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.

8 Great Gifts for People Who Work From Home

World Market/Amazon
World Market/Amazon

A growing share of Americans work from home, and while that might seem blissful to some, it's not always easy to live, eat, and work in the same space. So, if you have co-workers and friends who are living the WFH lifestyle, here are some products that will make their life away from their cubicle a little easier.

1. Folding Book Stand; $7

Hatisan / Amazon

Useful for anyone who works with books or documents, this thick wire frame is strong enough for heavier textbooks or tablets. Best of all, it folds down flat, so they can slip it into their backpack or laptop case and take it out at the library or wherever they need it. The stand does double-duty in the kitchen as a cookbook holder, too.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Duraflame Electric Fireplace; $179

Duraflame / Amazon

Nothing says cozy like a fireplace, but not everyone is so blessed—or has the energy to keep a fire going during the work day. This Duraflame electric fireplace can help keep a workspace warm by providing up to 1000 square feet of comfortable heat, and has adjustable brightness and speed settings. They can even operate it without heat if they just crave the ambiance of an old-school gentleman's study (leather-top desk and shelves full of arcane books cost extra).

Buy It: Amazon

3. World Explorer Coffee Sampler; $32

UncommonGoods

Making sure they've got enough coffee to match their workload is a must, and if they're willing to experiment with their java a bit, the World Explorer’s Coffee Sampler allows them to make up to 32 cups using beans from all over the world. Inside the box are four bags with four different flavor profiles, like balanced, a light-medium roast with fruity notes; bold, a medium-dark roast with notes of cocoa; classic, which has notes of nuts; and fruity, coming in with notes of floral.

Buy it: UncommonGoods

4. Lavender and Lemon Beeswax Candle; $20

Amazon

People who work at home all day, especially in a smaller space, often struggle to "turn off" at the end of the day. One way to unwind and signal that work is done is to light a candle. Burning beeswax candles helps clean the air, and essential oils are a better health bet than artificial fragrances. Lavender is especially relaxing. (Just use caution around essential-oil-scented products and pets.)

Buy It: Amazon

5. HÄNS Swipe-Clean; $15

HÄNS / Amazon

If they're carting their laptop and phone from the coffee shop to meetings to the co-working space, the gadgets are going to get gross—fast. HÄNS Swipe is a dual-sided device that cleans on one side and polishes on the other, and it's a great solution for keeping germs at bay. It's also nicely portable, since there's nothing to spill. Plus, it's refillable, and the polishing cloth is washable and re-wrappable, making it a much more sustainable solution than individually wrapped wipes.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Laptop Side Table; $100

World Market

Sometimes they don't want to be stuck at a desk all day long. This industrial-chic side table can act as a laptop table, too, with room for a computer, coffee, notes, and more. It also works as a TV table—not that they would ever watch TV during work hours.

Buy It: World Market

7. Moleskine Classic Notebook; $17

Moleskin / Amazon

Plenty of people who work from home (well, plenty of people in general) find paper journals and planners essential, whether they're used for bullet journaling, time-blocking, or just writing good old-fashioned to-do lists. However they organize their lives, there's a journal out there that's perfect, but for starters it's hard to top a good Moleskin. These are available dotted (the bullet journal fave), plain, ruled, or squared, and in a variety of colors. (They can find other supply ideas for bullet journaling here.)

Buy It: Amazon

8. Nexstand Laptop Stand; $39

Nexstand / Amazon

For the person who works from home and is on the taller side, this portable laptop stand is a back-saver. It folds down flat so it can be tossed into the bag and taken to the coffee shop or co-working spot, where it often generates an admiring comment or three. It works best alongside a portable external keyboard and mouse.

Buy It: Amazon

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The Secret Society That Left a Trail of Human Skeletons in its Wake

Skeletons have been known to lurk in abandoned lodges of fraternal organizations.
Skeletons have been known to lurk in abandoned lodges of fraternal organizations.
Photo by Mitja Juraja from Pexels

Cheerleading practice can be grueling, but rarely does it involve the discovery of human remains.

That changed in 2004, when the young women of the ShowMe Spirit All-Stars in Houston, Texas, were set to converge on a century-old building they had rented to use as practice space with the letters IOOF written above the door. Walking through the property, squad coaches Tabbi Ireland and Sheri Wade found a primitive security system with door buzzers and peepholes. They also discovered old robes, ancient ledgers, and books that seemed to hint at a mysterious history. The spine of one volume read: IOOF Working Rituals.

Then there were the coffins—three of them in total. Two contained fake skeletons, but the third seemed suspiciously authentic and quickly became the talk of the practices. One of the girls’ mothers asked local authorities to examine them, and their suspicions were confirmed: The specimen and its dirt-encrusted surface was the genuine article, a skeleton that would eventually prove to be of indeterminable gender and ancestry. All anyone knew of the remains was that they belonged to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a centuries-old fraternal organization.

Owing to the dirt, they also knew the skeleton was likely not acquired through conventional means. The dirt hinted it may have once been buried, and someone had then dug it up. The ShowMe Spirit All-Stars had uncovered evidence of a ritual that still exists in some form today, one that has resulted in multiple instances of skeletons making dramatic reappearances during renovations.

But why did the Odd Fellows need them in the first place?

 

Though their numbers have waned in recent years thanks to the advent of the internet, fraternal organizations were once a prominent part of American life. Freemasonry, Moose Lodges, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks opened chapters across the country and espoused a values system normally based around charitable acts and loyalty while bonding through arcane rituals, languages, and attire. By one estimate, 10.5 million Americans were a member of over 500 “secret societies” in 1907.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was one such society. The group formed in 17th century England before arriving in America in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1819, and its name has a few potential origins: It might refer to the fact that early members were tradesmen who wanted to form a trade group but had too few peers in their specialty and had to band together. Others believe it refers to the “odd” nature of assembling in an effort to be charitable, which is something the Odd Fellows pride themselves on. Helping orphans and assisting people in burying their dead were early tenets. Today, the group sponsors a professorship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and supports the Arthritis Foundation, among other pursuits. Their symbol of three interlocking rings represents Friendship, Love, and Truth. In the early 20th century, it may have had as many as 3.4 million members.

“The IOOF or Odd Fellows is an inclusive co-ed fraternal organization with over 200 years of history that serves as the original social network and provides members a multi-faceted experience depending on what they are looking for,” Ainslie Heilich, a spokesperson for the Sovereign Grand Lodge for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, tells Mental Floss. “Lodges provide socializing with a purpose to help improve our communities while improving ourselves. Members come together to become a better version of ourselves and leave behind the frustrations of daily life while participating in meetings, socials, fundraisers, volunteering, initiations, and degree rituals. It’s a great way to learn new social, business, and life skills as well. 

“One of my Lodge friends aptly describes the experience as being like scouting but for grownups. I think it’s a little like slipping into a real life Wes Anderson movie. It’s something I didn’t realize I was looking for until I found it.”  

While good intentions were and are abundant, both the Odd Fellows and other organizations tended to have a taste for the macabre, using ritualized behaviors to indoctrinate members and cement a sense of solidarity and discretion.

Not all were harmless. In 1913, a Loyal Order of Moose ritual turned deadly when two candidates in Birmingham, Alabama, perished. Fooled into thinking that senior members were really branding them with a hot iron—the iron was cool, but a battery connection sent a sensation up their bodies—the men had heart attacks and died. A Knights of Tablor ceremony in Texas in 1916 nearly ended fatally when a member tripped and fell on a sword. He survived and sued the Knights in an act of decidedly non-fraternal litigation.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows symbol representing Friendship, Love and Truth.smallcurio, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While the injuries incurred during such practices invite publicity, other organizations have gone years—perhaps centuries—without disclosing what goes on behind closed doors. That was true of the Odd Fellows until the 1990s and early 2000s, when disbanded lodges and vacant locations began to be occupied by comparatively normal fellows.

In 2001, an electrician in Warrenton, Virginia, named Paul Wallace was repairing circuits in an old building previously occupied by Odd Fellows when he came across a space between two walls. Tugging on the contents, he discovered a black box. Inside was a skeleton covered in a white shroud—“like a Dracula movie,” Wallace would later recall—and alerted authorities.

The scene had been playing out across the country. In 2000, a theater worker in Missouri was offered two free caskets by a consolidating Odd Fellows lodge. One had a plaster skeleton. A second had a real one. In 2008, a man in Wayne Township, Pennsylvania, named David Simmons was helping renovate his grandfather’s home when he saw something unusual in between the floorboards of a crawlspace. Shining his flashlight, he noticed an old clock, a lantern, and some 50 bones. (Some Odd Fellows skeletons are incomplete: The human body has over 200 bones.) Other skeletons cropped up in California, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, and Virginia, among others.

“As with all fraternal organizations, the number of IOOF members and lodges has been shrinking,” Heilich says. “The second half of the 20th century saw many lodges closing and the Grand Lodges all over the continent couldn’t keep up with clearing out and storing everything so whole lodges full of stuff were just abandoned. These traditionally downtown buildings would then be sold and as the new owners would be doing renovations they would unwittingly discover [the skeletons] long forgotten in a storage cubby."

Once authorities determined the buildings where these remains were found once belonged to Odd Fellows, the society that cherished its privacy was forced to disclose a portion of its history and detail why so many of their lodges held real skeletons—and what purpose they served.

 

Though Odd Fellows sometimes asked authorities to be discreet about their ritualized practices, details eventually began to circulate outside their closed circles.

When a prospective Odd Fellow was ready to join the ranks of the society, their initiation would involve donning a hoodwink—goggles with built-in blinds that could be open and shut. Sometimes weighed down with chains, the would-be member would be led into a torch-lit or candlelit room. When the blinds were opened, they would find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly standing face-to-face with a skeleton.

The practice, known as the Lodge of Reflection, is intended to remind members of their own mortality—that no matter a person’s wealth or stature, all wind up the same in the end.

“The skeleton serves as a ritual and symbolic 'memento mori' where we all are face mortality by looking the inevitable great equalizer in the eye,” Heilich says.

Odd Fellows kept skeletons around for initiations.cottonbro, Pexels

Heilich says the practice dates back to 1797. Lodges were able to acquire skeletons through medical supply companies or businesses that specialized in supplying the large demand for items useful in fraternal orders. One catalog at the turn of the 20th century advertised real skeletons as “genuine and life-sized” and “fairly deodorized.” Interested parties were prompted to call for a price.

While other elements of Odd Fellows rituals—like riding a goat or donning a ceremonial screen maskwere unusual but largely harmless, their practice of using real human remains gave new occupants and contractors a number of frights decades later. Inevitably, authorities would investigate the findings, determine there was no foul play, and then hand off the bones to forensic anthropologists, universities, or museums. Others received a proper burial. Two skeletons were laid to rest in Warrensburg, New York, in 2013 in a funeral funded by the Alexander Funeral Home and the Chestertown Lodge Odd Fellows chapter. Their coffins still bore the dripping wax of rituals past.

Occasionally, some will come up for sale. Two Odd Fellows skeletons found in Pennsylvania were auctioned off by the Mahoning Valley Fire Company in Mahoning Township on behalf of the Odd Fellows Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 2001. That practice has sometimes drawn criticism over the ethical nature of making human skeletons a commodity. There’s also been concern over a possible legal issue with the desecration of human remains, though the bones being decades old means the statute of limitations has expired.

Indeed, not all Odd Fellows bones have gone on to maintain their dignity. One skeleton belonging to the order in Pittsburgh and later sold to a prop dealer made its way into 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, with both the production and the audience unaware that the bones were the genuine article.

The Odd Fellows are still active—and actively recruiting—but sightings of their skeletons have trailed off in recent years. Still, Heilich says that as old lodges continue to be renovated, there is potential for more skeletons to pop up.

As for Houston’s Odd Fellow remains: The bones eventually wound up under the care of curious forensic anthropology students at Southwest Missouri State University. Their origin was never determined, though the dirt pointed to the fact that the skeleton may have been taken by someone—not necessarily an Odd Fellow—directly from the grave.

And what of the initiation? With skeletons literally tumbling out of closets, have the Odd Fellows found a new way of representing mortality without human remains in play?

Heilich is quick to answer. “Who said we stopped?”