Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians
Courtesy South Dakota Historical Society
Though many attempts have been made to lock up Indians, none are as notorious and depraved as what happened at the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.

‘A Living Burial’: Inside the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians

David Edward Walker

There have been many attempts by the U.S. mental health establishment to lock up, restrain, sedate or destroy the spirits of Native people, but none so notorious and depraved as what was done at the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. Maybe that’s why stories of the people who suffered there are so hard to come by. Fortunately, a cadre of researchers are working to reconstruct what really happened in a federally-funded psychiatric gulag that was fully operational only 85 years ago. There’s no centralized archive to dig through, and whatever remnants remain of Hiawatha inmate lives are scattered like ashes across multiple states and numerous warehouses of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Fragments from the pitiful records of two inmates are gathered and rewoven here, allowing these imprisoned ancestors to finally speak their past to our present.

Josephine Rider (Cherokee)

Skies were likely blue and the weather warm outside Canton, South Dakota in mid-October, 1905, when Josephine Rider first caught sight of high front gates arched with a sign reading “Hiawatha Asylum.” She was 57 years old, short and heavy, and had been a handful for Captain John West of the Indian Police to bring from Union Agency at Muskogee in what is now Oklahoma. He’d locked her in his jail for weeks before compelling her along the remaining 400 miles of her journey away from what had been her lifelong home in Bartlesville.

Despite having recited a government policy on other occasions “not to accept any Indians at… the Asylum at Canton who have sufficient revenue from their estates,” Indian Agent J. George Wright used funds derived from Josephine’s oil leasing royalties to cover all travel expenses and West’s pay for the job. These royalties may have been collected in her name, but they were controlled entirely by William P. Ross II, her son-in-law and legal guardian, husband to Maud, her only daughter, and father to her granddaughter and toddler grandson. In fact, Ross had arranged for three prominent white men in Bartlesville to attest that Josephine was “without means.”

Ross began his campaign to have her confined by writing to Wright in September about his own effort to transport Josephine to Russell to live with her sister, Sue. He said he “could not manage” her over the trek of several hundred miles, and at Muskogee, had appealed to West, her cousin, to take charge and force her the rest of the way.

Ross was nephew to Chief William P. Ross, who had helped create the Cherokee Insane Asylum, the first such tribal facility in Indian Country. Josephine was confined at Cherokee Asylum briefly in 1887 while living with her third husband, Allen Gilbert. In early 1903, Ross forced Josephine to be confined there again for several months before allowing her to come live with him, his wife, and their children. After she’d lived with them for about two years, he accused Josephine of swinging a chair at her granddaughter, and this was one of the reasons given for sending her to Hiawatha.

RELATED: Lunacy, Crazy Indians and the Witch’s Hammer: Mental Health Care as Oppression

There’d have been no formal inquiry in those days. Since she was already viewed as a Crazy Indian, Ross’s word on the matter had absolute power to send Josephine wherever he chose. Presciently, he’d already obtained a U.S. Court order in August declaring her an Indian lunatic, and in the process, hired a Bartlesville physician to document that “she was very nervous, very restless, and… very angry at times and making threats,” and suffering “hallucinations in regard to money and property.”

Her arrival at Hiawatha must have been the rock bottom of a difficult life. Born to a progressive family trying to embrace the white man’s “civilization” for generations, she’d instead suffered like so many other Cherokee families who’d survived the community trauma of forced removal. She was granddaughter and niece to men who signed the Treaty of New Echota and were then executed for complicity in the loss of Cherokee homelands and the Trail of Tears. Her father, a soldier in the internecine Tom Starr War, was already dead when she turned 3, and she buried her mother by the time she turned 16.

Josephine’s first marriage, to Confederate Cherokee veteran Jackson Foreman, was recorded in March 1870. Before 1874, she was living with a second Cherokee husband, Richard Walker, with whom she conceived her daughter, Maud. By 1878, Richard had married another woman, but Josephine and Maud wouldn’t have suffered any sort of stigma or public disapproval for their circumstances, which were fairly common. They both would’ve likely had the support of her matrilineal clan, the Ani’Ga’tâga’wi.

By 1882, she’d given birth to a son by Allen Gilbert, a white farmer, who adopted Maud. Gilbert had recently lost his Cherokee wife, Kiamitia West, the sister of John West, Josephine’s escort to Hiawatha Asylum. With his wife’s death, Gilbert lost his Cherokee citizenship, including his right to farm on land held in common. He needed another Cherokee wife, and Josephine moved in with him.

In 1887, while married to Gilbert, Josephine was briefly placed in the Cherokee Insane Asylum for the first time. Dr. William Adair remarked in his annual report that year that although she’d run away and not returned, “We learned that she is improved to such an extent—that she will not return again as an inmate.” Josephine came back home and stayed with Gilbert until he died in June 1898.

Three weeks after Gilbert’s death, the Curtis Act passed Congress, forcing the Cherokees to abide by the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act and ending their battle against individual land allotment. Cherokee tribal governance was abolished, and U.S. federal courts and Indian Agents gained incredible powers over all legal determinations and dealings of community members.

Under Curtis, the Secretary of the Interior placed Inspector George Wright in charge of Union Agency, all schools in Oklahoma Territory, the Choctaw-Chickasaw Mining Trust, revenue inspectors for the Cherokee and Creek, and tribal commissions surveying and laying out town-sites for populations over 200. And in 1904, Inspector Wright was made responsible for all insane persons in the Territory as well as authorization of all oil and gas pipeline rights of way.

Ross obtained guardianship of his mother-in-law in late 1902. He’d likely only had to mention Josephine’s confinement at Cherokee Insane Asylum 15 years earlier. Once he had her guardianship, he immediately compelled her back into Cherokee Insane Asylum for the second time.

Just a few months prior, he’d bought 200 acres of land south of Bartlesville. After having Josephine confined, Ross converted this land into an individual allotment in her name using the new provisions of the Curtis Act. In fact, Ross testified to the Cherokee Land Office clerk, “[S]he owns a home in the land I am selecting…” Of course, under his guardianship, Josephine no longer had a real home of her own. For all intents and purposes, it now belonged to her son-in-law. Her matrilineal status in sharing land was gone because of the Curtis Act, and as a locked-up Crazy Indian, she’d never again wield control over property, even if it was in her name.

Here’s the letterhead Ross used for multiple letters to Wright regarding Josephine’s travel to Hiawatha Asylum:

It was the oil royalties Ross managed in Josephine’s name, that is, “bonds of the Kansas and Texas Oil Company,” that funded her travel toward permanent confinement. The Petroleum Review had very recently reported plans “to construct a pipeline from the company’s property in Bartlesville,” expanding on what the Weekly Examiner had extolled as “the first well drilled in Cherokee Nation outside of Cudahy’s” upon “the Ross allotment… the most important well that has been drilled in this section.”

And it is during this dismantling of her life and assets that Josephine was said to be experiencing “hallucinations about money and property.” We cannot know what those were, but we might wonder how closely they related to all that was being taken away from her. We might also wonder if she was really hallucinating.

Being “very angry at times” and “making threats” is all that remains of her voice. As she approached Hiawatha’s gates, she likely faced the end of a fierce family battle she’d lost. She no longer had a home, land, clan or family; she no longer even held control over her own body or her future.

When the asylum’s gates swung open, Captain West presented Dr. John Turner an “Order for Delivery of Insane Indian”: “The United States Court… having issued an order adjudging Josephine Rider, a Cherokee citizen, to be insane and remanded her to your custody…” Turner signed the “Receipt for Delivery of Insane Indian”: “I hereby acknowledge to have received from William P. Ross, Guardian… custody of the insane person noted.”

A seven-foot-high woven steel prison fence now surrounded her, never a feature at Cherokee Asylum. She was quickly escorted into the main building. The two floors and four wings were mostly empty, and a cold austerity met her lit by bright electric lights. No artwork of any kind was permitted, and oddly, there were very few chairs. Inmates had to sit on their beds.

Perhaps sitting on her bed was where she was briefed about her new life in this special prison. For her, Hiawatha would become what the great Asylum researcher and sociologist, Erving Goffman, later called a “total institution” governing every aspect of her life through “a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self.”

Asylum Superintendent Oscar Gifford described his new facility as “a refuge for all kinds of defectives,” but basic custodial detention was only beginning to make room for the new medical field of psychiatric treatment. Beneath Gifford were Assistant Superintendent Dr. Turner, a financial clerk, matron, seamstress, laundress, cook, watchman, engineer, two attendants and two laborers. Everyone lived on-site.

Twenty-one inmates per floor were expected to share a single toilet and bath, but this capacity overflowed to twice that number eventually. Josephine, however, arrived to find only 20 or so fellow inmates in the entire facility. Turner described them as suffering “epileptic” and alcoholic dementias, “acute” or “chronic” melancholia (depression) or mania, or simply “congenital imbecility,” i.e. feeblemindedness. We don’t know what her diagnosis was.

Turner believed each inmate’s life should consist of proper sleep (bedtime at 8 p.m. nightly), vegetarian meals, outdoor activity (working on the asylum farm) and regular hot baths. Visits from family members were forbidden, as was Native dancing. Beading and basket-making were permitted, as well as board games, cards, sewing, baseball, basketball or horseshoes.

Such activities didn’t generate much interest among the caged. The able-bodied sought work in the laundry, kitchen, or on the farm to reduce the endless boredom. Becoming a source of free labor also helped establish privileges and a possible means of escape. There were many such attempts at Hiawatha Asylum, but very few successes.

Officially, violence and profanity were prohibited for everyone. However, staff members received no training in dealing humanely with “unruly patients,” and physical and sexual abuse of inmates was commonplace. Inmates were often tied down, shackled, straitjacketed and/or locked in their rooms at the whim or convenience of the attendants. Around the time Josephine arrived, a female attendant had been fired for prostitution and morphine addiction, and a male attendant was bringing in whiskey and bragging about his sexual acts with female inmates.

Turner was often angry about his orders being received by staff members as merely suggestions. In theory, his approval was required for imposing physical restraints like straitjackets or isolating uncooperative or resistant inmates in locked rooms. In reality, the attendants were in charge of the asylum.

Turner liked to use potassium bromide, an established approach for epilepsy recently endorsed for many psychiatric conditions. Like psychiatric medications endorsed today, bromide was much celebrated but its side effects were poorly understood. Bromide accumulates as a toxin in the body, so the routine dose of 3 to 5 grams induced neurological disorders, gastrointestinal problems, irritability, hallucinations, delirium and lethargy. Such “bromide intoxication” made some people appear crazier, but they’d typically just be administered more bromide. This wonder drug made inmates more malleable, a desirable condition since the keepers were outnumbered by the kept.

After Josephine’s first year, Turner described her as “changed markedly” and “now quiet and quite reasonable”:

His observations likely made her optimistic, but she’d never go home again. Turner’s ongoing friction with Gifford over releasing inmates he considered “cured” kept Josephine inside Hiawatha for three more years. By 1909, Turner had quit, and Ross easily arranged for his mother-in-law’s transfer to Norman [Oklahoma] Hospital for the Violently Insane. No further record can be found of her, and it’s likely she lived out the rest of her days there, dying in obscurity.

Peter Thompson Good Boy (Lakota)

Psychiatrist Harry Hummer took over as Hiawatha Asylum superintendent after Oscar Gifford resigned following Turner’s complaints that his lack of oversight led to a “full-term, bastard, imbecile” being conceived there, a baby boy eventually removed for an adoption that never materialized, and who died three months after being taken away from his mother.

Hummer had interned at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where the new superintendent, William Alanson White, was introducing such humane reforms as abandoning strait jackets and even opening a beauty parlor. Such indulgences did not impress young Dr. Hummer. He began fighting with staff members from the moment he arrived, and Turner was quickly replaced by Dr. L.M. Hardin, a physician from Leech Lake Indian Boarding School, whose investigation by the Indian Office for unknown reasons had resulted in his transfer to Hiawatha.

Hardin rallied staff members against Hummer’s immaturity, arrogance and incompetence, and began writing complaints to the Indian Office about his harsh treatment of inmates, including solitary confinement, food rationing and the use of inmates as personal servants. Hummer was repeatedly vindicated by outside investigators, even surviving accusations by his secretary in 1914 that he’d sought her out for sex while his wife was off evaluating two girls at Santa Fe Indian School. Hummer retaliated against adversaries by firing those who wouldn’t resign. Hardin was gone after three months, and Hummer became both superintendent and sole physician for the next 17 years.

Hummer fervently embraced the American eugenics movement and felt no Indian should be released from his Asylum without first being sterilized. Because he didn’t have the facilities for such operations, very few inmates were let out while he was in charge. In its 33 years of operation, nine out of 10 inmates discharged from Hiawatha left by dying. Eighty-three percent of the 120 inmates who died lost their lives during Hummer’s tenure, 52 as a result of his negligence during a 1924 tuberculosis outbreak.

Yet in 1916, Hummer’s career was ascendant—he was expanding facilities to 85 beds and building new provisions for hydrotherapy and a solarium. Hydrotherapy treatment, often considered punishment by those receiving it, included forced bathing for hours or even days in tubs circulating warm water or being swaddled with wet, freezing bed sheets. Attendants often only had to mention hydrotherapy to obtain compliance from inmates.

That same year was when Peter Thompson Good Boy and Dr. Hummer first met, and from the start, it was clear they wouldn’t get along. Peter’s journey to Hiawatha had started about 4 years earlier. A Lakota from Rosebud Reservation, Peter may or may not have committed larceny at that time against Let Them Have Enough and John Whipple. Rosebud Special Agent Charles Davis conjectured that Peter suffered from “a mania for stealing horses,” and he’d found a new way to keep him locked up—minus due process.

Long before his admission to Hiawatha, Peter had been held at a Lawrence County, South Dakota jail cell for many months as “mentally deranged.” He reportedly held the “delusion” he’d been set up by Whipple, whom he asserted never paid a fine related to a wrongful death Peter considered murder. Eventually, Peter was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. under circumstances so dubious that even white outsiders, including two congressmen and a penitentiary chaplain, tried to get him released.

They weren’t successful. Six months after his transfer into Hiawatha Asylum, Hummer administered a brief mental health assessment to Peter reminiscent of procedures still used today in Indian Country. Here is a copy of the assessment form:

It was rare for Hummer to make a direct assessment of an inmate. In investigations many years later, he admitted he seldom had any “medical contact” with inmates.

Contrary to the label Hummer affixed to Peter, this 39-year-old Lakota man with “constitutional inferiority” enjoyed passing his time writing about social justice issues. Here’s a sample of Peter’s “inferiority” from an undated English language essay he composed, found inside his Hiawatha Asylum file:

Capital punishment is presumed to impress offenders with the sacredness of life. It works just the other way. The psychological effect of it is precisely the reverse. It provokes violence. The opposition to capital punishment is asserted to be purely sentimental. It is not. It is surely practical based on facts, history, and science.

The explanation for Hummer’s condescending psychiatric assessment of Peter becomes clearer when considering Peter had provoked him by composing a letter five months earlier in phonetic Lakota about conditions at Hiawatha and attempting to smuggle it out:

Peter’s words of June 8, 1916 never made it out of the building, but Hummer had a loose translation made and knew some of what he’d written. Now Peter’s words are available to us in a better translation provided by Gwen Holmes (Lakota):

My friends, at this time I would like to share something with you. Well, this hospital poses a concern. Therefore, I ask that it be taken care of at the Indian Office. Well, there are several men that work here, and they are employed through Lakota monies. Nothing is done correctly. Men were ill and died here. They endured severe ill treatment. That is why many have died here. Therefore, I choose to help. An individual (man) from a higher power to pursue such as [in] the Supreme Court we are entitled to. That is why men who work here do their work according to black hand. Men who are ill [and] get a little upset are killed immediately. So that is why the law was given to the Indian. If there was something filed against these men, they should be brought in front of a grand jury. These white men need to be found guilty now. That is why I am telling the truth. It was then I was coming back from the dining hall. He’s got it in his mind we are going to die of starvation. I also would like to have an inspector come here. Whenever there is one coming here, we would like to visit with him. My relatives, we endure severe ill treatment. So that you can take this letter and get it written in English and give it to Cato Sells, Commissioner Indian Affairs, Washington, DC. He would be the person I suggest. My friends, I shake your hand. Peter T. Good Boy

To clarify: “Black Hand” was a symbol used in extortion in the early days of organized crime. Hummer’s psychiatric assessment and the pejorative label of “constitutional inferiority” affixed to Peter were likely designed to offset the credibility of his note.

Undeterred, Peter again delivered a note to a staff member, this time in English, a few months after his assessment by Hummer. Here’s an excerpt:

Any man who sells or gives intoxicating liquor to the Indian should be sent to the penitentiary regardless of his social standing or political influence… any man came to our Indian Hospital and carries one of [sic] bottle whiskey in his pocket working around here I will report only employee. Getting along with whiskey also women in here. This is not right.

Notes written by staff members about Peter began to get more detailed than was typical. He was described as “friendly and sociable” but “caus[ing] much trouble among other patients (Sioux) by talking against the Superintendent….” Staff members said Peter was “a leader among them [who] exerts big influence” and “thinks he’s exceptionally brilliant,” who “when excited, calls the Sioux together, motions and talks to them, shakes his fists and immediately they begin something that will cause trouble.” Peter lost 20 pounds and was treated for “sprain of wrist” and “burned wrist” on four occasions along with a variety of cuts, strains and contusions.

In trying to unite inmates and stirring agitation about their maltreatment, Peter Thompson Good Boy anticipated by 60 years the “liberation psychology” movement mentioned by my friend and fellow dissident, Dr. Bruce Levine. Perhaps this was why in October 1917 Peter became one of the few discharges Hummer ever made, despite his determination to sterilize all those he deemed inferior. It would be 16 more years before Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians would be subjected to the investigation Peter tried to bring about through his Lakota note.

By then, Native children and youth sent to Hiawatha Asylum by boarding school superintendents had lived for years behind locked doors bound in straitjackets. Inmates were chained to iron pipes, the keys to their shackles “lost.” Their chains had to be sawed through in order to free them. Others were found tied to beds soiled in their own excrement. A paraplegic Native girl was discovered struggling on the bathroom floor where she’d been compelled to sleep half-naked on a filthy mattress.

Investigating for the Indian Office in 1932, Dr. John Holst compared Hiawatha to “a leper colony” and “a living burial.” With the public disclosure in 1933 that many Native people at Hiawatha were actually sane, the asylum was closed. Those deemed still insane were transferred to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Hummer’s alma mater. William Alanson White had passed away years before, unfortunately, and his more humane values had been replaced by experimental “treatments” such as insulin injection, electroconvulsive shock, and prefrontal lobotomy.

The Crazy Indian would continue to be regularly institutionalized until the 1950s, when thorazine and other psychiatric drugs made it easier and cheaper to sedate and chemically restrain these oppressed, reactive, rejected or merely disturbing people. In other words, today’s court-ordered medicating and other coercive approaches to compel the “consent to medicate” are merely the travesties of the old asylum being moved inside people’s bodies. More subtly, attempts by today’s providers to persuade their Native patients that biological or genetic defects are behind their emotional and behavioral reactions rather than centuries of oppression and historical trauma is a lie little different than Harry Hummer telling Peter Thompson Good Boy that he was “constitutionally inferior.”

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
So many lives ruined by Bureaucrats! It’s no wonder why Natives are suspicious of ANY paperwork, but especially any paperwork from the government. We suffered TWO genocides! First the men with guns and cannons took our lands. Then men with suits and ties came along and took everything else!

Submitted by squeak on
Really, really sad circumstances and insane asylums were just such a horrid place long ago. I can’t begin to think what was going on in their heads – the people that were stuck there OR the people that "ran" them! By the way, Josephine’s name was Narcissa Josephine Rider. She was born in September 1, 1848 in Flint, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), to John Augustus Rider and Rachel Smith. On the 1920 census in Venita Ward 4, Craig County, Oklahoma, Josephine is listed as a patient. You had said you didn’t see anything listed after 1909, so thought I’d bring up the 1920 census. I can’t afford an ancestry.com account to view the original census record to find out the name of the place she was in, but I’m sure someone here can look that up. Thank you for this article!

Submitted by Anisahoni on
Thanks much for your comment, Michael. Squeak, thank you also – I was aware of particulars about Narcissa but opted not to use her given first name because it appears she preferred Josephine. There’s much more regarding her family’s difficult history. I’m grateful to you for locating more than I was able to about her fate, but sorry to note that Venita Ward 4 must refer to Vinita State Hospital which became Eastern Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane. There’s a cemetery at that place, and it would be helpful to know if she was laid to rest there. However, it was reportedly vandalized and many markers were destroyed. Here’s a link for more info on that Asylum: http://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php?title=Vinta_State_Hospital