis i St.from Cook County Detention Hospital in Dunning. It was a green hospital tram with a doctor and two nurses in it. The carriage was called the 'crazy train' and had a security guard at each exit so that the prisoners could not escape.

To charge; The story of a Chicago madhouse. (2)
Special "Crazy Train" prisoner streetcars at the west end of the Irving Park line.
To charge; The story of a Chicago madhouse. (3)
Special streetcars transported prisoners from Cook County Hospital to Dunning.

About half of Dunning's patients suffered from "chronic mania," according to the asylum's annual report of 1890. Other patients had conditions described as melancholia, impulsive insanity, monomania, and circular insanity. Doctors cited masturbation as one of the most common "exciting causes" of insanity among Dunning's male patients. According to the report, other patients went mad due to religious excitement, family problems, spiritualism, sunstroke, heartbreak, alcohol, miscarriage, narcotics, puberty and overwork.

To charge; The story of a Chicago madhouse. (4)
Today, part of the remaining tracks from Dunning's "Crazy Train" is located behind the Target store in Ciglana.

Unidentified Dunning graves

Throughout its early history, Dunning also included cemeteries—not only for indigent nursing home residents and inmates who died, but for anyone who died in Cook County and whose family could not afford burial. Some bodies were moved from the Chicago City Cemetery to Dunning, which was located below what is now Lincoln Park.

Of the 300 who died in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, 117 victims of the fire were buried on the property of the Dunning Insane Asylum. they are also buriedCivil War veterans, including Thomas Hamilton McCray, a Confederate brigadier general who moved to Chicago after the war and died in 1891.

To charge; The story of a Chicago madhouse. (5)

One of the most notorious people buried at Dunning was Johann Hoch, a bigamist who is said to have married 30 women and murdered at least 10 of them. After he was hanged in the Cook County Jail in 1906, other cemeteries refused to accept his body. "In that little box they made in the prison, Hoch's remains were buried anonymously somewhere in the Irving and Narragansett areas," said Lindberg, who told the story in his 2011 book, "Heartland Serial Killers."

The same fate befell George Gorciak, a Hungarian immigrant who died penniless in 1895, succumbing to typhoid fever. His family took his body to Graceland Cemetery, apparently unaware that they needed to pay for the plot there. Later that day, they took the coffin to Dunning, where burials in the potter's field were free.

The Dunning burials included many orphans and children – and adults whose identities were kept secret. In 1912, an "unknown man" was buried in Dunning who allegedly killed himself with a knife.

Scandals sometimes broke out over the theft of bodies from Dunning Cemetery by people who wanted them for anatomy demonstrations. In one case from 1897, four bodies were carried away while they were being prepared for burial. Henry Ullrich, a security guard who worked at Dunning, was convicted of selling the corpses to Dr. William Smith, a professor of medicine in Missouri.

The professor claimed that the guard offered to kill the "freak" and sell his body. Smith remembers telling Ullrich, "I only want the dead." Ullrich reportedly replied, "Okay, Doc...he's in the 'homicide ward' and you'd just think he'd escaped. They always do, you know.

County officials denied the existence of a "homicide unit."

The state takes control

In 1910, the indigent residents of Dunning were moved to a new infirmary in Oak Forest. And in 1912, the state took over Dunning Asylum from Cook County, changing its official name to Chicago State Hospital.To charge; The story of a Chicago madhouse. (6)

Conditions had already improved at Dunning over the previous decade, Mehr says. One of the reasons was the construction of smaller buildings for the accommodation of patients. And the Civil Service Act passed in 1895 reduced the problems with clientelism. After the state took over, Mehr says, "It put an end to the scandals surrounding corruption and corruption issues." But cases of patient abuse still made the news from time to time, he says.

Ross Goodrich says his great-grandmother, a Prague immigrant named Fannie Hrdlicka (pronounced Herliska), was placed in Dunning when she became depressed after one of her children died.

To charge; The story of a Chicago madhouse. (7)

This February 1947 photo taken at Chicago State Hospital shows the poorly ventilated, narrow and congested corridors where some patients slept. (Chicago Daily News)

According to the family history, he says: "When the baby died, my great-grandmother cradled the baby for several days and did not let go of it. And then they put her in Dunning because they thought she was a little crazy. But we suspect it could be postpartum depression. (…) If she had some sort of mental disability, I'm not sure there were other places available at the time for her to go."

Hrdlicka was released from Dunning and then readmitted. She died there in 1918.

Steven Hill says he doesn't know why his great-grandfather, John Ohlenbusch, was living in Dunning when he died in 1910. But the death certificate says he had dementia, so Hill suspects Ohlenbusch may have had what later became known as Alzheimer's. Hill says her grandmother never discussed her father's death at Dunning.

"People didn't talk about the tough lifestyle they had and how poor they were," says Hill. "But I know they had a very, very hard life."

Goodrich and Hill would like to know more about what happened to their ancestors in Dunning, but documents are not easy to come by. The Illinois State Archives in Springfield holds admission and discharge records from Chicago State Hospital from 1920 to 1951, but you need a court order to view them. Some old Cook County records, showing patients sent to Dunning between 1877 and 1887, are available for public viewing at the Northeastern Illinois University State Archives Branch.

Changing mental health treatment

In the first half of the 20th century, Chicago State Hospital used several different treatments for mental illness. Hydrotherapy used hot or cold water to calm depressed or agitated people. Fever treatment induces high temperatures to kill bacteria in the brain of syphilis patients.

No lobotomies have been performed at Chicago State Hospital, but Mehr says the hospital has sent some of its patients elsewhere for the treatment, which cuts the frontal lobe of the brain. "It's like shooting someone in the head with a shotgun," he says.

For a time, some patients at Dunning and other hospitals in Illinois received electroshock therapy "once a day, every day for years, which is an absolute abomination," Mehr says. "It was a terrible thing."

A new era of psychiatric treatment began in 1954 with the discovery of Thorazine, the first in a new wave of drugs that directly affected the symptoms of mental illness.

Mehr, 71, worked for a year at Chicago State Hospital during an internship from 1964 to 1965. He says the conditions he witnessed were far better than the caricatures of Dunning's early story. "My impressions were not bad," he says. And yet, he adds, "The problem... was that those state hospitals were overcrowded."

The Chicago State Hospital buildings were closed after a 1970 merger with the nearby Charles F. Read Zone Center, which opened on the west side of Oak Park Avenue in 1965. Since 1970, it has been known as the Chicago-Read Mental Health Center. Today, for better or worse, fewer people with mental illness are staying in hospitals for long periods of time.

Bodies discovered in 1989

In the years following the closing of Chicago State Hospital, the states sold off most of the property. Today, the land includes the Dunning Square shopping center, which is anchored by a jewelry store; Wright College Campus; Maryville Children's Center; and houses and apartments.

Apparently state officials didn't realize that human bodies were buried under part of Dunning's land when they sold it to Pontarelli Builders, who began building homes. In 1989, a backhoe engineer working on the project found a dead body. The state recently passed a law requiring an archaeological assessment before building on any property where human remains were found, so archaeologist David Keene was hired to examine the site. Keene was a lecturer at Loyola University at the time and now runs his own company, A Archaeological Research.

"The area was littered with human remains, with human bones everywhere where things had been disturbed," he says.

Keene has a vivid memory of that dead body found by the backhoe. He looked like a Civil War veteran. Much of the body was still intact, probably because it had been embalmed with arsenic, a common treatment at the time, which would have killed any organisms that tried to eat the flesh.

"The backhoe cut him in half at the waist," says Keene. “His skin was in relatively good condition... I mean, you could see his face. But there was a significant deterioration in the face. You could see the mustache. You could see his hair. He had red hair, but it was uneven. There were no other recognizable facial features. And he had a was obviously military. We only saw this briefly. We didn't spend much time with it – mainly because the smell was amazing to say the least.”

Keene led a careful excavation of the soil around this grisly discovery - stopping the dig whenever a coffin or human remains were discovered. He determined that the five-acre cemetery was hidden northwest of the present-day corner of Belle Plaine and Neenah avenues. As a result of Keene's discoveries, this property was set aside as Read-Dunning Memorial Park, which opened in 2002. Building was permitted on land south of it.

This was only the second oldest of the three cemeteries on Dunning's land. The oldest cemetery was near the original asylum, west of Narragansett Avenue and north of Belle Plaine. County officials reportedly moved the bodies from that cemetery to another cemetery, but Keene says the bodies ended up there during another construction project. "We found a little over 30 people there and were able to relocate them so (the developer) could build their building there," Keene says.

And when Wright College was built on the site of the former asylum in the early 1990s, scattered human remains also turned up there, Keene says.

"The femur would show," he says. "And it wasn't connected to any tomb. It is just mixed with the soil from previous construction and removal of buildings in the past. In this area, you can go to any of these yards and dig in the flower beds and find human remains. They are part of the scattered remains of construction activities that took place in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s 20. Every time they built a building, human remains flew.”

As Keene explains, state authorities built hospital buildings on this land between 1912 and the 1960s, without regard for whether people were buried there.

"The state intervened and—as far as we know from the archaeological evidence—removed all surface evidence of burials in the entire area," says Keene. "Actually, they were building right on top of the tombs."

Dunning's third burial ground was further west - under present-day Oak Park Avenue near the Chicago-Read Mental Health Center. While Keene was conducting his investigation in 1989, some workers approached him and told him they had found human remains while working on a broken main at the entrance to Chicago-Read.

"So we went there," Keene recalls. “And sure enough, there were human remains everywhere. And so we started doing some research there to find out what the limitations were.”

Keene says it's obvious someone must have known these graves existed when the road was built across them. "It's pretty clear," he says. “When we were there – and this is just plumbers trying to find a leak – they were cutting up coffins. So someone had to cut out some of those coffins to put in the original lines.”

In 1989, genealogist B. Fleig studied the available Dunning records and documented that over 15,000 people were buried in the cemeteries there. But the data is incomplete and Fleig extrapolated the total closer to 38,000.

Opitz says the county's record keeping is sloppy. "Consequently, the number of corpses or people buried here is somewhat nebulous," he says.

The exact number is unknown, but Keene says 38,000 is a reasonable estimate. For Keene, the lesson of the Dunning cemeteries is that cemeteries are not as permanent as many think they will be.

Silvija Klavins-Barshney, 50, a resident of the neighborhood, says she was shocked when she learned about the Dunning cemeteries a few years ago. She serves as board vice president of Zion Lutheran Church of Latvia, which is located inside a building that was once part of Chicago State Hospital.

The Illinois Department of Central Management Services owns and maintains the park.

“The more I researched, the more I felt that the story had to come out,” she says, “because most of the people... who are buried here are people who were forgotten during their lifetime. They were simply left behind. Or rejected. Or hidden. And if this is how they lived their lives, how dare we allow them to live their afterlife like this?How can 38,000 people be buried and then forgotten?"

Although rumors of human bones found during previous construction projects had circulated in the neighborhood for years, the first remains officially found at the Dunning site were discovered by sewer excavators on March 9, 1989. Among them was the mummified torso of a man so well preserved that he had a mustache and goatees. from 1890. There were other remains: several baskets of bones, which may have represented the bodies of several dozen people, according to the pathologist's report.

The hair was put together by Dr.


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