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 GNC Legal Steroids For Sale 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.”