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Old ‘lunatic asylum’ is an informative museum in St. Joseph

An exhibit at the Glore Psychiatric Museum with three examples of restraints used at the former State Hospital No. 2 in St. Joseph.
An exhibit at the Glore Psychiatric Museum with three examples of restraints used at the former State Hospital No. 2 in St. Joseph. The Kansas City Star

I get the feeling that exhibits on lobotomies and electroshock therapy and such are the big draw at St. Joseph’s Glore Psychiatric Museum, a place that sheds light on how the mentally ill were treated not all that long ago.

More affecting for me, though, were a towering display of empty cigarette packs and a TV set that had been stuffed with pieces of paper — because they made me imagine real people, patients of the old State Hospital No. 2 in St. Joe.

The psychiatric museum, founded in 1968, is housed in the former admitting building of the hospital known originally as State Lunatic Asylum No. 2. Yeah. (Now there’s a prison right next door, and if you doubt that, just take in the tall fence and razor wire.) The museum is spread out over parts of four floors of a structure that looks like a college classroom building.

The second floor is where you’ll find a surgical table upon which brains were scrambled in the 1930s and ’40s. Nearby are displays on colonic irrigation (thankfully, not much to see there) and hydrotherapy (imagine being naked and wrapped in cold, wet sheets under a woolen blanket for one to three hours — to calm you down).

A display on dentistry sounds odd until you learn that some doctors in the early 1900s thought dental infections could lead to mental illness. Visiting family members were shocked to discover their loved ones had fewer and fewer teeth.

It’s in a second-floor hallway where you’ll run across the mountain of crumpled Winston and Kool and Marlboro packs, collected over two years by a patient who got it in his head that he could redeem 100,000 used packs for a new wheelchair for the hospital. He actually collected 108,000, and his unit did end up with a wheelchair, thanks to hospital administrators.

That same guy also collected ties (438 of them), coins and pop can tabs. The sign near the ties mentions obsessive-compulsive disorder and a reality show about hoarders. As someone who also owns quite a few ties (rarely worn), well, it makes you think a little.

Steps away is the old tabletop TV. In 1971, a patient was seen slipping a folded piece of paper into the back of the set. When the TV was taken apart, it was found to be jammed with more than 500 letters and diary entries (some of which are displayed). According to the exhibit, it’s unclear whether the patient was just storing his writings, thought he was mailing them or perhaps hoped the information could be transmitted through the TV.

There’s also a room devoted to treatments for mental illness throughout history, such as burning witches alive 300-400 years ago and, about the same time, “blistering” people with hot irons as a cure for hysteria.

Admission to the psychiatric museum also gets you into a handful of other, smaller museums, including the Black Archives and displays of dolls, American Indian artifacts and Civil War medicine.

Glore Psychiatric Museum

3406 Frederick Ave., St. Joseph

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday.

Cost: $6 adults, $4 students ages 7 to 18, 6 and younger free.

Info: 800-530-8866; stjosephmuseum.org/museums/glore

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