Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Gennie Messages at Manteno State Hospital

Manteno State Hospital was a behemoth psychiatric hospital located in the Manteno Township of Illinois. By 1936, the total acreage was 1,200, and in 1954 the population reached its maximum of 8,195 patients. According to The Manteno Project:
In 1930 the Manteno State Hospital received its first 100 patients and by the end of 1985, the hospital was closed and remaining patients were sent elsewhere. For over 50 years Manteno State Hospital was an institution that cared for the mentally and physically ill, the developmentally disabled and veterans of various wars. With a peak population of over 8,000 patients, Manteno State Hospital was a self contained city with little reliability on other municipal resources.

The Manteno Project maintains a detailed timeline of events, including the 1939 Typhoid Fever Epidemic (which killed up to 60 patients), the 1957 initiation of "Art-O-Rama", the severe bed shortage of 1960, charges of immorality in 1966 [despite those charges the hospital went coed the very next year], and finally the MSH Scandals [and revelations] of 1970's:
  • Experimental surgeries on patients without consent in 1950s
  • Chinese-speaking patient kept in custodial care at MSH because no one could speak his language
  • High percentage of deaths among patients and charges of sexual assaults
  • Nearly 50% of all admissions are "voluntary" alcoholic patients

Elsewhere, myths and ghost stories about its former inhabitants abound. Most noteworthy is the story of Genevieve "Gennie" Pilarski, "who lived and died as a ward of the State of Illinois." Gennie: Setting the Record Straight provides the greatest detail of her tragic life:

“Gennie” was committed to MSH, by her parents in 1944 at the age of 25 when she had a “disagreement about where she would live“.  She had previously completed 3 years of college at the University of Illinois, majoring in chemistry and suffered from episodes of manic-depressive disorder.

By 1950, “Gennie” was placed in a research ward at MSH where she was “experimented on” involuntarily.  This was not uncommon at MSH even though I find nothing stating that it was ever officially proclaimed a “research hospital”.  (At Elgin State Hospital, they conducted “human radiation experiments“.)

According to the *Tribune article, in 1955 she was lobotomized:
On February 18, 1955, the chart noted: “Has had extensive neurosurgery with bilateral extirpation of most of frontal and temporal lobes. . . . Now mute, totally dependent on commands for functioning of everything from toilet urges on up. To be given an experimental course of (electric convulsive therapy) to see if any affective change can be brought about.

For the rest of Ms. Pilarski’s life, she was schlepped about from ward to ward and nursing home to nursing home.  It was at one of these nursing homes, at the age of 80, that she died, a ward of the state.  For the last 20 years of her life she was “incapable of any kind of human interaction” and spent her last days “buried under her bedclothes or roaming the halls of her nursing home, drooling and babbling“.
. . .

* DRIVING HER CRAZY IT’S TOO LATE TO HELP GENNIE PILARSKI. BUT WE CAN MAKE SURE THAT NO ONE NOW UNDER OUR CARE WILL SUFFER HER FATE, by Patrick T. Murphy, Cook County public guardian.. Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Ill.: Nov 15, 1998. pg. 1

A desire to tell the truth about Genevieve Pilarski, and to commemorate her life, led to the gennie messages, an art project by Kristyn Vinikour. The story was told in a dramatic fashion using a friend who posed as Gennie, with words painted on her naked body. Although not explicitly stated, it seems the artist had access to Gennie's medical records or to previously written accounts (perhaps that Chicago Tribune article?) that used the psychiatrist's notes as source material.

Upon her admission, a physician noted that Gennie was neat, clean, tidy. Extremely quiet, but friendly and agreeable, cooperative in ward and routine. Later, he charted "No active signs of pathology."

This contrasted with progress notes from a later point in time, after 40 insulin coma treatments and 14 bouts of electroconvulsive therapy.

"She is not especially neat or clean"

I recommend viewing the gennie messages in their entirety (with larger images available here).

The writings have remained on the walls and bathtubs of the abandoned asylum, and others have photographed the site (with prints for sale on etsy, where you can find most anything).

Abandoned Asylum - Manteno, Illinois - Rural Decay Photography

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At April 14, 2013 9:16 AM, Anonymous Doug, Gainesville Fl said... sad to rob this young woman of her life. We should'nt let people play Doctor when they obviously are not. Scary thought is some were doctors. Thanks for bringing her story to us, as a health care professional I won't forget it.

At September 24, 2014 3:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who routinely disagreed with my parents on all sorts of things, I am quite happy I was born into an era, when, not doing exactly as my parents wished, I could be subjected to such torture, I can almost hear my mother telling me..."We just want you to be happy!" as Im being drug down the hall.

At October 17, 2015 12:35 PM, Blogger Leslie said...

I kno that this was how it was back in those days but what is most disturbing is why. How can a normal person be committed to an isulim? I'm sure so many people went in normal and never was the same again. Whatever become of her parents?

At October 31, 2015 1:02 PM, Blogger mamadog said...

From 1937 to 1939 my husband's grandfather was a patient at Manteno State Hospital, being treated for syphillis by being given injections of Malaria. He was supposed to leave at the 1 year mark but because of the Thyphoid outbreak he was quarantined until the outbreak was over. Because he tested positive as a carrier (he never had an active illness) he was moved to the one building where they had moved all the sick patients. There were 6 men that tested positive but didn't have the disease. They asked to separated from the ill patients and were given a separate room. They were still exposed to the sick patients because Henry swept and mopped the floors, and took out the trash. He also helped feed the sick patients. He had been allowed to leave on week ends to visit with his sister-in-laws family in Chicago until this outbreak happened. I have his journal that he mailed to his wife weekly to let her know how and what he was doing on a daily basis. He worked in the carpenter shop and built one of the operating room tables, trash carts and made toy boxes and plant stands out of fruit crates from the kitchen. They were still building the hospital and he would gather scrap wood and make name plates for the staff. He earned enough money to buy his bus ticket back to Nashville, Tn.

At May 28, 2018 1:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Had to work awfully hard to find this. I find the footage of asylums and our understanding of mental illness and even not mentally ill persons who found their way into asylums to be a page out of a horror novel for humanity. I wonder how many polymaths, geniuses and societal leaders died for the sake of experimentation. I am glad to see that Gennie Pilarski's story was able to come to life.

Suffering from PTSDcomplex myself, I can breathe a sigh of relief that asylums like this aren't the standard for care now. But I can also say that we have a long way as a society in understanding integration and care of especially the mentally ill/ and disabled populations.

At July 06, 2019 1:12 PM, Anonymous John said...

Does Kristyn Vinikour run this blog? I am trying to reach her.

At July 13, 2021 8:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suffered from IED and thank God, I live in this era where they give you choice. Sadly for her, that all she wanted was to live separately after she finish College. And then, after an argument with her parents they sent her to a mental asylum even though she is perfectly normal. Its just too much to bare.

At April 07, 2022 11:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mother was a patient at Manteno State Hospital for several years around 1950 for a nervous breakdown. How do I find records for patients during that time period? I am trying to piece together this information. I was 5 years old then and was in an orphanage as were my brothers and sisters, Lutheran Child Welfare in Addison. If anyone can help I would greatly appreciate it.


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