Glore Psychiatric Museum
St. Joseph, Missouri
It's hard to make people sane.
That's the lesson we learned at the Glore Psychiatric Museum, where exhibits show how those who've been judged mentally ill have been burned, shocked, shackled, kicked, dunked, punctured, and killed in an effort to make them well. A doctor in the museum's introductory video explains that early physicians did their best with what they knew, but thousands of artifacts suggest that America's asylums were once filled with dangerous lunatics -- and they weren't all inmates.
The museum is housed in a building of the former St. Joseph State Mental Hospital, and is named for George Glore (1937-2010), who worked there as an occupational therapist. In 1968 he asked his patients to build full-size replicas of early treatment devices -- such as the Human Hamster Wheel (our name) and the Lunatic Box -- and management was so impressed that it asked Glore to create a museum. Over the decades it has grown to fill four floors: the largest exhibition of psychiatric treatment history in the USA.
"We wanted everyone to understand it wasn't just us doing horrific things," said Kathy Reno, the museum's spokeswoman. "Everybody was doing horrific things."
The museum's exhibits span the history of mental illness therapy, from witch burnings and devil stompings to the only slightly less gruesome treatments that followed. The "Bath of Surprise," for example, sometimes drowned patients. The Tranquilizer Chair kept its victims immobile for the application of leeches. The Human Hamster Wheel looks fun -- Kathy said that visitors often ask to try it -- but patients were usually locked inside and forced to run for up to two straight days.
20th century exhibits include items used at the Saint Joseph hospital during Glore's own lifetime: restraining belts, "early tranquilizers" (clubs), electroshock superchargers, enema tubes, and doctor-designed ice picks for lobotomies.
Kathy said that visitors will tell her, "I'm glad I wasn't considered crazy back then," and she'll have to explain that the definition of "crazy" was considerably broader in those days. "They'll say, 'You mean, you could really be admitted for anything?' And I'll say, 'Yep. You could be checked in by a family member for whatever.' We have the records."
"The bad news about mental illness," said Kathy, quoting George Glore, "is that everybody's got a little something."
Some had more than others, and Glore had an eye for preserving the hospital's most memorable manifestations of odd behavior. A ceiling-high cage is filled with 108,000 cigarette packs, saved by a patient who thought they'd be redeemed for a wheelchair. The "Schizophrenia through Embroidery" exhibit showcases the needlework of a woman who wouldn't speak for over 30 years, but communicated through words she stitched into fabric.
The "Television Diary," discovered in 1971, was a hospital ward TV stuffed with over 500 secret notes, written by a patient who may have believed that "the information would be transmitted through the television," according to its accompanying sign.
The oldest display in the museum dates to 1910: an imaginative starburst arrangement of 1,446 buttons, screws, bolts, and nails that were eaten by a patient who died unexpectedly. They were only discovered during her autopsy. When we first visited the museum in 1991, George seemed particularly proud of it.
Visitors want to know more about the unnamed patients behind these exhibits, but are disappointed to learn that medical privacy rules will forever keep them anonymous. "They want to know these people's names, where were they from, why did they do these things?" Kathy said. "If we had the answer to that last question, they wouldn't have been in here."
Management continues to collect artifacts and to add exhibits to the museum. In a gallery displaying patient art, for example, there's a self-portrait ceramic head of a fanged man "who believed he was evil," a mosaic made of tens of thousands of tiny egg shell fragments, and a frightening replica of the dagger-toothed knife-wielding devil doll from the 1970s TV movie Trilogy of Terror.
There's even a contribution from George Glore himself: a miniature diorama of one of the hospital wards, featuring Barbie in a straitjacket.