Glore Psychiatric Museum (St. Joseph, Missouri)
A Glore-ious Place!
Glore Psychiatric Museum
April 21, 2001
Those who know my morbid nature (and don’t you all?) probably already know this, but I’ve been shivering in anticipation for a visit to the Glore Psychiatric Museum since I first heard about it several weeks ago. The reasons are multi-fold:
1) I have an intense love for the old, picturesque “Kirkbride Plan” asylums built in the 19th century – hence my frequent visits to the often quite tragic Historic Asylums Of America website which chronicles the renovation, preservation, and (frequently, sadly) demolition of these fine old structures.
2) I find the treatment of the insane in the Victorian era (and prior… and beyond…) to be immensely abhorrent, and I can’t help but wonder if I were born in that era, would I have been one of the tortured, imprisoned multitudes?
3) It’s just fascinating to visit morbid old places!
So, on an overcast April morning I set out to drive all the way across the state of Missouri to see remnants of the State Lunatic Asylum #2 in St. Joseph. I stopped briefly in Columbia (half way across the state) to pick up my friend Lacey. While there I took a picture of a powerhouse out of sheer perverse fascination. We may not have enough power to go around in California, but at least we don’t pollute the environment by burning coal to harness our electricity! (We use much safer nuclear power instead…) 😉 I kept thinking of the Navajo speaker I saw in Columbia a few weeks ago that said that coal was Mother Earth’s liver and the white man was ripping the liver out of the Earth. There was a lot of liver lying on the ground.
Once I overcame my ridiculous geographic curiosities, I picked up Lacey and we were on our way. It was a long drive filled with splendid conversation. Eventually, we drove past Kansas City and north to St. Joseph. After one wrong turn (maps can be sooooo tricky!), we found our way to the Glore Museum… and gosh, it was incredibly underwhelming! Where was the beautiful old 1874 Kirkbride building?? Well, as I was soon to find out, that beautiful old building was now a prison – hidden behind ugly barbed wire topped fences – and the museum was now housed in a more recent section of the old asylum. After my initial disappointment melted away – it took several hours and hundreds of tranquilizers, of course – I decided to buck up and do the right (morbid) thing, and enjoy the museum for what it was – a tribute to the imaginative and creative drifters who were imprisoned in the asylum, and the insane sadists who lorded over them.
When we first entered the museum, we were greeted by a very friendly staff member who gave us a brief history of the asylum. The State Lunatic Asylum #2 was built in 1874 and was active until 1997. During that time, it held as many as 3,000 patients at a time behind its “brick walls of divide” (hopelessly obscure Red House Painters reference). We were given instructions to take the elevator to the 3rd floor to begin our tour, and so we did.
The first thing we saw – and certainly the most memorable – was a display of the stomach contents of a particularly disturbed inmate. You see, in 1929, a patient with a proclivity for swallowing odd objects became acutely ill and was rushed to surgery. During the emergency procedure, 1,446 objects – including 453 nails, 409 pins, 63 buttons, 42 screws, 5 thimbles, and 3 salt shaker tops – were removed from her intestinal tract. Tragically, but unsurprisingly, she died during surgery.
That was quite a way to start off the tour, and as I walked away pondering what it must have felt like to walk around with 453 nails ripping at your intestines, I soon found myself staring at another wicked relic: blood-letting blades, cup, and stick. Blood letting was one of the best ways to cure practically any ailment in the olden days. Yep, if you just bleed people long enough they will be too weak to complain! They are cured!! And of course, no one was more annoying than the mentally ill. See that truncheon-y looking stick? That was used to tap on those rather vicious looking blades to force them through the skin and cause the patient to bleed. The glass bleeding cups were placed against the skin and either heat or cold was applied to them, causing a vacuum to form inside the glass. The patient’s blood would be sucked to the skin’s surface – then the blood was collected in the cup. Tidy, n’est pas?
Next came the first of the mannequins (depicting hydrotherapy – one of the few “treatments” here that doesn’t look completely horrid… unless one considers that they probably forgot about people and left them in the water for hours on end). One of the most delightfully kitschy aspects of the museum are these brilliant old mannequins decked out in the most torturous devices and poses. My goodness – little did they know when they were posing in J.C. Penney in 1976 that they’d end up in such a sorry state one day!! Here’s a particularly fetching mannie in a fever cabinet: “This fever cabinet was used in the treatment of syphilis. The cabinet was lined with rows of high wattage light bulbs that produced heat, elevating the patient’s body temperature. This was intended to kill the spirochete and arrest or halt the syphilitic condition.” I’m not sure if it cured syphilis, but I’m sure it inspired Gene Roddenbury when he devised the character of Captain Pike.
And what sort of self-respecting Psychiatric Museum would be worth its salt without singing a chorus from a Ramones song? Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment! I was also appalled and amazed by the Rectal Dilators on display. OUCH!! In front of the dilators is a bullet that was removed from a patient during surgery – that was put there 52 years prior when he was shot after “courting another man’s wife”. That’ll learn you!
Something about this next mannie just spoke to me! Isn’t that straitjacket just fetching beyond belief? Or how about this psychotic sophisticate with her dainty little restraints? But don’t be too misled by such seemingly innocent looking restraints. Here’s evidence of some of the less comfy looking restraints, from the original basement of the asylum. For those unruly patients where even restraints wouldn’t do the trick, there were the seclusion rooms.
Then there was the truly Silly part of the museum: a study of the treatment of the insane over the years. Gasp as a dreamy misunderstood mannequin is burned at the stake! Shiver as an innocent brunette mannequin is doused with freezing water (ie. cellophane) by an evil eyeless mannequin! Shudder at the uncomfortable fate of this tortured soul! And the equally uncomfortable fate of this faceless soul! And how’s this for silly? No, I’m not talking about my reflection in the glass – I mean the little dolls re-enacting water torture. Something kinda perverse about that, I guess…
And here’s a lovely reproduction of a Lunatic Box. “The Lunatic Box, sometimes called the English Booth, the Coffin or the Clock Case, was used during the 18th and 19th centuries. The victim was placed in device and had to remain in a standing position until he or she became calm. A wooden piece could be dropped over the opening of the face leaving the patient in complete darkness. The patient stood in his own excrement for extended periods of time.” What a gruesome world…
As enchanting as those exhibits may have been, I didn’t find them particularly interesting. I was more interested in the history of this hospital itself, so something as seemingly mundane as a table from the asylum’s cafeteria was much more interesting to me. I was also interested in the lives of the patients who had lived here – and I found this schizophrenic’s needlepoint particularly enchanting. I would love to have it in my house! And then there was the TV Guy: “In the fall of 1971, a male patient was observed inserting a piece of folded paper through a slot into the back of the ward television set. The set was turned off and the hospital’s electrician was notified. When the back was removed from the set a collection of papers, numbering 525, was discovered. Some were written as letters while others appear to be a daily diary system. Some of the patient’s delusions, mentioned in the writings, included the belief that the hospital was stealing his money. He also believed that his knowledge was hidden away in a couple of box cars and that he could not leave the hospital until this was exposed. ” You can read his eccentric and irrational writings – they’re plastered all over the wall. Compelling stuff, of course.
And then there was the particularly touching story of the patient who believed that if he saved up 100,000 cigarette packs he would be able to redeem them for a new wheelchair for the hospital. Of course, no such redemption existed, but the hospital administration felt sufficiently moved by his efforts to buy a wheelchair and dedicate it to the hospital in his name in 1969. Doesn’t that just make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?
Here, of course, was my favorite room of the museum. It’s an actual morgue, not a staged one. On the table in front of the “corpse” was an example of a nameless headstone that was used in the asylum’s cemetery about a half-mile away. Of course, Lacey and I asked for directions to the cemetery and decided we had to find it after we finished with the museum…
We finished up the last few exhibits in the museum – including the staircase from the original administration building, which was recently torn down. (Sob…) They liked to decorate the old asylums with lovely and ornate staircases and lobbies – so as to fool the families into thinking, “Oh, this is such a nice place for Aunt Betty” – as they drag her away to put the shackles on her.
After purchasing a t-shirt, some postcards, and a squishy brain stress ball, we wandered back to the parking lot and I decided I had to venture up to the prison fence to try to get a picture of the old asylum, despite the warnings of the museum employee who said that they tried to confiscate her camera the last time she tried to take pictures at the fence. But no one seemed to notice my blatant disregard of the warning signs, fortunately. Well, except for this little cutie I passed on the way back to the car. Of course, we know why he was hanging about the asylum – ’cause he loves Nuts! Hahahahahaha… I slay myself… (so you don’t have to).
After leaving the museum, we drove off to try to find the cemetery, which the tour guide stated was just around the block, across the street from a Food 4 Less. We followed the instructions to a little parking lot beside a monument next to a large field with the old asylum visible behind the trees in the background.
The tombstones themselves were sadly nondescript – just an anonymous number left to memorialize a living, breathing human being. To make matters worse, many of the stones were in state of disrepair, although a restoration project is in the works, thankfully. There were a couple of ‘named’ stones – obviously paid by private dollars – that stood out in the mix. Before leaving, I took one last look across the fields to the old Asylum and reflected on the lives that passed on those premises.
As I drove away from the State Lunatic Asylum #2, I took one last picture from the car. A beautiful place – pity about the prison!
Courtesy of Tee
I received some additional images and information in July, 2005 from Tee, who provides the following information. Thanks Tee!