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Topeka State Hospital

Topeka State Hospital

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Built: 1872 | Abandoned: 1997
Status: AbandonedDemolished
Photojournalist: Emily CowanRalena Gordon

It was determined that Topeka needed a mental institution around the 1870s, the state legislature would put up $25,000 under the condition that they wouldn’t have to buy the plot of land for it. Thanks to the donation of $12,000 from both Topeka and Shawnee County 80 acres of land was set aside for the massive project. John G. Haskell, a popular architect, got to work on the blueprints and construction and by the late 1870s, Topeka Insane Asylum was in business. The name was changed shortly after in 1901 to Topeka State Hospital. The first superintendent was Dr. Barnard Eastman who was the former superintendent at Worcester, MA asylum. Up until 1919, it was required that all patients be admitted only through a court order which Dr. Eastman argued that the mentally ill were sick, not criminal and these trials were not fair treatment. He projected an image of a facility that took an engaging hands-on approach instead of a medicinal route to healing. But it soon came to light that that was not the case. The state run facility was officially opened on June 1, 1879 with its first two patients and quickly welcomed more. 

Under the new supervision of Thomas C. Biddle the facility was ‘Topeka Insane Asylum’ no more and instead renamed to Topeka State Hospital in 1901. Biddle served as the Superintendent up until his death in 1918 after a fit of pneumonia. Under his reign the hospital underwent some of the first claims of abuse of power in a lawsuit brought by W.F. McLaughlin, a former painter of the hospital in 1911. Dr. Middleton L. Perry succeeded Biddle as Superintendent of the hospital and he was more than qualified having served as Superintendent of the Parsons State Hospital For Epileptics for fifteen years. In 1927 the first legal concerns arose over a law passed ten years prior allowing for sterilization of certain patients within state institutions. A suit was filed by attorney general William A. Smith on behalf of a patient against surgeon C.K. Schaffer to test the constitutionality of the law. The law held up in court and state penal institutions were allowed to continue on with its practices. From 1917-1936 there had been 516 of these operations performed at TSH.

What was going on out of the public eye would soon come to light though. Dr. Perry resigned in 1948 just before concerns arose over deplorable conditions at the hospital, and a lack of personnel as a result of receiving less funding from the state. The correct paperwork needed for some patients to be admitted legally were lost with some even lacking identification. Because of the shortage in psychiatrists, nurses, and psychologists, handfuls of patients coming in through the legal process were not being properly evaluated for mental illnesses. Starvation was rampant with a lot of persons being malnourished. Harsh hydrotherapy practices were routine including high pressured jets hitting the body, wrapping of the body in ice-cold towels, and being strapped and submerged in a bath for hours or even sometimes days only being allowed to go to the bathroom. Conditions and treatment of patients were so horrendous that a surge of resignations swept through the employees including Dr. William F. Blair, Dr. Albert C. Voth and Dr. Karl A. Catlin with others threatening to follow.

Governor Frank Carlson appointed a five-member panel to investigate and a million more dollars were appropriated to help with the conditions. Walls were freshly repainted with pastel colors to replace the dreary brown walls. The practice of patients being placed in hard wooden rocking chairs that lined the hallways all day was discontinued and instead sewing, reading, and other recreational activities were encouraged. In the meantime, while the acceptable staff was being hired and trained the nearby Menninger Foundation agreed to help evaluate incoming patients and offered their time in setting up a psychology department and a fully accredited training program at Topeka State Hospital. This would allow for modern training in assisting the mentally ill in their treatment to create an active treatment center, rather than just a lock-up. During this time social workers were hired to handle the release of patients that were ready to join society again. Many of them had been in the hospital for decades and had to be acquainted with the new appliances of the world. Outpatient care was also first introduced during this period of diligently working to rebrand itself as a reputable rehabilitation, research, and treatment center. Before this revolution of improvement, only one in three patients were released on average, whereas now 82% went home within a year. In addition to ending some of the old practices like forced sterilizations, the use of new medications were proving to be very effective in a handful of patients’ care plans. 

Closing/Demolition

Topeka State Hospital
Demolition of the Center building

The downfall of the hospital happened over a period of ten or so years. In November 1988, the hospital failed to regain its federal re-certification after eight months of trying. “I am disappointed. I felt that we had taken positive steps to comply with the standards by filling a vacant physician position, having more nurses on board than ever and improving documentation of medical records. Our goal remains to regain federal certification and to ensure that appropriate and adequate treatment is in place, and we will take immediate action to move ahead with the plan of correction.” -State Official Al Nemec. The Medicare and Medicaid funds that were lacking now, made up around 70 percent of the hospital’s budget. This was a hefty blow to the hospital of about $420,000 a month. In the fall of 1995, Topeka and Winfield hospitals were faced with closing and 44 speakers showed up to testify to the Hospital Closure Committee on behalf of TSH. “It would be impossible for my daughter to come home for the holidays if Topeka State is closed,” said Glenda Kirby whose daughter had been a patient at the hospital for 16 years. Though their voices did not go unheard the fateful decision was made in 1996 that TSH would close. “Rest assured, our interest is also in those who are most vulnerable. That is foremost in our minds as we go about the serious business of closing TSH”-John Garlinger. On May 17, 1997 due to lack of funds and privately owned mental programs becoming increasingly popular the facility finally closed after 125 years in service.

The buildings sat for nearly 13 years, rotting away. Vandalism was frequent, despite the cities best efforts to put steel wire mesh over boarded-up windows with tar over the screws. People continued to get in and wreak havoc. It was determined the buildings were not safe due to asbestos, lead paint, and the decay of the floors and ceilings in the buildings. On June 1st, 2010 the wrecking ball was brought to the main admissions building and then some others around it soon after. Some speculated the city was so ashamed of what had occurred there which is why they went as far as to even demo the concrete slab the buildings once sat on so there is no trace the hospital was ever there. Five buildings still remain abandoned on the property.

Stephanie Uhlrig

Topeka State Hospital
Stephanie Uhlrig’s Obituary

Stephanie Uhlrig worked for the hospital as an activity therapist. Often times she would take patients on field trips as a part of their treatment plan. On February 23, 1992, Stephanie and another therapist named Robin Figgs took some patients to see a movie. Amongst those patients was 25 year old Kenneth Waddell. Waddell who had been transferred from Larned State Hospital in April of 1987 trusted Uhlrig with his coin collection. When the group went back Kenneth then asked Stephanie for his coins and the two went to retrieve them. At around 6 pm that night Mrs. Uhlrig’s husband phoned Mr. Figgs looking for his wife, whose car and coat were still on the grounds. Stephanie was found later that night in a bathroom stall propped up as though she had been using the restroom, unresponsive. It was ruled that her death was caused by manual strangulation and that she had been sexually assaulted. On February 27, 1992, just 5 days after the murder Waddell confessed to police that he had killed her. Kenneth D. Waddell was convicted and sentenced on December 16th of that year to life imprisonment for 1st-degree murder and 3-10 years for sexual battery.

Cemetery

Topeka State Hospital
Funeral service at Topeka State Hospital

Back then official death records were not kept in state records. This, unfortunately, means that all 1,157 patients were left buried on a plot of land most with no headstones and no way to identify them now. The publicly funded asylum’s cemetery consists of only 16 original headstones until on May 24, 2006, two large memorial headstones listing the names of patients that had passed away were erected, as well as a cemetery marker and a memorial bench.

 

 

 




Bibliography
“Map of the grounds of TSH.” Kansas State Historical Society, www.kshs.org/p/topeka-state-hospital-records/11317.
“Main Buildings TSH.” Main Buildings TSH, www.kansasmemory.org/item/211045/page/1.
“Medicine: Out of Bedlam.” Medicine: Out of Bedlam, 2 Oct. 1950, content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,813455,00.html.
“TSH Demolition.” TSH Demolition, www.meierandco.com/.
“Topeka State Hospital Patients.” Topeka State Hospital Patients, www.kshs.org/index.php?url=km/items/view/213160.
Supreme Court of Kansas. “STATE v. WADDELL: 255 Kan. 424 (1994): 5kan4241647.” Leagle, Supreme Court of Kansas.Leagle.com/Images/Logo.png, 1994, www.leagle.com/decision/1994679255kan4241647.

https://www.newspapers.com/image/500129/?terms=topeka%2Bstate%2Bhospital

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About the author
Emily Cowan

Emily is a two-time published author of "Abandoned Oklahoma: Vanishing History of the Sooner State" and "Abandoned Topeka: Psychiatric Capital of the World". With over two hundred published articles on our websites. Exploring since 2018 every aspect of this has become a passion for her. From educating, fighting to preserve, writing, and learning about history there is nothing she would rather do.

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Gloria Thomas
Gloria Thomas
2 months ago

I worked at the Outpatient Clinic that was located next to the State Hospital around 1960-61. My aunt had been a patient at the State Hospital for awhile and seemed to have been well taken care of – I was able to read her medical records while I was employed there until she was discharged. She returned to her family and lived into her 90’s, healthfully and happy.

Michael
Michael
6 months ago

Hello my name is Michael and I was sent to Topeka state hospital in a children’s ward in 1983 and Ive just recently been remember some horrifying things that happened and done to me . I’m looking for any info I could find cause I’m looking for answers
.

Alvin Vopata
Alvin Vopata
8 months ago

I have written an article about my experience there as a patient 9/60 to 9/61. I titled it “The Attic.” It includes my direct knowledge of a boy who was tortured by other boys before he found a way to climb into the attic and drop to the ground.

Francis king
Francis king
1 year ago

I have been trying to go here for yrs since I moved to topeka no one will take me. I just want to see the grounds. I mean id love to explore the buildings as well but no one will go with or take me. It’s like they all change subjects to avoid going…..

Sam
Sam
1 year ago

I think they’re making them into nursing homes now. It’s gonna be creepy.

Ann Casey
Ann Casey
2 years ago

I am confused about this information. The only mental hospital I am aware of was called Menningers named after Carl Menninger and his brother. While the photos you provide closely resemble the hospital I refer to, I have never heard of the severe mistreatment, The mental hospital I am referring to was so well known and highly regarded that many celebrities such as movie star Betty Hutton spent time there to recover. Can you comment on this please?

Priscilla
Priscilla
Reply to  Ann Casey
2 years ago

There are several books about the Menninger Hospital.

Ask about underground tunnels at Topeka State stories are…if you can find some one who knows and will tell

shirley patterson
shirley patterson
2 years ago

MY great grand mother was there for 33 years she died there after from what I have seen in what paper work they could find (Not much for the years she spent there) she was attacked and had a broken hip and tried to fix it then just left her to die

Tammy Stephens
Tammy Stephens
Reply to  shirley patterson
10 months ago

Shirley Patterson, How did you get the paper work, I’ve searched and searched information about one patient, I think that she might be my great grandmother. I seen her name in the memorial wall her name was Eliza White she died April 6 th 1922

Debbie
Debbie
2 years ago

Before it was demolished I trespassed onto the grounds and got pictures; but the pictures I can share don’t tell the story of 1500 people ( many were children) that died , were buried with no markers or graveside service…I went in late afternoon and found the entrance where it looked like homeless people had been coming and going….. living. I decided not to go in.
No flashlight. No one knew I was there. I was afraid.

Michael
Michael
Reply to  Debbie
6 months ago

I was sent there in 1983 and I’m looking for any info I could find. I’ve just recently started to remember horrifying things that happened and was done to me and I’m looking for answers. I was established in a child’s ward.

christian lancaster
christian lancaster
2 years ago

“infected quarantine” sends chills down my back

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