Thursday, October 20, 2016

Bedlam in the Old West

Did you ever wonder what happened to mentally ill individuals in the Old West? Something made me start thinking about that, maybe because Halloween is coming and abandoned asylums are supposed to be among the most haunted places one can find. Or, maybe because my great grandfather, James Knox Polk Leggett, died in such a place.
General Henry Gray, 28th Regiment commander

J.K.P. as he was called, enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1862, in Bienville Parish, LA; 28th Regiment, Louisiana Infantry (Gray’s). He was captured and released by Union forces. After the war, he married my great grandmother, Mary Leggett. From ancestry research, I concluded they were first cousins. Such marriages were not uncommon in those days.
Bessie Mae Leggett Horner & William Daniel Horner; 50th Anniversary photo
The two had eleven children, my grandmother, Bessie Mae, among them. Her folks moved to Van Zandt County, Texas, where she was born in 1882. Sadly, her father had mental issues. According to information I received from a distant cousin, J.K.P. even threatened suicide. At some point, Mary or someone else, had him committed to the North Texas Hospital for the Insane, formerly named the North Texas Lunatic Asylum. Later, the name was changed again to the Terrell State Hospital, for the town where it is located.
Terrell State Hospital 1909
From the Texas State Historical Association, I learned the first State Lunatic Asylum (now Austin State Hospital) opened in 1861, when twelve patients were admitted. Before then, “individuals with a mental illness or mental retardation were kept at home, sent out of state for treatment or custodial care, or confined in almshouses or jails.” The second facility, in Terrell, opened in 1883. A third asylum, The Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, opened in San Antonio in 1892.

Did other western states open mental institutions in the 1800s? They sure did. In Gold Rush days, dangerous criminals and mentally ill individuals were imprisoned on a ship called the Euphemia, docked offshore from San Francisco. In 1850, 12 people judged to be "insane" were locked in the Euphemia's hold.

You can read the full story of the Euphemia here:'Euphemia'
Several other asylums opened in California over the next decades. One, the Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, opened in 1893. Known simply as "The Insane Asylum" to the public, by 1898 the facility was so overcrowded that the staff could not properly care for patients. Between1893 and 1934, it is believed that over 2,000 patients died and were buried on the hospital grounds.
Colorado established the state's first public mental hospital, the Colorado Insane Asylum, in 1879 (now the Colorado Mental Health Institute Pueblo.) Eleven individuals were admitted. By 1923, the hospital housed 2,422 patients.

These are only a few examples proving that mental disease was just as big a problem in the “good old days” as it is today. The major difference lies in how the mentally ill were treated back then. They were often victims of neglect and downright cruelty. Many of the “treatments” they were subjected to, including lobotomies, electric shock and isolation in restraints, are consider brutally inhumane today. But back then, such things were standard operating procedure.
Lyn Horner is the award-winning author of western historical and romantic suspense novels packed with high adventure, sizzling romance and flashes of paranormal powers.

Find Lyn’s books on her Amazon Author Page:  US     UK     CA     AU

Lyn’s social links:


  1. This idea gives me shivers. Being a life-long Texan, I've been aware of some of these hospitals, and don't you think State Hospital sounds much better than Lunatic Asylum?
    So sad, but I don't blame anyone. Way back then, what was one to do with some mentally insane? I'm sure it was torture for the families, no matter how good-hearted they were.
    Any kind of physical or mental affliction is bad, but to be insane? heart aches for them. I do know one woman in town who is bipolar, and over the decades has spent several stints in the State Hospital in Austin. I feel so badly for her and her family.
    But the odd thing that's hard to understand is that when asked about it or she's talking about it, she says, "I've never been unhappy. I don't feel badly about anything. I'm a very happy person. And truly, she doesn't remember or realize the horrible way she acts periodically. When not in the manic state, she is very religious--overly so, I think--and works hard to help anyone for any reason...sometimes sort of "driving everyone else crazy."
    Well, I shouldn't talk like this but she'd never read this.
    And if she did, I'd bet a nickel she wouldn't see herself.
    Thanks for your thorough research...good job.

  2. Thank you for sharing your feelings, Celia. It's a very upsetting subject. That poor woman in your town is jus tone of many who suffer with mental disorders. I feel for her.

  3. Lyn, some of the treatments would have driven a sane person insane, wouldn't they?

    1. They sure would, Caroline. When I was a youngster, my mom was in a mental hospital twice. She underwent shock "treatments". They ruined her memory but didn't do anything to cure her paranoia.

  4. I believe there has been a stigma about the mentally ill that has gone on for decades and decades. It is unfortunate that mentally challenged and homeless children were also housed in asylums with mentally ill patients, some of whom were also dangerous. The existence of these people and children must have been miserable. I cannot even imagine having someone else control my life. It's more like a prison than a health institution. I see you put in a great deal of time to research for this article and I admire you for including some of your own family history.
    In present day, asylums and state hospitals are in the process of closing down. I believe the plan was to have these patients in a more friendly and normal environment disbursed throughout the communities, but naturally, the communities objected and things went off rail. Many mental patients are out in the streets and homeless now, including veterans with PTSD. I hope we come up with a better plan for these unfortunate people who suffer.
    My sister is a psych nurse who worked many years in the North Carolina State Mental Hospital. She has told me many stories that are sad and some that are frightening about the patients and the conditions under which they lived in the hospitals, so I can certainly understand why the powers that be wanted to improve things. My sister has mental issues and my nephew's wife is bi-polar. Life can be difficult for them, and it isn't easy for those who love them either. I hope we come to better solutions than we had historically and at present. I feel confident one day we will.
    This article was thought provoking and heavy in subject matter. We could use some good leadership and ideas to make things better.
    I wish you all the best, Lyn. You did a great job with this article.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. Mental illness is difficult issue to deal with. As mentioned above, my mom was clinically paranoid. She was constantly accusing my dad of stepping out on her - in terms I can't repeat here. She also thought that everyone was talking about her behind her back. Not only was she miserable, but she made life miserable for my dad and me. I'm sure you have experienced some rough times, too, with your sister and nephew. It's so sad to see someone we love suffer with such disorders.

  5. Lyn, a very good article about a serious subject that as you say, continues to be as much a problem as back then. Maybe patients are treated better now, although I sometimes wonder! I think most of us know either friends or family afflicted with some kind of mental illness and know how difficult it is for their loved ones to get the person the proper help he or she needs.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.