4 Reasons People Got Wrongfully Shipped Off to Asylums

You wouldn’t last an hour in the asylums where they raised these people
4 Reasons People Got Wrongfully Shipped Off to Asylums

Konstantin Päts was the president of Estonia when the Soviets invaded in 1940. For a while, he remained in office as their puppet, but they grew tired of him and forced him out. They put him under house arrest, then moved him to a prison, then put him in a series of Russian psychiatric hospitals. He ultimately died in one of these.

While he was in the asylum, Päts protested his confinement, saying he was president of Estonia. “You are insane,” said the doctors. “You are insane because you say you’re the president of Estonia. After all, if you were the president of Estonia, you wouldn’t be in an insane asylum.”

Beware the men in white coats. When they toss you in a padded room, you may never get out. Historically, people have been locked away for such invalid reasons as...

Speaking Ukrainian

We were talking a few seconds ago about Soviet Russia, but this next story isn’t about Russians locking away Ukrainians. This story (and all the next ones we’ll be talking about today) happened in the United States. And this Ukrainian speaker was committed, not thanks to discrimination but because of a misunderstanding. 

Katerina Yasinschuk arrived in the U.S. as a teen during World War I. She spoke only Ukrainian, and this wasn’t a problem initially. She fell in love with a man (who we assume understood Ukrainian). Then she left him in 1921, and police in Philadelphia found her outside looking lost. When they questioned her, she appeared to reply with gibberish. She was “babbling,” they concluded, a sign of madness. 

Tower of Babel

Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Pictured: The Tower of Babble, a famous lunatic asylum. 

They dropped her off at the Philadelphia State Hospital. She failed to prove her sanity at a psychiatric evaluation because she was unable to answer in English, or in any other language the doctors understood. They committed her, and during the six years that followed, she continued to speak Ukrainian, in the hopes that someone would understand her. No one did, so she gave up and remained silent — for the next 40 years. 

Then the hospital got a new director, who sought to release some inmates who he believed didn’t belong there. After reading Yasinschuk’s file, he got a bunch of people who knew different languages to speak to her, including a hospital employee named Olga Mychajluk, who spoke Ukrainian. Hearing her language for the first time in many decades, Yasinschuk started speaking again and related her story. She was sane, of course, and she now was allowed to leave, at the age of 71. She wound up at another institution, but this wasn’t a mental hospital. It was an old folks’ home run by Ukrainian nuns. 

Applying to a White College

In 1957, Clennon Washington King Jr. was teaching history at what’s now Alcorn State University in Mississippi. Things got kind of weird that year. King declared publicly that the NAACP was bad for race relations, and this drew the attention of the press, who published photos of his students. These students now boycotted his class, and soon all 561 students at this Black college were threatening to leave the school unless King left first. It got so messy that the university fired their president for not handling it properly, and either they fired King or he resigned — records are a little foggy about that. 

Clennon Washington King Jr.

Mississippi Department of Archives and History

The students also hanged him in effigy. Kind of a charged move, particularly at the time.

King decided that for the next stage of his life, he’d go back to college, this time as a student again. He’d get his second master’s degree. Rather than go back to Tuskegee University, where he’d studied before, he applied to the University of Mississippi. A few years into the future, a court would order Ole Miss to integrate, sparking a riot where people died. For now, the university was strictly all-white. 

When King showed up at the place, the governor of the state was there to greet him. As were several police officers. They dragged him out of the building and off to jail where doctors were on-hand to declare him insane. They committed him to an asylum. As it happened, his brother was a lawyer, and he had a couple famous people who could put in a good word for him, so he was stuck in there for “only” a fortnight.

Having been officially declared crazy, albeit briefly, King made this label a part of his persona going forward. He ran for political office several times, including for president, and when he ran in 1993, he handed out the following message: “You've been fucked by all the smart-asses. So, now, on Tues., March 16, 1993, vote for a crazy n—r.” 

He was by this point a minister and was 73 years old. 

Having Sex With Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland had a big sex scandal when he was running for president, and the way it’s commonly told, it makes for a pretty funny historical story. However, the most common version of the tale sticks to the part that people at the time found scandalous, rather than the actual bad part. 

The famous part of the story is that Republicans tried to derail Cleveland’s campaign by revealing he had an illegitimate child. “Mama, where’s my pa?” read printed smear ads. Cleveland supporters would respond with, “Gone to the White House, hahaha!” and when Cleveland admitted to paying child support for the boy (who may not have been his), voters seemed to appreciate his candor. They elected him. 

Anti-Grover Cleveland political cartoon of 1884

Frank Beard

All elections are won through memes.

But the boy’s mother wasn’t merely accusing him of having a kid out of wedlock. Maria Halpin said he’d had sex with her “by use of force and violence and without my consent.” When she came forward with these accusations during his campaign, his opponents didn’t emphasize the rape part only because voters presumably wouldn’t care much about that compared to the general scandal of fathering a bastard. She said she had wanted to report him to the police even at the time, but he’d intimidated her into keeping quiet. Cleveland had earlier been sheriff and district attorney, and she had little chance of getting anyone to prosecute him.

When Halpin gave birth, Cleveland sent authorities to the hospital to take the child from her and put it in the Buffalo Orphan Asylum. He named the boy Oscar Folsom Cleveland, “Oscar Folsom” being a friend of his (and possibly the boy’s true father, according to one theory). He then had authorities put Halpin in an asylum as well — the Providence Lunatic Asylum. 

Providence Lunatic Asylum

F.W. Beers & Co.

Located in Buffalo. Cleveland lived in Buffalo, by the way, not in Cleveland. 

Some sources merely say the circumstances surrounding Halpin’s entry to the asylum were “murky” — we don’t know for certain Cleveland was behind it. But we know someone moved her there unjustly, because doctors released her in a few days, saying she was sane. At some point during all this, she signed a contract saying she’d give up all claims on the boy Oscar and would never contact Grover Cleveland again.

Cleveland went on to marry and have several legitimate children. He married the daughter of that friend of his, Oscar Folsom. Cleveland was the girl’s guardian from the time her father died, which was two days after her 12th birthday. When she became an adult, he married her and made her First Lady. 

Exposing Your Arms

We don’t know much about Carrie White’s life before she was admitted to Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee. We know she was born in 1874. We know she taught the piano, and she married a blacksmith. The two were still married when she was 35. They had no children.

United Artists

One of the few photos we have of her is this one, from her prom. 

Records show her husband offered a couple complaints when he brought her to the mental hospital in 1909. She’d been scared of someone trying to harm the twins (an admittedly worrying thing to say, as they had no twins) and had talked about harming herself. Also, she’d been “showing her arms inappropriately.” We don’t know what that means. It could mean she’d been unjustifiably pointing weapons at people, or it could mean she’d broken social rules by wearing sleeveless tops. If we knew which of the two it was, we’d crack a joke about how it was probably “actually” the other one, but we honestly can’t decide between them.

Her intake form diagnosed her with post-typhoid psychosis, though there was no indication that she or anyone close to her had had typhoid. We don’t know what the staff at the time thought about her mental state because all of them were dead by the time the wider world checked in on White. Later staff said she didn’t seem crazy. She talked to them like a normal person, and she worked a job in the hospital taking care of linens. The only reason any of us know about her today is that in 1989, she was officially declared the oldest person in the world. 

Carrie White


For her birthday, she was allowed some chewing tobacco.

She was 114 when Guinness assigned her that title, and she died a couple years later at 116. By the time reporters got a look at her, there was no way to evaluate her sanity to tell what was psychosis and what was plain old dementia. Even stories from older staff about how she’d get weird during the full moon dated to when she was in her 70s and 80s and are consistent with how old people act in nursing homes, rather than something exclusive to psychiatric patients. 

White spent 75 years in a mental hospital before being moved to a nursing home in her final days. Be happy that you live in a different age, when we aren’t quite so quick about institutionalizing people. Even if you have real mental illness, we have better treatments today. Lesser mental illnesses, meanwhile, have hardly any stigma at all. In fact, in some circles, if you say “I have perfect mental health,” people might shun you. 

“Why would you go say something like that?” they’ll ask. “You sound like a complete sociopath.” 

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