Harmon’s Histories: early Missoula newspapers quick to conclude insanity


By Jim Harmon

The level of political incorrectness in Missoula’s newspapers in the late 19th century was insane. Literally.

Insanity was a subject covered by local newspapers as routinely as government, business or politics, and reporters used numerous degrading characterizations in their stories, including crazy, a trifle off, feeble minded, off his base, gone, lunatic or deranged.

Here’s an example from 1877, “…the lunatic was duly delivered at the Warm Springs hotel last week. He went whooping and singing the whole distance….”

In 1888, The Weekly Missoulian reported, “….a man, traveling from Fargo to Tacoma, was put off the train at Thompson (Falls) on grounds that he was insane. The unfortunate fellow was brought up to Missoula and examined by the proper authorities Monday, and declared crazy as a bedbug.”

In 1894, a man was arrested after pounding on the doors of a Missoula bank one evening. The Missoulian, before any judicial review, concluded, “There is little doubt that the man is crazy; his actions showed it.”

Although the offensive terminology had mostly disappeared by the early 20th century, insanity was still covered as news. Missoulian reporter George Stone, in 1914, reported on a court case involving a man who believed, “the electromagnets are after me and I must have help. I don’t know where they are, but they are off toward the railroad tracks somewhere.”

Stone continued, “His discourse in regard to these unrelenting enemies was so irrational, however, that the judge ordered him locked up until the insanity commission can examine him.”

All of this sent me off in search of context.

Some sources trace the roots of insanity, as a legal issue, back to early Christian philosophy that man is a “free moral agent” able to resist temptation. By contrast, the insane were afflicted by God; therefore, not “free moral agents.” This moral-definition then found its way into Anglo-Saxon law, and subsequently into more modern law books.

Montana Territory initially (1864-1869) had no provision whatever for the mentally ill. The “lunatics” were foisted upon any nearby hospital. In late 1867 the Helena Herald suggested it was time to stop that practice and create a territorial insane asylum.

Montana’s 6th Territorial Legislative Assembly acted in 1869.

First, the they crafted a law allowing “any person” to swear out an application declaring any other person suffering mental derangement to be arrested and brought before a judge or the county commissioners. (As an aside, the fact that “any person” could accuse any other person of insanity would have some interesting consequences. In the 1890s, someone claimed the Silver Bow deputy county treasurer “had become insane,” so the sheriff arrested him as a “precautionary measure.”)

The 1869-70 Legislative Assembly also created a three-member commission to write rules for the “proper custody, maintenance and treatment of all persons adjudged insane…(and) contract on behalf of the Territory of Montana (for) the lowest and best bidder.” They later clarified that the term “insane person” included “every idiot, non compos, lunatic, or distracted person.”

If family members couldn’t care for a person found to be insane, the law required the local sheriff to transport the person to the “contract” asylum.

They appropriated $15,000 to pay for all this over the next twelve months (1-1-1870 to 1-1-1871). The bill was sent to the Governor. He failed to sign it by the designated time, so it became law without his signature.

With the new law in place, the speed with which insanity cases were handled was astounding. A Swede named Otto Johnson was arrested in Missoula after raving that people were following him and wanting to do him harm. A judge and jury examined him the next afternoon, declared him insane, and ordered him taken away.

According to historical notes attached to State Hospital records, St. John’s Hospital in Helena initially became the official territorial asylum.

There was also private competition.

In 1871, newspapers carried a notice that, “Dr. J. W. Reins, Physician to the Lewis and Clarke County Hospital and Insane Asylum, has, in connection, a private hospital, where patients are received for $17 per week, including medical attention, board and nursing. Patients who have no means, will be treated gratuitously. This is the home of the sick poor of Montana.”6th-territorial-legislative-assembly-1

In Deer Lodge, rates were a bit lower, and group discounts were offered! St. Joseph’s Hospital advertised, “Dr. Mitchell has a graduated contract, ranging from $13.50 for one patient to $9.00 each for seven or more insane patients.”

Some years later, the Weekly Missoulian urged lawmakers to abandon the in-territory care of the insane, and contract with an asylum “in the States” to do the job. The paper argued that it would be more fiscally responsible, noting that “the expense of removal in the summer would not be great, by river.” It never happened.

In 1877, a pair of doctors, Charles Mussingbrod and Armistead Mitchell won the bid, and converted what had been a hotel and spa at Warm Springs into the new territorial facility.

In the early 20th-century the massively-enlarged Warm Springs facility was taken over by the State of Montana, and the rest – as they say – is history.

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.