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Stresses of life were often misdiagnosed

Published April 02. 2011 09:00AM


One of the more depressing chapters of American health care was the treatment of the mentally ill leading into the 20th century. Because they were totally misunderstood and society did not know how to deal with them, many who entered an institution were often confined there for life.

Dorothy Dix, who crusaded for reforms of prisons and asylums during the 1800s, was once told that those being institutionalized "don't need any heat - they have no feeling."

For many years, the asylums were staffed by laymen and thus, run much like a prison. Most doctors did not believe insanity was curable, and since the medical field had no answer for mental illness the only way to deal with patients was to confine them in institutions.

Nellie Blye, a reporter for the New York World, lived among the inmates of a lunatic asylum for a time and wrote a book, "Ten Days in a Mad House." She confessed that the experience nearly drove her insane.

One of her more startling findings was that a number of the inmates were not demented at all. Once a person was confined, she said it was like receiving a life sentence in a human rat trap - "easy to get in, impossible to get out."

Conditions did improve in many asylums by the early 20th century, but the medical field still offered no answers on how to handle severe stress and mental illness. A good indication of the lack of knowledge on these conditions can be found in individual newspaper of persons who were indeed insane or those who were simply attempting to cope with the personal stresses of life.

One deadly case occurred in the Schuylkill County Almshouse in the spring of 1911. It involved a 35-year-old man Pottsville man, who was committed to the almshouse two weeks earlier after being arrested for threatening to burn down a hotel in St. Clair. At the time he was committed, his condition wasn't considered serious but on April 19, he snapped.

"While laboring under the delusion that he was invested with supernatural power to destroy, kill and create, Adam Kantzleman, a patient in the insane department, went vio-lently insane this morning," the Tamaqua Courier reported.

He began the tirade by turning over tables and chairs, and then breaking up the furniture. Kantzleman used the leg of one of the tables as a weapon, and began attacking several other patients.

"After beating several of them into insensibility, he attacked John Polanis, who he struck over the head, crushing in his skull and causing instant death," the reporter said. He then directed his rage against the guards who had responded. They were able to overpower him and placed him in irons.

Polanis, the victim who had resided in Mahanoy City, had been an inmate of the almshouse for several years.

This tragic incident followed a less-violent case involving Mrs. Mary Tamburelli, a Pottsville woman. She had entrusted the payments for her home with an attorney, who ended up "applying it for his own use" before his death. This misuse of her funds caused her to lose the home.

"The woman is going insane over the loss of her home, and it is believed that by proper treatment her reason can be restored," a reporter stated.

A month before that, Mrs. William Faust, who lived on Market Street in Tamaqua, checked into Ashland Hospital to "receive treatment for nervousness caused by a sudden shock." It was the result of an accident her husband had suffered three weeks earlier after a 10-foot fall off an engine into an ash pit near town.

"Mrs. Faust was alone in the house when her husband was brought home and the shock so affected her that she has been a nervous wreck ever since," the reporter stated.

Her husband was in much better shape than his wife. He suffered only a badly bruised shoulder in the accident while her mental anguish appeared more burdensome.

In March 1911, the execution of Joseph Christock, a farmhand who was convicted of the murder of two women on a farm near Auburn in Schuylkill County, was a dominant news story. Before being hung at Pottsville prison, however, Christock confessed to a previously unsolved crime - the brutal murder of Mrs. Arthur Morrison, who was shot in her bed at her Cumbola home in 1905. Some suspected the woman's husband, who was with her in the room, as being the guilty party.

This suspicion took a toll on both Morrison, who died four years after his wife's unsolved murder, and the man's father, who died a year after his son in December 1910.

"Death of the husband of Mrs. Arthur Morrison and his father are attributed to the worry over her brutal slaying," a reporter stated. "The husband died from grief over the fact that a large part of the county believed him guilty of killing his wife."

The elder Morrison's death was even more disheartening. A reporter said his body had dwindled down to a shadow from worry over the mystery.

"At the time of his death he was a mere skeleton, weighing scarcely more than 40 pounds," the reporter stated. "These two men are looked upon as Christock's victims, as well as Mrs. Morrison."

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