Evansville State Hospital

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Mental illness. That’s a term that has long scared us, that has terrible stigma attached to it. I delved into this in a January 21, 2019 blog entitled “It’s Bedlam Here!!” There I focused on the history of the St. Mary of Bethlehem mental facility in London, founded in 1247. The corruption of the word “Bethlehem” led to the term “bedlam.” Today’s blog focuses on another mental hospital, this one here in Evansville. To talk about it, we’ll first take a brief (I promise!) look at the history of the treatment of mental illness.

Throughout history there have been three general theories of the etiology of mental illness: supernatural, somatogenic, and psychogenic. Supernatural theories attribute mental illness to possession by evil or demonic spirits, displeasure of gods, eclipses, planetary gravitation, curses, and sin. Somatogenic theories identify disturbances in physical functioning resulting from either illness, genetic inheritance, or brain damage or imbalance. Psychogenic theories focus on traumatic or stressful experiences, maladaptive learned associations and cognitions, or distorted perceptions. Etiological theories of mental illness determine the care and treatment mentally ill individuals receive.” One of the weirdest (in terms of today’s knowledge of anatomy) somatogenic (i.e., physical) explanations was the wandering uterus theory from ancient Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. “The uterus could become dislodged and attached to parts of the body like the liver or chest cavity, preventing their proper functioning or producing varied and sometimes painful symptoms.

The Greeks called this condition hysteria, and you can easily see where negative stereotypes of “hysterical women” arose. A particularly chilling example of treating mental illness physically is the prefrontal lobotomy. First performed in 1936, this involved severing the neural connections to the frontal lobe of the brain. As gruesome as this is, there were those that believed in psychosurgery, among them an American physician named Walter Freeman (1895–1972). “Prefrontal lobotomies were both inefficient in terms of resources and of questionable therapeutic value, so Freeman developed a cheaper and more efficient technique: the transorbital lobotomy. An ‘ice pick’ or orbitoclast was inserted above the patient’s eyeball and through the boney orbital ridge to sever connections to and from the prefrontal cortex. A mallet was used to drive the orbitoclast through the thin layer of bone and into the brain, and the procedure was repeated in several directions. The procedure allowed Freeman to perform ‘assembly line’ lobotomies at state mental hospitals, where the resident psychiatrists would identify patients for the procedure and have them ready for when he arrived. On one occasion he lobotomised 228 patients over 12 days for the West Virginia Lobotomy Project.”

Now that you’re screaming and have chills up your spine, it’s time to acknowledge that the treatment of the mentally ill took a long time to become enlightened, what we might call humane. This is certainly not to say that today’s society always deals with mental illness well, but progress has been made. Even in the “bad old days” there were those who argued for compassionate, moral care, but sometimes the system was overwhelmed and care reverted to harsh, strictly custodial treatment. “Moral treatment had to be abandoned in America in the second half of the 19th century, however, when these asylums became overcrowded and custodial in nature and could no longer provide the space nor attention necessary. When retired school teacher Dorothea Dix discovered the negligence that resulted from such conditions, she advocated for the establishment of state hospitals. Between 1840 and1880, she helped establish over 30 mental institutions in the United States and Canada (Viney & Zorich, 1982).”

If you live or drive on the east side of Evansville, you’ve surely seen that large piece of property along Vann Ave., between Lincoln and the Lloyd Expressway. It’s lovely-wooded, with a small lake on Lincoln, and people use it a lot to walk their dogs and/or otherwise enjoy a stroll. There are soccer and baseball fields along the Vann Avenue side. This impressive piece of property houses the Evansville State Hospital. Founded in 1890, the state appropriated funds in 1883, as the Southern Indiana Hospital for the Insane, it was built on the former Howard farm property on Newburgh Road, now Lincoln Avenue, purchased for $17,000 and at the time, 3 miles outside of Evansville . Partially to de-stigmatize it, and partly to celebrate its wooded acres, it was dubbed “Woodmere.” More land was added, and Woodmere at one time covered where UE, St. Vincent’s Medical Center, Wesselman Park Nature Center, and the land that once held Roberts Stadium, now are. It admitted only 2 patients at its October 30, 1890 opening, but had a peak of an estimated 1500 in 1954.

Postcard of Woodmere, date unknown
Source: UASC Brad Awe Collection, MSS 184-0743

While I have no information about the treatments offered there, in general the State Hospital (as its named was changed in 1927) was custodial in nature, offering a tranquil setting for its patients. It was believed that patients would benefit from the good, hard work, and this hospital was able to offer this in spades. With all that space, it had gardens, a poultry operation, a dairy herd, and orchards—plenty to keep the patients occupied and also to make the hospital self-sufficient. It even had its own power plant.

This 1927 view shows some of the gardens
Source: UASC Brad Awe Collection, MSS 184-0907
Dummy Railroad advertisement. Although this poster is not dated, it’s probably from the early 20th century
Source: UASC Brad Awe Collection, MSS 184-0544

All that land meant that the public could still enjoy the grounds. Apparently there was actually an amusement park built here, and an inexpensive ride on this Evansville Suburban and Newburgh Railway Co. “dummy railroad” transported visitors there. A passenger service of 5 trips a day and freight service was scheduled and 3 Baldwin dummy locomotives powered the passenger and freight runs. To accommodate the passengers, 12 double truck passenger trailers, 8 open and 4 closed, were secured. It’s possible that some of the patients were also able to enjoy the amusement park. In 1943 the X-shaped main building seen below was set ablaze by an employee, resulting in the death of 8 patients. One source claims that once the patients were moved to an interim facility, the employee tried to set fire to that, too, but that fire was quickly extinguished. This source then claims that this employee joined the patients as she was deemed to be mentally ill!

This elevated photograph, from the early 1920s, shows the shape and size of the main facility. NOTE: this picture was sharply cropped to show the building, so you have no sense of all the grounds.
Source: www.therecreationaltrespasser.com

This administration building replaced what the fire destroyed in 1943, although this photograph was taken in May 1997.

Current Evansville State Hospital.
Source: VPS Architecture

But, to quote Bob Dylan, “For the times, they are a-changin.” The 1960s introduction of antipsychotic drugs meant that many patients no longer needed to be institutionalized. The 1960s also produced the concept of mental health care in the community. “In 1963, Congress passed and John F. Kennedy signed the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act, which provided federal support and funding for community mental health centers (National Institutes of Health, 2013). This legislation changed how mental health services were delivered in the United States. It started the process of deinstitutionalization, the closing of large asylums, by providing for people to stay in their communities and be treated locally. In 1955, there were 558,239 severely mentally ill patients institutionalized at public hospitals (Torrey, 1997). By 1994, by percentage of the population, there were 92% fewer hospitalized individuals (Torrey, 1997).” While there are many good community based mental health programs today, this vision and reality never totally merged, and the homeless and incarcerated populations have a large percentage of mentally ill people.

Resources Consulted

Evansville State Hospital. Asylumprojects.org

Evansville State Hospital. IN.gov

Farreras, I. G. “History of mental illness.” in R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers, 2020.

Mental Health. Science Museum: London, England.

“Mental Health Treatment: Past and Present” in Introduction to Psychology. lumenlearning.com

Smith, Daniel. “History Lesson: Evansville State Hospital.” Evansville Courier and Press, March 13, 2017.Woodmere. Therecreationaltresspasser.com (lots of photographs here, if you’d like to see more)

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