Governor’s Suicide Calls Attention to Mental Illness

From the Archives - by Henry V. "Hank" Guhleman, M.D.

The morning was February 9, 1844. Missouri Governor Thomas Reynolds had just 10 months left to complete his term in office. On this morning he asked a blessing at the breakfast table, which was not his usual habit. After breakfast he went to his office in the Governor’s mansion, locked the door, and closed the shutters.

Sometime later a passer-by heard a shot, apparently coming from the Executive Mansion. On investigation the governor was found at this desk with the top of his head blown off. Reynolds had placed a rifle against his head and by means of a string attached to the trigger, had shot himself.

On his writing table was a sealed message addressed to G. Minor which read “I have labored and discharged my duties faithfully to the public, but this has not protected me from the slanders and abuse which has rendered my life a burden to me…I pray to God to forgive them and teach them more charity.”

His violent death shook the citizens of Missouri. The newspaper accounts of the time universally described his death as an “act of insanity.” However, far from being an object of unassailable attacks from his public opponents, he was one of the most popular men in the state. It was during his administration that he alone drew up one of the shortest laws ever passed: “Imprisonment for debt is hereby forever abolished.” Reynolds was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Jefferson City and a stone shaft (that can be seen today) was erected in his memory by the state of Missouri. On the stone shaft these words can still be seen: “In every situation he was placed he discharged his duties faithfully.” Reynolds County is named in his honor.

On Reynolds’ death Meridith Miles Marmaduke succeeded him as the eighth governor of the state of Missouri.

The first official recorded attention to the plight of the “insane” was in the biennial message Governor Marmaduke delivered to the state legislature in November 1844. In his message was a plea for a suitable building for the care and treatment of the mentally ill. He said, “We must treat these miserable beings…as fit subjects for our compassion and not objects of punishment.” He cited the generally accepted reports from other states that claimed at that time a 95 percent cure within a year of patients admitted to their hospitals. In concluding his rather lengthy and descriptive recommendation, he forcefully pointed out that the plea of insanity had become a very common one in cases of homicide. He added that when the plea was successful, the offender was “turned loose on the community, perhaps to repeat the offense for which he was arraigned.” In 1845 a bill was introduced to establish a “lunatic asylum” in Jefferson City. It stood the test on the floor of the state legislature but was killed only by being referred to committee.

There is speculation in regard to the relationship of Governor Marmaduke’s proposed recommendation that provisions be made for the care of the mentally ill and the “act of insanity” resulting in the suicide of Governor Reynolds. Did Reynolds’ death influence Governor Marmaduke to make his recommendation for the care of the mentally ill or was it just a coincidence? This we will likely never know. However, at the very least it helped to hasten certain social forces that were emerging in this still young state.

Missouri was just emerging from the panic of 1837. Social forces had been building during the past several years to the extent that the citizens of the state had to seriously consider humanitarian and reform measures similar to those that found favor in the older Eastern States. Missouri’s growing population had increased the magnitude and scope of its social problems. Prosperous economic conditions had weakened the argument of economy-minded legislatures. One of these early social measures was the proposal to establish a state “asylum” for the indigent “insane.”

The census of 1810 included the numbers of deaf, dumb, blind, “insane,” and “idiots” at public charge and “insane” and “idiots” at private charge in the state.

Governor Marmaduke cited 54 “insane” and “idiots” at public charge in his message to the legislature. As the pressure grew to provide for their welfare, the numbers grew into the hundreds and, years later, the thousands.

Unless the “insane” kin could or would care for them at home or send them to an institution in another state, they were lucky to be treated as paupers. Too frequently they were objects of charity as they wandered the streets and roads, found a desolate shack or attic or even a cave in which to take refuge. If they became troublesome or someone complained against them, the mentally ill were confined to jail, as the law provided.

Public support for some action to provide for the mentally ill was strong during the 14th General Assembly of 1847. Dorthea Dix, the fervent crusader from Massachusetts who labored over the nation on behalf of this unfortunate class, was in St. Louis. Her influence, if any, seems to have been behind the scenes in this case, as neither the legislative journals nor newspapers mention her direct participation. Senator James S. Rollins, from Boone County, made an eloquent plea on behalf of these unfortunate “insane lunatics.” The first bill to erect a “State Lunatic Asylum” was signed into law February 16, 1847, by Governor John Cummins Edwards. It was a comprehensive bill that essentially provided for the appointment of three commissioners with wide-ranging powers.

The commissioners’ responsibilities and duties included the selection of a building site, the ability to accept money from the chosen county toward the building of the asylum, and finally the selection of the design of the building and supervision of its completion. The choice of a site was by law limited to Callaway, Howard, Boone, Chariton, Saline, Cooper, Moniteau and Cole counties.

Named to the commission were Dr. W. T. McElhaney of St. Charles, H. Harman, and John M. Hughes. The primary and most influential member was Dr. McElhaney, who had moved to Missouri from Maryland. McElhaney was a prominent physician, politician, and community leader in both Maryland and Missouri. His home at 625 S. Main in St. Charles reportedly still stands as property of the St. Charles Historical Society and as an example of fine American Architecture. He was the father of 12 children. Running out of names for his daughters, he picked four states, naming one daughter Missouri, a second Georgia, a third Florida, and the fourth Louisiana.

The commission assigned to locate the “lunatic asylum” submitted a lengthy report to the state legislature January 3, 1849. Attached to the report was a second report previously presented to the commission by Dr. McElhaney, dated September 2, 1847. In his report to the commission, the doctor describes in detail his visit to the asylums in Indiana, Ohio, and Maryland. He returned to Missouri with a copy of the plans of the Indiana asylum based on the Worchester model, for which he paid $50. The plans called for a building to house 100 to 150 patients. There is a great deal of detail in this report regarding the air circulation through the building, as fireplaces were not feasible.

During Dr. McElhaney’s trip east, the other two members visited the designated counties soliciting proposals of land on which to build the hospital and added money to help pay part of the building costs. On July 13, 1847, the two men opened the proposals and after some deliberation selected Callaway County, which offered a 500-acre plot of ground just east of the city of Fulton, a town of 700 inhabitants, plus $11,500 contribution toward the building.

With site plans and the $11,500 pledge the next step was to enter into the building phase. The commission concluded that they could not proceed with the building part of its obligation as there was not enough money at the time to construct the type of building that was needed and as the plans called for.

In 1849 the 15th General Assembly amended the original “act to establish an asylum” to include the further allocation of $15,000, plus additional money received from the sale of public land by way of the federal government. Bids were obtained and on April 16, 1849, the contract for building the “asylum” was let to Solomon Jenkins at the sum of $47,500. After some delay the first patients were received in December 1851. By 1855 the “feeble minded” who were initially admitted had to be excluded due to the lack of room for the indigent insane.

The “State Lunatic Asylum,” whose name was eventually changed to the Fulton State Hospital, the first of its kind west of the Mississippi River, has remained in continuous operation except for a time during the Civil War when patients were returned to their respective counties. Reportedly, it was due to the return of these patients that St. Louis eventually built its own hospital for the mentally ill, known as the St. Louis City Sanitarium.

Information for this article was obtained from searching through various archival sources and in legislative bills, recordings, newspapers at that time, speeches, and rare documents. The writer here attempted to integrate these sources into one description of how the first psychiatric hospital west of the Mississippi River was built.

*Words such as lunatic, idiots, asylum, and feeble-minded reflect terms used at that time.

The author, Dr. Henry V. Guhleman, was the first director of the Division of Comprehensive Psychiatric Services in the Department of Mental Health.