The Arizona Territory was the promised land for the young, the ambitious, the lawless, the temperate, the opportunist, and the daredevil. They arrived by trusty steed, shanks’ mare, or horse and buggy to carve a future in the hostile desert. A man’s vista was boundless.
Women, however, were pawns in a game of jeopardy. Their employment opportunities were limited to serving men in want of cooked meals, clean rooms, laundered garments, and recreation that women-starved males crave. An occasional spinster teacher or nurse ventured into the Territory, but the bulk of the female population fell into two camps: respectable matrons and all others.
Regardless of social status, these pioneer women were second-rate citizens, unable to vote and protect themselves against evil lurking in the hearts of men. The wise woman conducted herself with decorum. If married, she tended her household dutifully, obliged her family’s needs, and behaved modestly. Until 1886, the depressed, the nag, the afflicted, and the religious zealot were tolerated, burdens to the men they served.
But the opening of the Territorial Asylum for the Insane in Phoenix offered a diabolical alternative. Freedom from financial or emotional responsibility for a bothersome female was but a petition away. Woe be, thereafter, to women who roiled the waters either by design or disposition.
I learned of the horrendous treatment of women in Territorial Arizona by examining Applications for Commitment housed today in the Arizona State Archives and Public Records Office of the State Capitol. They document the incarceration of women whose depression and various stages of unbalance would be managed today with out-patient therapy and prescriptions.
Petitions for commitment were easily filed by any relative, friend, Territory official, or casual acquaintance. Within a single day, the subject could be apprehended, examined by court-appointed physicians, and delivered into the belly of the Asylum by a presiding judge. Records reveal that women whose behavior was influenced by pregnancy, the menstrual cycle, or menopause were victimized by family and physicians with a medieval understanding of normal female body functions.
Maria de la Bosch, 22, was judged to be insane by her husband, Arthur. The doctors agreed. They committed her on September 8, 1909 for depression from pregnancy and “lack of interest in things about the house.” In an earlier similar case, Joseph Dobson sent away his wife, Mabel, 38, on September 6, 1904, supported by the doctors’ evaluation that her depression and rambling speech were caused by childbirth. According to a marginal notation, she muttered throughout her examination that she “was going to Hell.”
And she did. Some women sent to the Asylum were short term inmates, while others survived months, even years, in dank cells, their ultimate tombs. No matter the term of confinement, all endured rough handling by unsympathetic attendants and an incessant cacophony of moans and piercing screams from fellow inmates.
Many women committed for mid-life depression owed their misfortune to exterior causes, not physical change. Two months after moving to Phoenix from New Mexico, Julie Barfoot, 41, was committed on June 28, 1911. The signs of homesickness she exhibited were interpreted by her husband, Malcolm, as “losing her mind.”
Anna Anderson Brown, 39, born in Sweden, had lived in Arizona four years when her husband, Jackson C. Brown, lost patience with her melancholy behavior. The doctors confirmed that she “cried and talked of wanting to go away to see her sister,” but they committed her on November 25, 1910 without addressing the homesickness and concern for distant family members that precipitated her depression.
Homesickness for Colorado caused the downfall of Betty Ann Hickman, 37, whose husband reported the onset of “mental attacks” and “irrational behavior” three months before he requested her commitment on June 29, 1903. Although the doctors observed nothing unusual during their examination, Betty’s husband left the courtroom free from a complaining and tearful wife.
Garrulous women fared no better than their melancholy sisters. Minnie Zion, 31, went to her doom on December 21, 1908, just in time for her husband, P. L. Zion, to celebrate Christmas and the New Year in footloose fashion, free from her “constant talking.” Likewise, Minnie J. Blount, 47, chattered her way into the Asylum. “Minnie talks incessantly…is very nervous, and does not sleep well,” complained her husband, F. A. Blount. The cause, he opined, was “mental worry.” Rather than address its source, the doctors ordered her committed on December 13, 1909. Exactly one month later, on January 13, 1910, J. A. Kitcherside, Medical Superintendent of the Territorial Asylum, signed Minnie’s death certificate. He listed the cause as “cardiac insufficiency.” Did she smother to death while being held down by brutal attendants? Tales of such mistreatment flourish.
Annie Ellis, 35, worked as a laundress to help pay for the family home and lot. Despite her financial contribution to the household, her husband complained that “she does not take care of the house or child and rambles about at all hours of the night.” Even though the doctors noted that she “seemed to be rational,” she was committed on March 22, 1909. A note in her file dated May 5, 1909, states: “…patient expired at Arizona State Hospital while awaiting conditional discharge.”
Exasperated because his wife Clara, 32, became morose during her menstrual periods, E. A. Strong petitioned the court to commit her, testifying that she was not dangerous, but sometimes went without eating or sleeping, “talked in a rambling and incoherent manner,” and whipped her oldest girl “…at times very severely and without reason.” Clara entered the Asylum on December 23, 1902, assuring her husband a worry-free holiday. On April 4, 1903, Dr. W. H. Ward, Medical Superintendent of the Territory Asylum for the Insane, signed a death notice stating that Clara died at the Asylum on April 2, 1903 of “exhaustion from acute mania.”
Lizzie Bowen, 40, whose husband Robert complained of her melancholy and “fits of violence,” told the examining doctors that she believed she was being poisoned. The doctors observed her to be quiet and in fair health without signs of the violence her husband reported, but instead of investigating her assertion that he was trying to kill her, they ordered her committed on March 15, 1906.
Ida Tompkins, 45, was nervous and sleepless, symptoms of menopause. George, her husband, cited “lactation and debility” as further proof of insanity. The judge, noting that George “has means” to pay for her maintenance, committed her on May 11, 1905. George Tompkins and other men of means had little difficulty persuading the doctors and judges to put away irksome women. For instance, H. Wupperman petitioned that his daughter, Gracie, 17, had “nervous prostration,” a nebulous ailment frequently attributed in the court documents to unmanageable women. “She talks incessantly,” the doctors wrote, “and thinks her father is losing his mind and needs looking after.” Could Gracie have been the sane family member? No matter, her father willingly paid her Asylum expenses. She was committed on July 18, 1904.
Maida V. Nelson, 19, traveled to Arizona early in 1908 to live with her married sister. Five weeks later, Elijah Allan, her brother-in-law, had endured enough of Maida’s presence to petition the court for her commitment. He declared, “She is very absent-minded, cannot carry on a long conversation, refuses at times to eat, and would wander off and become lost if not watched.” He attributed these traits to cessation of her menses, a trauma he blamed on her father whom he regarded as “a peculiar man, studying and
thinking abnormally on religious subjects.” The examining doctors found Maida to be quiet and orderly, but cited gradual deterioration of her memory as reason to commit her.
The medical examiners who correlated behaviors typical of pregnant and menstruating women with insanity also erred in sorting out those with true physical ailments. Sadie Vaughn, 33, was arrested by Special Deputy Ike Ford after an attack of “nervous prostration.” In his petition, Ford wrote, “(Sadie) has no mind of her own, talks in an irrational manner, and is subject to fits of complete collapse.” Sadie was committed February 4, 1905 by court doctors who observed her to be “…very filthy, noisy…and an epileptic.”
Like Sadie, Ola May Farley, 18, was an epileptic. Her father, John Farley, stated that she threatened to kill herself and others, possessed an uncontrollable temper, and had epileptic fits. The examiners found her to be in good physical condition, clean, and quiet, but committed her on December 3, 1906, citing her “inability to remember things.”
Dolores Latusmado, 29, a Mexican domestic, appeared before the court on petition from Deputy Sheriff Oscar Roberts who arrested her because she “is an epileptic, is not all right, will not care for her children, and does not sleep.” The doctors noted that she “does not answer questions intelligently.” Could language have been a barrier? They committed her on February 1, 1904 because of “monthly epileptic attacks,” her tendency to become “hysterical at mention of husband or children,” and constant crying.
Cordelia Ivy, 23, was committed in early 1903 following her father’s complaint that she had wandered away from home and talked in an irrational way for fifteen years. The court doctor observed, “Cordelia seems to be deaf…does not seem to understand all that is said to her,” and “has fits of temper.” Like other women suffering from epilepsy or deafness, Cordelia likely spent the rest of her days in confinement.
While most unwanted women were sent to the Territorial Asylum by husbands and fathers, some had meddling friends to blame for their incarceration. Maggie Black, 36, made the mistake of confiding to William Dohency that she suspected her husband of indiscretions while he was away from home working at Mammoth Mine in Pima County. In his petition, Dohency declared that Maggie “talks incoherently at times” and “is unable to take care of herself and her children while her husband works out of town.” The doctors noted that Maggie “had muscular twitching, want of coordination,” and talked of expecting “her ranch to be burned and her children killed because her husband is untrue.” Concluding, “in our opinion this is temporary,” they committed her on April 26, 1906, giving her husband all the more reason to carouse.
Charles E. Hazelton petitioned for the commitment of his friend, Louise Miller, 33, on the basis of her “incoherent talk, nerves, poor sleep habits, and fear of her divorced husband.” In the presence of the court doctors, Louise “was nervous and prayed, walked about combing her hair, drinking large quantities of water, and speaking of things she saw.” On December 16, 1909, her ex-husband ceased to be her primary fear.
Numerous women became familiar with the Asylum on a revolving door basis. Carrie List, 50, was the subject of two separate commitments, the first on February 3, 1904 when her son, John List, told the court she took poison and threatened to kill her husband. He attributed her behavior to “irritation in home life.” The doctors remarked about her “tremendous good appearance,” yet sent her to the Asylum. Her release the following year was short-lived. On November 18, 1905, a friend, J. Holley, petitioned for her re-commitment. “She is excitable and talks insane,” he reported, expressing astonishment that “she has left home and refuses to return,” and threatens to “throw her mother-in-law out of the house using force, if necessary.” The doctors, concurring that Carrie “is erratic and very talkative,” punished her for acting up before the over-bearing husband, ungrateful children, and spiteful in-law.
These representative victims of ignorance were mere blips in the early history of the Arizona Territory, the promised land, whose lawgivers tacitly condoned disposal of troublesome women to the insane asylum. Today the State of Arizona ranks second nationally in domestic violence-related murders of women by men.