September 16th, 2008
Rummaging around online as I do all too often, I’ve come across a few famous names in connection with different Kirkbride hospitals—as patients I mean. I thought it would be interesting to start a list of them. Not only will it shed a little light on their personal stories, but it also shows mental illness doesn’t necessarily prevent one from being brilliant and/or functional. It also helps humanize the mostly anonymous group often referred to simply as “patients”.
Woody Guthrie – Greystone Park State Hospital
On May 28, 1956, Morristown police discovered legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie wandering aimlessly in a daze. After a night in jail, Guthrie was sent to Greystone Park State Hospital and would eventually be diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease—an incurable illness characterized by involuntary movements and a deterioration of mental faculties. For about five years, Guthrie lived at Greystone where Pete Seeger and a very young Bob Dylan were among his many visitors. With some humor, Guthrie referred to the hospital as “Gravestone” and the ward he stayed on as “Wardy Forty” (it being, of course, Ward 40). In 1961, he was transferred to Brooklyn State Hospital, and then to Creedmore Psychiatric Center in Queens, NY five years later. Guthrie remained at Creedmore until his untimely death in 1967.
Ezra Pound – Saint Elizabeths
The influential twentieth century poet Ezra Pound was essentially incarcerated at Saint Elizabeths after being charged with treason. During World War II, Pound lived as an expatriate in Italy where his enthusiastic support of Fascism and involvement in Italian politics led to his arrest when he fell into the hands of partisans toward the end of the war. The poet was shipped back to the United States in 1945 and declared unfit for trial due to insanity. It’s widely believed that Pound’s mental illness was greatly exaggerated, by both himself and the psychiatrist who evaluated him, in order to avoid a possible execution. Pound remained at Saint Elizabeths for several years where he continued writing and enjoyed special privileges in spite of his confinement. In 1958 he was discharged after influential friends and admirers successfully petitioned for his release. Pound moved back to Italy soon after and spent the rest of his life there. Poet Charles Olson wrote a book about his numerous visits to Pound during his hospitalization entitled An Encounter at St. Elizabeths.
Dr. Emmanuel H. Bronner – Elgin State Hospital
Soap mogul, evangelist, and obsessive rhymer Dr. Emmanuel Bronner (the man behind Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap) was sent to Elgin State Hospital in 1947 for “vehemently espousing his views.” This was soon after he was arrested at the University of Chicago for speaking without a permit. Evidently questions were raised regarding his mental stability. Bronner was given electroshock treatment at Elgin and escaped on three separate occasions, finally fleeing to California where he felt he fit in better. You can see the trailer—which features photos of the Elgin Kirkbride—for a film about the doctor here: Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox. One of the best ways to get a sense of his personality though is to buy some of his soap and read the packaging. It’s plastered with his beliefs which do come across as slightly irrational, although they’re essentially altruistic and espouse world peace and associated worthy causes.
Daniel Johnston – Weston State Hospital
Eccentric songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston was sent to Weston State Hospital for a time in the 1990s. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder and autism, Johnston was hospitalized at Weston after a particularly disastrous episode in which he believed an elderly woman to be possessed by demons. The terrified lady jumped out a window to escape the manic Johnston, breaking both her ankles in the process. In spite of his problems and unsettling behavior, Johnston has a cult following of devoted fans and his songs have been covered by Tom Waits, Beck, The Dead Milkmen, Pearl Jam and several other artists. His troubled life and music are documented in The Devil and Daniel Johnston which includes some beautiful footage of Weston State Hospital.
While I’m not 100% sure each of these four men lived inside the Kirkbride building at each respective hospital, I have reason to believe it’s very likely. If you know otherwise or if you’re aware of other famous patients of Kirkbride hospitals, please comment and let us know. I’ve heard that poet Sylvia Plath may have been hospitalized at Northampton State Hospital, but I haven’t found any real evidence of that yet. It seems like it might be sort of an urban legend springing from the fact that she went to Smith College (which is right next to NSH) and also spent time at McLean Hospital.
- Saint Elizabeths and the DHS January 8, 2009
- Behind Grey Walls March 18, 2008
- End of an Era July 17, 2008
- A Memorial for the Mentally Ill June 12, 2009
- Saint Elizabeths Walking Tour November 26, 2008