11 Notable Patients at the Government Hospital for the Insane

St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., provided mental health care services to members of the U.S. armed forces and District residents when it opened as the Government Hospital for the Insane in 1855. Founded by social reformer and mental health advocate Dorothea Dix, St. Elizabeths treated more than 7,000 patients at its height during the 1940s and 50s. Here are a few of the hospital’s more noteworthy patients over the years.

1. Ezra Pound

An expatriate American poet who made radio broadcasts on behalf of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime during World War II, Pound pled insanity after the United States charged him with treason in 1945. Pound was committed to St. Elizabeths and remained there until 1958, when the treason charge was dismissed. It was later discovered that the doctors who examined Pound found him to be perfectly sane. Pound enjoyed a relatively posh 13-year stay at St. Elizabeths. According to a 1981 New York Times article, he lived in a large room overlooking the Capitol, received special food, and was allowed to give lectures in the hospital auditorium. He also commissioned a Library of Congress researcher and fellow anti-Semite, Eustace Mullins, to write a book about the history of the Federal Reserve.

2. Benito Mussolini (His Brain Tissue, Anyway)

Pound probably would’ve been pleased to know that, for at least part of his time at St. Elizabeths, a sliver of one of his heroes’ brains was housed nearby. After Mussolini was executed in April 1945, an autopsy was performed and two samples of his brain tissue were sent to the United States. One went to the Army Institute of Pathology and the other went to St. Elizabeths. Dr. Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths at the time, studied the sample for evidence that Mussolini had suffered from paresis brought on by syphilis, but the tests came back negative. While the Army returned its sample to Mussolini’s family in 1966, the whereabouts of the St. Elizabeths sample is shrouded in mystery.

3. William Chester Minor

Minor, a Yale-educated surgeon who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, was treated at St. Elizabeths in 1868 before moving to London. While struggling to cope with the paranoia he suffered after the war, Minor shot and killed a brewery worker he believed was trying to break into his home in 1872. After being found not guilty on the grounds of insanity, Minor was sent to the Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Broadmoor. While living there he became one of the main contributors to the original Oxford English Dictionary. Minor returned to the United States in the early 20th century and was confined to St. Elizabeths for a short time before being released. He was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and died in 1920.

4. John Hinckley, Jr.

© Brendan Smialowski/Reuters/Corbis

Hinckley was confined to St. Elizabeths after a jury found he was legally insane when he attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981. In a letter written shortly before the shooting, the 25-year-old Hinckley explained that he was trying to impress actress Jodie Foster, for whom he had developed an unhealthy obsession after seeing Taxi Driver. The public outrage over the verdict led to the Insanity Defense Reform Law of 1984, which significantly modified the standard for achieving a not guilty verdict by reason of insanity. Hinckley remains in St. Elizabeths, but he is now allowed to make periodic unsupervised visits to his mother. A hearing to determine Hinckley’s future began last November.

5. Richard Lawrence

Hinckley wasn’t the first would-be presidential assassin to end up in St. Elizabeths. Lawrence, who may have been subjected to harmful chemicals during his job as a house painter, attempted to assassinate Andrew Jackson in 1835. After listening to Francis Scott Key prosecute Lawrence, it didn’t take long for the jury to come to the conclusion that the painter was not guilty by reason of insanity. Lawrence was held in several institutions before being committed to the Government Hospital for the Insane in 1855. He remained there until his death in 1861.

6. Washington Post Reporter Karlyn Barker

In 1972, Washington Post reporter Karlyn Barker checked into St. Elizabeths as an undercover patient to get an unfiltered look at what went on inside its walls.

“I spent five days and five nights in a mental hospital,” Barker wrote. “That’s a genteel term for mad house, but there was nothing genteel about being a sane person living among the insane.” Barker, who described her stay as “excruciatingly depressing and boring,” recounted the the eerie voices that kept her up at night and the smell of urine that pervaded one of the hospital’s long hallways.

7. Cuban Refugees

In October 1980, 92 Cuban refugees who were confined to St. Elizabeths for psychiatric observation seized control of a small building on campus. Authorities quelled the disturbance after six hours and no injuries were reported.

8. Capt. James Fitzgibbon

In 1903, Fitzgibbon, a longtime United States Treasury employee, escaped from and was then reconfined to St. Elizabeths. As the New York Times reported, “Capt. Fitzgibbon lost his reason from the strain of handling large sums of money in the Treasury.” Fitzgibbon, who was the representative of the United States Express Company and charged with handling millions of dollars each year, referred to his job as purgatory on Earth. “Not for my life would I steal a penny, but the temptation is often great,” Fitzgibbon once told a colleague. “Fight it as you may, the temptation to be dishonest will come to you.”

9. Mary Fuller

Fuller, a silent film star in the early 20th century, suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of her mother in 1940 and was admitted to St. Elizabeths seven rocky years later. She remained there until her death in 1973 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Congressional Cemetery, as the hospital couldn’t locate any of her relatives.

10. Augustus Owsley Stanley III

After getting expelled from military school in ninth-grade for getting his classmates drunk, Stanley spent more that a year as a patient at St. Elizabeths. The grandson of a former Kentucky governor and U.S. senator, Stanley enrolled at the University of California, where he discovered LSD and began producing it himself. Stanley quit school to become the first large-scale producer of the drug and became the main provider to The Beatles, as well as to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and his “Merry Pranksters.”

11. Charles Guiteau

Guiteau didn’t actually spend any time in St. Elizabeths, but he would’ve if Dr. Charles Nichols and Dr. William Godding had their way. Nichols and Godding, the first two superintendents of St. Elizabeths, testified that Guiteau, the lawyer who shot and killed President James Garfield in 1881, was insane and not fit to stand trial. The court decided otherwise and sentenced Guiteau to death. Guiteau certainly seemed a bit deranged. During his trial, he insulted the judge and solicited legal advice from spectators in the courtroom. He also appealed to Chester Arthur, who became president after Garfield died, by pointing out that his deed had helped raise Arthur’s salary from $8,000 to $50,000.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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