The North Bay’s economic foundation was remarkably solid a century ago, but not thanks to grapes, hops, prunes or other agriculture; it was because we had the most asylums. In Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties the largest employers were the huge state hospitals used to warehouse the mentally ill. And while a crop might fail or market prices fall, the asylum business was always growing – California has never suffered a shortage of crazy people.

Insanity stories appeared regularly in the old Santa Rosa papers but they’ve been ignored here because there’s rarely anything interesting reported – typically a drunk/drug addict goes bezerk or a despondent person attempts suicide. A three member “lunacy commission” is convened. The drunk vows to sober up and maybe does a little jail time; the suicidal person’s fate usually isn’t mentioned, but he or she is likely sent away to live with relatives.

Then there were the tales of “wild men.” Newspaper editors around the turn of the century loved these stories, and would reprint accounts about some poor demented soul living in the woods even though it happened hundreds of miles away. Locally we had the “Wild Man of Mendocino” who was captured in 1909 near Cloverdale (apparently the “Wild Man of Cloverdale” didn’t have the snap) just a few weeks after an escaped asylum patient was found in the same hills. A Press Democrat article about the Wild Man mentioned a woman had written to the Cloverdale police asking if he could be her long-lost son; when the PD item was picked up by a paper in Arizona, her son saw it and wrote an “I’m alright, ma” letter to her from Yuma. Let that be a lesson into the power of the press, at least when it comes to Wild Man stories.

Certifiably Insane

Being hunted down as a Wild Man pretty much assured a one-way ticket to the asylum, but otherwise being declared certifiably insane required some doing, such as Ed Bosco repeatedly shooting at police officers. Herman Welti asked the sheriff to do something about the men controlling his mind “by use of a wireless instrument.” And then there was William Franklin Monahan, who went mad trying to count the stars.

When these men arrived at their particular asylum, each would have found the place bursting with erstwhile lunatics. In that era California was clocking an “insane ratio” sometimes above the state’s annual growth percentage – in 1903, one out of every 260 state residents was adjudged crazy. Many asylum wards were 300 percent over capacity with patients sleeping in hallways and basements. To make room, the institutions kept expanding and the state began looking closely at the immigration status of its asylum population; under 1907 federal law, any immigrant found to be insane within the first three years of residence could be deported to their native country. Superintendents also began an early release program, which certainly wasn’t good for anyone.1

Today California may have one of the largest prison populations but for fifty years starting in 1870, we were tops in the nation per capita for locking up people in asylums. And before wisecracking about California being the national nuthouse, consider that medical authorities were seriously raising that question 140 years ago. Speculation as to why relatively more Californians were committed to asylums included the nice weather, dashed hopes of striking it rich in the Gold Rush, the distance from family and friends on the East Coast and “fast living.” These explanations ignored that most of those deemed insane were simple laborers and housewives, not down-on-their-luck 49ers or burned-out Barbary Coast gamblers.2

In 1875 the superintendent of the state’s first asylum warned that the cities were using the place as a dumping ground for the senile or indigent elderly, incurable drunks and anyone “simply troublesome.” But whatever their problems, 19th century California sought to accommodate them by building five public asylums plus the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children. (There were also three private asylums, but these never housed more than a tiny percentage.) More about the institutions in a moment.

Even as the state asylums were grappling with overcrowding, the legislature required by law that medical examiners adopt a new form to determine if a patient was certifiably insane.3 While the document sensibly begins by collecting vital statistics including nationality and length of U.S. residence, it goes off the rails quickly by asking questions that seem irrelevant to mental health. A sample:

* Have any relatives been eccentric or peculiar in any way in their habits or pursuits? If so, how? Have any relatives, direct or collateral, suffered, or are suffering, from any form of chronic disease, such as consumption or tuberculosis, syphilis, rheumatism, neuralgia, hysteria, or nervousness, or had epilepsy or falling sickness?

* Which parent does alleged insane person resemble mentally? Physically? Habits (cleanly or uncleanly)?

* Has alleged insane person ever been addicted to masturbation or sexual excesses? If so, for how long?

* Age when menses appeared: Amount and character before insanity appeared: Since insanity appeared:

* Has the change of life taken place? Was it gradual or sudden? How changed from normal?

* What is the supposed cause of insanity? Predisposing or exciting?

The final example reflects the 19th century notion (or maybe older) that a mentally ill person was either “predisposed” to insanity because of heredity or “excited” into madness by drugs, events or ideas. But many of the other odd questions have more to do with interest in the new pseudoscience of eugenics.

The history of the eugenics craze is discussed in the earlier article, “Sonoma County and Eugenics,” but let’s summarize that it was a set of crank theories that proposed some individuals – even entire races – were genetically inferior and prone to insanity, epilepsy, “moral degeneracy” and criminal behavior. Many educated and otherwise sensible people in the first half of the 20th century bought into this nonsense to varying degrees (including Luther Burbank) but no body of government was as eager to actually pass eugenic laws as California. At the same time as the new certification form was legalized, the state authorized forced sterilization of anyone deemed incurably mentally ill. These laws were extended in 1913 and 1917, and by the time ten years had passed, California had performed 2,558 sterilizations, about 4 in 5 of all such operations in the United States in the 1910s.4

Most superintendents of the asylums and the Sonoma State Home embraced the new asexualization law with gusto. Soon after it became law the Press Democrat ran an item that the director of Napa State Hospital “thought there were a number of patients in the Napa Hospital upon whom the operation should be performed” and it wasn’t long before they were doing an average of a procedure a week. The asylums at Stockton and Los Angeles were sterilizing every person being released of child-bearing age.

Since each asylum had its own policy on sterilization, it mattered a great deal where a patient was committed, but it appears it was fairly random and probably based simply on which hospital had an available bed. Someone found insane in San Francisco could end up in Stockton where a vasectomy was guaranteed. (A few early newspaper accounts mention castration although it is likely reporters didn’t understand the difference, and the law did not specify what “asexualization” technically meant.)  At Mendocino, the patient would probably escape the operation; that asylum and the one in San Jose were singled out in the 1918 state review for their “poor record” of sterilizing less than five percent of their inmates. But odds were always that anyone committed in the northern part of California would end up in the North Bay simply because we had the majority of asylums, plus the home for “feeble-minded children” in Glen Ellen.

The Napa State Asylum for the Insane was built to handle the overflow from the state’s premiere asylum in Stockton. Admitting its first patients in 1875, it started as a 500-bed institution and was the first building in the West following guidelines of the Kirkbride Plan, an early Victorian design for massive hospitals. Its architecture was viewed at the time as a form of treatment itself, offering patients humane lodging along with an infrastructure to support thousands of people – there was even a railway in the basement for transporting food, bedlinen, and whatnot. They were also gothic monstrosities that looked like the setting for a Stephen King horror novel, and the open floor plan made it easy for one screaming patient to upset hundreds of others. And then there was the problem of them falling down; the unreinforced Kirkbride-design asylum in San Jose collapsed in the 1906 earthquake killing 100, including a Santa Rosa woman. Napa’s “castle” was demolished in 1949, but the grounds still serve as a psychiatric hospital. Your obl. believe-it-or-not factoid: under 1874 state law, no alcohol could be sold within one mile of the hospital’s location – maybe the Napa tourist board should check to see if that’s still on the books.

The Sonoma State Home was discussed in the longer article about eugenics. It may have been called the hospital for “feeble-minded children” when its doors opened in 1891, but about one in five was epileptic. Its mission shifted after Dr. Fred O. Butler became superintendent in 1918 and it became an outright factory for asexualization surgery in California. By the mid-1920s, half of the women patients there were classified as “sexually delinquent,” and male patients were often “masturbators” or “passive sodomists.” Recall that “masturbation or sexual excesses” was a prominent question on the state form, and masturbation was the third most commonly reported behavior “indicating insanity.”5

Opened around the same time in 1893 was the Mendocino State Asylum for the Insane at Talmage, near Ukiah. The facility was intended to be the new overflow mental hospital for the state system, but records from the early 1900s show the great majority of patients came directly from San Francisco, for reasons not clear. Like the other hospitals it ballooned as its inmate population and staff grew to the size of a small town over the first half of the 20th century. But the story of the Mendocino Home takes several odd twists that Ripley might not have believed; for 25 years starting in 1929 it housed the criminally insane (a must-read story can be found here), then became an alcohol and drug rehab center during the 1950s and 1960s. In this era there were psychiatric residency and research programs that experimented with giving alcoholics massive doses of LSD. As the hospital was shutting down in 1972 because of a directive by Governor Reagan, cult leader Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple reaped a financial bonanza by setting up nursing homes to care for the former inmates. (It is also alleged that cult members who worked at the hospital before closing had stolen a stash of psychotherapeutic drugs like Thorazine and Lithium that would later be used to control dissenters at Jonestown.) Today the site is a Buddhist monastery that’s supposedly the largest Buddhist temple in North America.


1So Far Disordered in Mind: Insanity in California, 1870-1930, Volume 1, Richard Wightman Fox
2 ibid pg. 123
3 Certificate of Medical Examiners, Feb. 26, 1909
4 op. cit. pg. 27
5 ibid pg. 141


State Authorities Will Try Vasectomy on Insane Patients

Napa, March 22–A number of patients in the Napa State Hospital for the Insane will shortly undergo the operation of vasectomy for the purpose of their sterilization, as provided in the new asexualization law, applicable to certain patients and certain inmates of State Prisons.

A few days ago Dr. F. W. Hatch, Superintendent of State Hospitals, came here from Sacramento, and held a conference with Dr. Elmer Stone regarding the new law, the constitutionality of which has not been doubted by the Attorney General. Superintendent Stone of the hospital told Dr. Hatch he thought there were a number of patients in the Napa Hospital upon whom the operation should be performed. Dr. Hatch directed Dr. Stone to segregate these patients and get them ready for examination. When these arrangements have been made the patients will be examined by Dr. Hatch and Dr. W. E. Snow of the State Board of Health, and if the operation is deemed necessary will be ordered performed.

– Press Democrat, March 23, 1910

William Franklin Monahan was brought down from Fulton Friday afternoon by Sheriff Smith and County Physician S. S. Bogle and examined before an insanity inquisition. The man has become a star gazer and has attempted the impossible task of counting the stars in the heavens. Each evening he goes out and steadfastly gazes into the heavens. He was tried before Judge Thomas C. Denny and Dr. S. S. Bogle and Dr. P. A. Meneray and ordered committed to Mendocino hospital. He will be taken to that place on the evening train Friday.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 9, 1909


William Smith, an aged man who was arrested several days ago near Penngrove, at an early morning hour by Deputy Sheriff Rasmussen of Petaluma, and was to have been taken before a lunacy commission on Thursday to have the state of his mind inquired into, was put over for a day or two longer. Smith, who says he is a carpenter by trade, is apparently sans now. He blames his condition the other morning, when he was armed with an axe with which he had prepared for battle with an imaginary foe, to the mixing of beer and wine, and the imbibing of too copious doses. He told the Sheriff and Rasmussen Thursday morning that he honestly believes that he was suffering from the “d. t’s” at the time. He must have been, he said, for he firmly believed then that he was being pursued. The feeling then was a terrible one, but now it has disappeared. Sheriff Smith will have County Physician S. S. Bogle take a look at the man and if he passes inspection then he will be turned loose with his kit of carpenter tools. He says he can get a job.

In the corridor of the court house, in the presence of the officers and a newspaper representative, the man raised his right hand and swore that he had taken his last drink. “I will never touch a drink of wine, beer, or whiskey,” he said, “as long as I live.”

– Press Democrat, June 18, 1909

Escaped Inmate of Stockton Asylum

William J. Wash, an escaped inmate of the Stockton Insane asylum, was found on Monday night wandering in the hills, near Cloverdale. He was brought to Cloverdale, and detained there over night and Constable W. J. Orr took charge of him and accompanied him to the county jail here yesterday morning. Stockton asylum was communicated with and an officer was set to take Wash back there.

Wash is said to have escaped from Stockton about three weeks ago. He was wearing some of the clothes provided by the institution when Orr took him in charge. It is probable that he had been wandering in the hills ever since he made his getaway.

– Press Democrat, November 10, 1909
Cloverdale Constable Captures “Wild Man” After Search Lasting for Several Miles

Constable William J. Orr of Cloverdale headed a posse on Thursday who captured Amelio Regoni, who for some time past has been described as the “wild man of Mendocino county.”

Since last May there has been a lookout for the man who was run to earth seven miles from Cloverdale on Thanksgiving day. Numerous robberies of cabins and farm houses in the wooded hills of Mendocino county have been charged up to the “wild man.” He has been near capture on a number of occasions, but always managed to get out of the way and into hiding before his pursuers came up with him.

Constable Orr got word that a man had been seen dodging in and out among the hills near Cloverdale. He got a posse together and they tracked the man and he was captured in the fissure of a large rock. He was taken by surprise and covered with guns before he had time to reach for his rifle even if he had determined to resist capture. Thursday night Constable Orr landed his man in the Mendocino county jail at Ukiah. He is wanted in that county, as stated.

– Press Democrat, November 27, 1909
Victor Green Reads Story in This Paper and Writes to His Mother in Her Far Away Home

Two or three weeks ago when the Press Democrat mentioned the letter Constable Orr of Cloverdale had received from Mrs. Green of Pennsylvania, anxiously inquiring if her son, Victor Green, who had left home several years [ago] to come west, was the “wild man” Orr had captured in Mendocino county, a strong appeal was made if the item met the eyes of the boy that he at once write to his mother, and let her know of his whereabouts. The Press Democrat asked other papers to copy the story it published.

A Santa Rosan received a copy of the Press Democrat in Arizona and passed it along to a newspaper there. The story was published and it was read by the missing son, who at once wrote home from Yuma, telling his mother of his whereabouts. In turn Constable Orr and the Press Democrat have received the cordial thanks of Mrs. Green.

– Press Democrat, February 2, 1910

Herman Wells Placed Under Arrest–Has Threatened Residents of the Bloomfield Section

Deputy Sheriff William Coret of San Rafael has arrested Herman Welti at Tomales, charged with insanity. Welti is a frog catcher by trade and for many years has made his home in and around Bloomfield, but a short time ago removed to the Tomales section. He has been in the habit of spending his money mostly for liquor and at times would stay intoxicated for weeks at a time. It is thought that this is the cause of his present demented condition.

A few weeks ago he made threats to injure Wm. Minck the post master at Bloomfield, who is also a general merchant. Mr. Minck had had some trouble at times with Welti, owing to the fact of his coming into the Post Office intoxicated and using improper language before patrons and children, but Mr. Minck, having been previously warned through the mails to look out Welti, had managed to avoid any trouble. About the 2nd of December Welti wrote a long letter from Fallon’s to Sheriff Smith of this county and sent it by registered mail, wherein Dr. Cockrill and others were charged with holding a hypnotic spell over him, by use of a wireless instrument and claiming that they had followed him through ten or twelve counties of this state, trying to unbalance his mind. Sheriff Smith immediately remailed this letter from Dr. Cockrill at Bloomfield. The doctor was inclined  to treat the matter as a josh, but his son, W. A. Cockrill, reflecting what serious consequences might result from such persons being allowed their liberty, forwarded and the letter to Sheriff Taylor of San Rafael and requested him to get Welti and have him examined as to his sanity. Deputy Sheriff Coret made the arrest as stated before, but on arriving in the jail at San Rafael, Welti drew a pocket knife and attempted to stab Coret, and only for the deputy’s presence of mind probably would have succeeded.

Coret while parleying with the prisoner, made an offer to trade knives and in that way get possession of the knife which Welti had, after which he succeeded in locking him up without any further trouble. Welti will undoubtedly be adjudged insane and committed to an asylum when he comes up for examination.

– Press Democrat, December 15, 1909

Wandering About Barefooted and Without Hat

Ernest Bassanessi, formerly an employee of the Santa Rosa tannery, was arrested near Melitta Tuesday by Deputy Sheriff C. A. Reynolds and brought to the county jail. During the latter part of the morning of that day word was received over the telephone from Melitta that a man, supposed to be crazy, was in the neighborhood. The message stated further that the man was bareheaded and barefooted and that he carried a revolver. When the deputy sheriff took him into custody Bassanessi had no revolver, but was carrying a rock with which to protect himself from imaginary enemies which he believed were trying to kill him. An insanity commission will likely look into his case Wednesday.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 24, 1910

Ernest Bassanessi, the man who was found wandering around Melitta on Tuesday, is a man of good family and was born in Venice, where he taught school for some time. His wife was a native of Rome, and also a school teacher before her marriage. Mr. Bassanessi is a sensitive man and took the joking of his fellow workmen as an insult and their talk bothered him and preyed on his mind.

When he and his wife landed in this country from Italy, they had a sum of money with them, which they had saved, and immediately they were robbed. This was the first of their misfortunes and this and other things worried the man and he finally went insane.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 25, 1910
Former Resident of the Vicinity of Healdsburg Adjudged Insane and Not Sent to Penitentiary

Ed Bosco, an aged man charged with an assault with intent to commit murder, was examined on a charge of insanity in the Superior Court in Napa yesterday afternoon. He was declared insane by Judge Gesford and was ordered committed to the Napa State Hospital.

Bosco attempted to shoot Officer Ed Powers at Calistoga when Powers arrested him on a minor charge. Bosco, who formerly resided in Sonoma county, imagines that people have taken his land away from him. The officers in Healdsburg and in this city have had experiences with Bosco.

– Press Democrat, January 22, 1910

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Here’s my new example of why this research is such fun: You discover a silly editorial about the “teddy bear fad,” and a few moments later, your jaw drops while learning that Hitler was a big fan of Theodore Roosevelt.

The 1907 Press Democrat editorial was a reaction to the absurd idea that little girls had to play with dolls that looked like people or they would lose all desire for motherhood. Such was the claim of a Michigan priest that had appeared in scores of newspapers nationwide as a July 8 AP wire item :

A dispatch to the tribune from St. Joseph, Mich., says:

The “Teddy Bear” fad was denounced by the Rev. Michael G. Esper from the pulpit of St. Joseph’s Catholic church yesterday.

The priest held that the toy beast in the hands of little girls was destroying all instincts of motherhood and that in the future it would be realized as one of the most powerful factors in the race suicide danger.

Father Esper asked all parents to replace the doll in the affections of children and discard the “Teddy Bear” forever.

PD editor Ernest L. Finley ridiculed the notion, but the story was often printed without commentary on the front pages (my favorite headline was from the Salt Lake Tribune: “Teddy Bear Dooms Race”). In newspapers with a strong Catholic identity, the item was expanded to explain the importance of preventing “race suicide.”

As it turns out, preventing “race suicide” was quite a favorite cause of Teddy Roosevelt, whose hunting adventures had inspired the creation of the “Teddy Bear” five years before. That a toy named after the president was now being accused of causing “race suicide” is one of those bizarreries of White House history, such as John Wilkes Booth being in the VIP section directly behind Lincoln during his second inauguration (Booth scored a ticket because he was engaged to a Senator’s daughter).

(RIGHT: A search for “race suicide postcard” on eBay or the collectible postcard web sites will turn up many examples c. 1905-1910. Most common were humorous cartoons with baby-delivering storks, but also found frequently are postcards with racist themes, such as the one shown at center. After Esper’s anti-teddy bear appeal, a new wave of “race suicide” postcards depicted little caucasian girls cuddling dolls. The bottom postcard was the exception that seemed to poke fun at the priest’s alarm. CLICK any image to enlarge)

Roosevelt’s interest in the topic began in the early 1890s, and let’s be clear that the primary “race” in Teddy’s concerns wasn’t a race at all, but “old-stock” white Americans, particularly those with ancestors from New England. Roosevelt thought the declining birthrates of that group was threatened by the higher birthrates found among the immigrants whom he called “inferior races.” By 1898, his views had become even more radicalized, writing that “evil forces” were causing “the diminishing birthrate among the old native American stock,” and any who chose to not to have children were “race criminals.”

Roosevelt’s solution was that Americans should “Work-fight-breed,” a message that melded into his overall promotion of a healthy “strenuous life.” But his glorification of motherhood cloaked uglier underlying views of women as breeders, and that eugenics was a good thing if it ensured “the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding.”

While this all sounds rather Nazi-ish, it must be emphasized that Roosevelt never suggested that “old Colonial stock” Americans were a kind of √úbermensch. Speaking at Oxford in 1910, he noted that he was an eighth-generation American with ancestors from many different “European races.” It was the “common heirship in the things of the spirit,” he said, that “makes a closer bond than common heirship in the things of the body.” He made that same point in other speeches, defining Americans as those who fully assimilated and embraced Uncle Sam’s culture and customs, not just those who had Plymouth Rock bloodlines. In other words, he was expressing a fundamental view of American exceptionalism.

At the same time, there’s no way to reconcile Theodore Roosevelt’s contradictory views on racial issues that swing wildly between extremes.

Good-Teddy encouraged France, Germany, and England to take interest in “race suicide” birthrates in their countries, further showing that he didn’t believe in a particular flavor of racial superiority; that’s offset by Awful-Teddy denouncing the people in southern Italy as the “most fecund and the least desirable” race in all of Europe. While Good-Teddy vigorously opposed discrimination against African Americans, Awful-Teddy called genocide against the Indians “as ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable,” and said that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”


And now they say the “Teddy bear” craze is a bad thing, because the fuzzy little animals have largely displaced the dollies of our fathers–or mothers, rather–and while the fondling of dolls tended to develop the maternal instinct, play with “Teddy bears” awakens no such sentiment and consequently tends to produce race suicide.

What nonsense!

The “Teddy bear” is only a fad, and is said to be already fast losing its popularity. But if current reports are to be relied upon, Santa Claus is laying in a larger stock of dolls for the coming Christmas than ever before.

– Press Democrat editorial , August 30, 1907

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National news stories are off-topic here, but that 1905 Press Democrat headline, “Dr. Brown Would Drown the Idiots”, is irresistible, and also lends the opportunity to briefly discuss Sonoma County’s shameful role in the 20th century eugenics movement.

Like many other states, California had an institution for children that were diagnosed as “feeble-minded” (more about that offensive term below). Founded in 1883 by a pair of civic-minded women, the facility shuffled between four South Bay and East Bay towns until the state agreed to buy a ranch near Glen Ellen. With a band playing a cheery tune at the train stop, the first 148 children arrived in 1891 at what was then called The California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children. By 1904, the Home had 541 “inmates” and a staff of 70, making it the largest employer in the county. The state was also pouring money into the institution to expand it rapidly. (More on the history of the institution proper can be found in a November 19, 2000 Gaye LeBaron column available by searching the Press Democrat web site archives. The Home is still often referred to interchangeably as “Eldridge,” which was the name given to the train stop.)

“It was with the idea of providing a home for the purely custodial cases as well as undertaking the training and development of the epileptic feeble-minded that the management in the past ventured its memorable struggle…from its former inadequate quarters to the present unrivaled location,” the PD noted in a 1904 promotional insert that contained a full page on the Home, partially seen at right. But wait — read that section again: why the mention of the epileptic feeble-minded?” That’s because, according to a 1904 Census Bureau report, (PDF) about 18 percent of those institutionalized as feeble-minded were actually epileptic — by far the largest category of those considered “physically defective.”

Jack London visited the Home (which was adjacent to his ranch) in the summer of 1905, later writing a short story, “Told In the Drooling Ward.” Written from the viewpoint of a “high-grade feeb” (who sounds more like a cousin to Huck Finn), the story follows the attempted escape from the institution by two boys with epilepsy. London’s character described the world of the “epilecs” at the Home:

“You see that house up there through the trees. The high-grade epilecs all live in it by themselves. They’re stuck up because they ain’t just ordinary feebs. They call it the club house, and they say they’re just as good as anybody outside, only they’re sick. I don’t like them much. They laugh at me, when they ain’t busy throwing fits. But I don’t care. I never have to be scared about falling down and busting my head. Sometimes they run around in circles trying to find a place to sit down quick, only they don’t. Low-grade epilecs are disgusting, and high-grade epilecs put on airs. I’m glad I ain’t an epilec. There ain’t anything to them. They just talk big, that’s all.”

“Club house” or no, these children with epilepsy were still captives, warehoused until age 18 as “feeble-minded” alongside others with severe cognitive disabilities, such as microcephaly. What “training” they were given at the Glen Ellen facility is not apparent; photos from a few years later show inmates tending crops in fields surrounding the grounds. Contemporary pictures of East Coast institutions show girls sewing or doing needlepoint, and boys working in tailoring or leatherwork.

The children also may have faced a greater risk of harm from the institution itself than their disability. The late Victorian era believed that there was a dangerous form of epilepsy — use the Google ngram viewer and you’ll find “epileptic insanity” discussed in hundreds of articles and book chapters in medical literature up to the 1940s. Although there was no scientific proof that epileptic insanity was an actual physiological disorder, some authors at the time confidently reported that it accounted for 10-30 percent of all epilepsy cases. Some also claimed that everyone with epilepsy was, by definition, mentally unstable; a 1883 text on insanity stated, “There are those who, as soon as they find the slightest indications of epilepsy in the person under investigation, instantly jump at the conclusion that, ergo, that subject cannot be of sound mind.”

(Although their definition of epileptic insanity was fuzzy, it didn’t stop doctors from prescribing specific medical treatment: A 1917 medical text says epileptic insanity attacks can be treated with a regular enema cocktail of chloral hydrate, tincture of cannabis and digitalis, although “use of opium for a long period has been known to break up recurrent maniacal attacks.” Well, I should think so.)

Not only was their notion of “epileptic insanity” mistaken, but also was their certainty of precise underlying causes of epilepsy. According to our best science in 2008, about 100 diseases and conditions are thought to have possible links, but we admit today that no certain cause is discovered in 7 out of 10 cases. But a 1902 Clinical Psychiatry textbook noted “genuine epilepsy” was linked to unknown anatomical changes in the brain most of the time — with the insanity form, however, “defective heredity” was diagnosed as the cause in most cases. Such certainty that “defective heredity” caused a non-existent disorder was an early step down the very dark road of eugenics.

Eugenics was a popular debate topic in the 1890s and first years of the Twentieth Century. America’s leading popular scientist, Santa Rosa’s own Luther Burbank, contributed a widely-reprinted 1906 treatise, “The Training of the Human Plant.” To Burbank, “mingling of races” was healthy, but he thought it was a “crime against the state” if “degenerates” had children:

“Suppose we blend together two poisonous plants and make a third even more virulent, a vegetable degenerate, and set their evil descendants adrift to multiply over the earth, are we not distinct foes to the race? What, then, are we not distinct foes to the race? What, then, shall we say of two people of absolutely defined physical impairment who are allowed to marry and rear children? It is a crime against the state and every individual in the state. And if these physically degenerate are also morally degenerate, the crime becomes all the more appalling.”

(UPDATE: On closer reading, the context of “moral degenerate” was in reference to people who had syphilis and other STDs which were incurable at the time.) The truly appalling thing was Burbank’s flawed humans-as-plants metaphor. Aside from implying that some people are no better than weeds, he lost what scientific authority he had in this essay by sweeping “moral degenerate[s]” into his definition of “absolutely defined physical impairment.” As with his poorly-reasoned “kinetic universe” theory (see earlier post), Burbank didn’t seem aware that he was spoiling the stew by tossing a dollop of pseudoscience into his pot.

To his credit, Burbank stopped short of linking “moral degeneracy” to heredity. But in the years that followed, there was no shortage of medical experts who sought to blame criminality and other anti-social behavior on impaired brains or bad genes. A 1916 Boston Medical and Surgical Journal article reported that one examining doctor found 1 in 3 delinquents were feeble-minded. The author followed with a sweeping generalization that “every person who is called a criminal is now thought to have some mental variation from the normal.” Nor were epileptics exempt from this thinking. A 1918 study, “American Social Problems,” went even further: “Many feeble-minded, however, are also epileptic, and epilepsy is a common trait of criminals.”

Down the slippery slope of eugenics we tumble; if criminals usually had epilepsy (not true, of course), were epileptics usually criminals? If someone in authority, such as the 1916 “Special Investigator” for Massachusetts State Board of Insanity wrote in the article above that all criminals had some sort of mental disorder, wasn’t having a brain impairment suspect behavior in itself?

The stigma of once being labeled (or suspected) of feeble-mindedness also carried the risk of incarceration at a state hospital. The Insanity Board investigator — surely with the best of intentions of separating the disabled from the population of hardened criminals — believed that cops and other law-enforcement officials could be trusted to pick out the feeble-minded and send them to an institution without court hearings:

My belief is that the first mental examinations should be made by probation officers, judges and police officers…I think that an examination several hours long is not feasible or necessary. I think that a good history of the life, brief and easy to get from every man arrested, obtained before sentence, would in the majority of cases enable a non-medical man to separate out most of the insane and feeble-minded.

Those sent to the Sonoma State Home (the new name for the institution, as of 1909) possibly faced harsher punishment than a regular convict. A just-passed state law allowed for the “asexualization… [of] any person who has been lawfully committed to any state hospital for the insane, or who has been an inmate of the Sonoma State Home, and who is afflicted with hereditary insanity or incurable chronic mania or dementia.”

To be clear: The California law was authorizing forced sterilization of any inmate — and with no more review than a signature from two health board members. As the years progressed, they must have suffered writer’s cramp.

Although many other states followed suit before WWI, California was by far the most active. A 1922 study found 4 out of 5 forced sterilizations nationwide were performed in the state, with the justification being “mainly eugenic, also for the physical, mental or moral benefit of inmate, also partly punitive in certain cases.” Women usually had their tubes tied, and men were given vasectomies; but about 5% of the time, doctors performed hysterectomies or castrations.

(For details on sterilization in all states in this era, see the Carnegie Institution’s survey: “Eugenical Sterilization in the United States.” The Carnegie Institution — which, incidentally, was Luther Burbank’s patron for a few years at this time — actively promoted race-cleansing eugenics projects in the U.S. that were later studied approvingly by the Nazis, including a proposal for locally-operated gas chambers.)

Until 1918, sterilization was rare at Eldridge, with only 12 inmates forced to undergo the operation. But under new superintendent Dr. Fred O. Butler, it became virtually a factory operation, with about 5,400 sterilized between then and 1949, a thousand of the procedures performed by Dr. Butler himself. “We are not sterilizing, in my opinion, fast enough,” he said.

In examining admittance records from Butler’s tenure for her book, “Building a Better Race,” scholar Wendy Kline found there was also a marked shift in the types of patients arriving at the Home: “…a large proportion of Sonoma’s activities had nothing to do with the problem of mental deficiency and much to do with the problem of female sexuality.” Kline cited a 1926 study of the Sonoma Home that reported almost half of the women were there because they were classified as sexually delinquent, with notes in their records that they were “passionate,” “immoral,” “promiscuous,” or similar. The study found only 3 percent of the women were accused of actual crimes, such as prostitution. Male patients, however, were never found to have “sex delinquency;” most were adolescents sent to Eldridge for sterilization by their families because they were “masturbators” or “passive sodomists.”

Like all eugenics true-believers, Butler and his staff always sought evidence of physical deformity to “prove” their crackpot theories. Wrote Kline:

Doctors took note not only of patients’ sexual behavior but also of the sexual organs themselves. For example, of the eighty-two women admitted to Sonoma between January 1918 and August 1919 who were sterilized, forty-one, of 50 percent, were also noted for their “abnormal” genitals. Twenty-two of these patients were singled out specifically for enlarged genitals — the clitoris, vaginal wall, or labia — additional evidence (in the opinions of institutional physicians) of sexual deviance…and underscored the assumption that feeble-minded women were indeed “oversexed.”

The valuable chapter in Kline’s book aside, very little is written about Dr. Butler’s house of eugenic horrors. What happened there certainly wasn’t a secret; Butler was a prolific writer. And nothing is available (at least, nothing that I’ve found) about Sonoma County’s views on the doings behind the walls at the Home, which continued through WWII and after, even as Germans were being rightly condemned for the same practices. This is fertile ground for an American History grad student seeking a thesis topic.

As for our theme item about Dr. Brown and the idiots, not much else is known; several newspapers around the country printed a small item like this, also usually quoting a quip from the Richmond Times-Dispatch: If we were to drown all the idiots like rats, “some states would soon be mighty hard up for legislators.”

Special Dispatch to Press Democrat

New York, Jan. 28 — Dr. Brown of the Board of Health created a sensation while speaking of the proposed new system of education for the backward scholars when he declared that idiots should be drowned. He argued that there was no time these days to spend on children that were deficient in mental powers and said that as there was no hope for idots [sic] their lives should be extinguished.

– Press Democrat, January 29, 1905

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