11 Notable Patients at the Government Hospital for the Insane

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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.

April 11, 2012 - 12:11pm
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