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Letters from Rochester's state hospital offer a glimpse of life for the mentally ill in the late 1800s

Post-Bulletin - 11/14/2023

Nov. 14—ROCHESTER — Lydia Angier was unsure whether the letters she wrote in the 1890s to the superintendent of the Rochester State Hospital and to her relative named Frank were getting to their intended recipients.

Unfortunately for Angier, many weren't.

However, that's fortunate for artist and researcher Alison Bergblom Johnson and people curious about a large but mostly unknown part of Rochester's past.

Angier claimed she had been a Civil War spy, a business owner who made $150 per month from her business (about $5,500 in 2023 money). Records show she sued the sheriff of Ramsey County while she lived in St. Paul. She also filed a suit against the city of St. Paul and won a $600 judgment.

Some of these details, allegations of patient mistreatment and more were laid out in letters Angier wrote while living at the State Hospital where Quarry Hill now sits. Many of the letters were saved and written to Dr. A. F. Kilbourne, the hospital superintendent at the time.

Johnson came across the trove of Angier's letters in 2005 while she was researching her great, great aunt who died at the St. Peter's Hospital, in St. Peter, Minnesota, in 1941 after a 20-year commitment there.

"It was very hard to find information specific to her," said Johnson, who will share her research on Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Rochester Art Center.

She did what she could with the little patient information she did find. Each piece of information had some sort of detail. It was enough to create a piece she performed at the 2010 Minnesota Fringe Festival and other events since.

In her research, she came across a large folder of Angier's correspondence.

It contained dozens of handwritten letters.

"I was fascinated by her voice," Johnson said. "I was also overwhelmed by her at that time."

The amount of information, the strength and tone of Angier's voice and the volume of the work ahead to verify the information in the letters was too much for Johnson to handle at the time, she said.

Johnson said she was drawn by Angier's strong voice and surprised by how modern she sounded in her letters.

"She seems, in the letters, really angry," Johnson said. "At times in the letters she's making accusations."

Those letters prompted Johnson into researching the woman who wrote them.

Johnson also combed state records and archives to find information to verify or refute some of Angier's accounts. In archives from the Fergus Falls State hospital, Johnson came across a photograph of Angier. Like most other inmate and patient photos, it's a three-quarters portrait with the subject looking away from the camera. The two-inch photo and the woman's submissive pose clashed with Johnson's preconceived notions of Angier.

Which is part of the point of her project, she said.

"There's a lot of opportunity for empathy and more fuller humanity in many of the people involved in this," she said. "It's also a look at how people end up in their own perspective."

One of Angier's letters described a fellow patient, who didn't speak English but would cradle and comfort Angier at the time. Angier later describes that patient being hit by staff at the hospital and later dying.

Johnson found an account of a Waseca woman who spoke no English, likely a native of Austria, whose patient file includes a description of her death that matches the timeline of Angier's account. The description describes the woman, of failing health, as having to be fed through a tube because she wouldn't eat.

"The case notes aren't in any way incongruent with Angier's account," Johnson said.

It wasn't a smoking gun, but different interpretations of events rarely create a historical account of one indisputable interpretation.

Johnson, who has had to spend time in hospitals for her own health, said it helped to have an insider's perspective in putting together the project. She understands the bond patients can build with each other, she said.

Johnson also steered clear of falling back on simple narratives about people who resided in the state's hospitals for the mentally ill at the turn of the century.

"When they say this person was put away for convenience, you can't say that's always the case," she said. "We're also all having to deal with the reality that sometimes people do need help."

Kilbourne was known to have had a relatively progressive attitude toward patient treatment at the time. He emphasized giving patients access to the outdoors and keeping them engaged with tasks or activities.

"He was trying to provide good care and try to keep (staff) from jumping to other hospitals," Johnson said. "I think it's important to understand what they didn't see or did see and why."

When: 1 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.

Where: Rochester Art Center, 30 Civic Center Drive SE.

How much: Free.

A correction to this article was made on Nov. 14, 2023: An earlier version the article had the incorrect facility where Johnson's great, great aunt resided. She was at the St. Peter State Hospital in St. Peter, Minnesota. The archival folder Johnson came across had only Angier's written letters not patient case information, that information was filed separately.

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