In and Out of the Colony

In and Out of the Colony

The police have been asked to be on the lookout for George A. Lewis, 27 years old, who escaped from the Gardner Insane Colony, Sunday. He is of slight build and has dark hair. He was dressed in a gray suit.

Fitchburg Sentinel (Fitchburg, Massachusetts), October 19, 1908

His name was recorded by the Worcester police as “Arthur or George Lewis” when he was arrested on October 4, 1913 for carrying a gun, B & E and larceny. His police identification card carries the following information:

Age: 28 years

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 170 pounds

Descent: African

Skin color: Coffee

Occupation: Hotel Waiter

His right hand had been broken at some point and he had scars on both sides of his head. (The scar on the right side is visible above his temple in his profile photo).

He was held for a grand jury hearing, but no newspaper articles about a charge or conviction were found. In his mug shot photos his eyes don’t quite focus and he looks like he’s unconcerned about his predicament.

George Allen Lewis was born on June 15, 1883 in Littleton, Massachusetts, the youngest of three children born to George and Abby (Smith) Lewis. Abby died of gastroenteritis in 1897. By 1900 George and his father moved to Boston, where his father worked as a day laborer and George attended school.

An article appeared in the Boston Post on November 25, 1901, about the attempted murder of a young, recently married, black man named George Lewis. George’s wife, Mary, hit her husband on the head with a hatchet after a quarrel stemming from visits she received from another man. “My only wish is,” she is reported to have said to Lieutenant Garland, “that the axe was not sharper. I wanted to kill him.” Mary Lewis had a violent past and had been involved in an earlier assault case in which someone threw a lighted lamp at her.

George survived the attack and told police that he loved his wife and simply had asked her to give up her male friend. Police were convinced “he had come pretty near being a model husband.”

Possibly the head injury George suffered, described as deep gash three inches long that bled profusely, caused a traumatic brain injury that eventually made him mentally unstable. By 1908, George was a patient in an asylum called the Gardner State Colony in Worcester County, Massachusetts.

A history of Gardner describes it as a “colony for mentally disturbed patients who were able bodied and sufficiently cooperative to engage in construction work for the institution.” The Colony had both an agricultural and a livestock farm and was self-supporting. Escapes were common, and after George escaped, in October 1908, the police were asked to be on the lookout for him. He was back as a patient in the Colony by 1910, when the federal census listed his occupation there as “housework.”

Gardner Insane Colony

Map of the Gardner State Colony from the 1907 annual report of the institution

His arrest in 1913 may have occurred after another escape, but it’s also possible he had an improvement in his mental health. The goal of the physicians who ran the Colony, according to annual reports published between 1903-1911, was to rehabilitate patients and release them back into the community. The Worcester city directory for 1915 lists a “George Lewis” who worked as a waiter and boarded at 23 Washington Street. The city of Worcester was less than 30 miles south of the Colony.

George was back at the Colony by 1918. In September of that year, a Gardner official filed a World War I draft registration card for him. His father, a resident of Roxbury, Massachusetts, was listed as his next of kin. George was no longer able to write his name, so someone at the institution signed for him with an “X.” The box where his occupation should have been written was instead stamped “INSANE.”

George was still a patient of the Colony when he was counted on the federal census in January 1920. Ominously he was one of the few inmates who had no occupation — apparently his mental condition had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer carry out even simple tasks. George was not listed on the 1930 federal census at the Colony or anywhere else.

In 1935 the Colony’s name was changed to the Gardner State Hospital. The hospital closed in 1976 and in 1981, a prison opened on the site. There’s a cemetery from the Colony years and a list of 132 people who are buried there appears on FindAGrave, but George’s name isn’t on the list. However the description of the cemetery notes that there could be as many as 600 more unidentified souls buried there and it’s likely that George is one of them.

Featured photo: Worcester Police Department Criminal identification card photos taken on October 4, 1913. Collection of the author.

Fainting Bertha

Fainting Bertha

She was an expert pickpocket who would steal a man’s diamond stickpin, using her well-known fainting trick, without batting an eye. But she was also mentally ill, suffering periodic bouts of insanity so intense that it was impossible for doctors or hospital attendants to control her. In the grip of one of these attacks, which sometimes occurred at night, she had been known to break every window she could reach while screaming profanities at the top of her lungs. Her mood swings were intense — she was calm one moment and crying hysterically the next. By July 1911, officials in Nebraska were faced with the vexing question of what to do with “Fainting Bertha” Liebbeke.

Bertha was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in March 1880 to William and Mary Liebbeke. William was a cobbler and an immigrant to the United States from Germany. Mary was born in Switzerland. Bertha’s parents met and married in Pottawattamie, Iowa in 1870. The Liebbekes had nine children and seven of them, including Bertha, lived to adulthood. William died in 1896.

Soon after her father’s death Bertha was diagnosed with Saint Vitus Dance (now called Sydenham’s chorea), an infectious disease that results in uncontrollable twitching and jerking movements of the victim’s face, hands and feet. Her diagnosis was likely what caused her to be sent to the Iowa Institution for Feeble-Minded Children in Glenwood. Possibly due to age restrictions she was transferred to the Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda, where she remained for less than a year.

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane, Clarinda, Iowa.

Between hospitalizations Bertha claimed she was seduced by a man named Gunther who schooled her in the art of “larceny from the person.” Despite her psychiatric problems, she was an excellent student. Not only was she good at getting the goods, she developed a unique approach to her profession, taking full advantage of her blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks and stylish appearance. Bertha would get into a crowd of people and swoon. The gallant gentleman who came to her rescue by catching her got a reward he wasn’t expecting — his pockets were picked. It was done so adeptly that most didn’t realize their loss until Bertha was long gone.

Bertha became notorious. She took trains to all the big midwestern cities, robbing train conductors and passengers along the way. She not only robbed individuals, she used her nimble fingers to steal from large department stores, such as Marshall Field & Co., in Chicago. Her photo was said to be in every rogues’ gallery in the Midwest by the early 1900s. It was reported that three times she had plans to marry, but the engagements were broken when she couldn’t stop thieving. Despite all that, she looked pleased as punch to be photographed by the Nebraska State Penitentiary, as inmate #5693, for her undated mugshot.

bertha-liebbeke-notorious-pickpocket-in-il-ks-ia-mo-and-ne-fainting-bertha-stumbled-into-men-fainted-and-robbed-them2

Bertha Liebbeke, undated mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Histrical Society.

Unfortunately for hospital and prison officials, Bertha was not only good at stealing cash, watches, furs and jewelry, she had a talent for lifting keys and picking locks. By 1907, she’d been housed in seven separate Midwest penitentiaries and asylums and she’d escaped a dozen times from those institutions. She’d attempted suicide at least once. Back and forth between hospital and penitentiary she went. No one wanted her, but the question of what to do with her remained.

She was sent to the Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Hastings, Nebraska. At Hastings, three physicians from the Nebraska State Insanity Board examined her as part of a report to the governor, Chester Aldrich, in 1911. The following description of Bertha was part of their report.

The evidence (is) that she has delusions or hallucinations as shown by her talking to imaginary persons and having the sensation of insects creeping under the skin. Immediately after physicians left her she became violent, which is a daily occurrence, running up and down the hall, bewailing her condition and position, running from one room to another to evade the physicians and berating them because of her belief that they would not look after her welfare.

The doctors weren’t sure of whether or not Bertha was insane, but they were unanimous in their opinion that she needed to be in a hospital, not a prison. The governor disagreed and sent her back to the Nebraska State Penitentiary to finish her latest sentence, specifying that “special quarters” be provided for her.

After her release from the penitentiary, in 1913, Reverend Charles W. Savidge of the People’s Church in Omaha offered her a home in the church. A safe room was prepared for her and someone from the congregation was available to be with her at all times. The congregation prayed for her and she renounced her bad ways. With the help of religion, Bertha’s “modern devils” might be cast out! The experiment didn’t work and the congregation gave up on her. By 1914 she was in custody in Milwaukee on a charge of vagrancy.

She was sent to the Lincoln State Hospital For Insane in Yankee Hill, Nebraska. She fell out of the news until 1919, when she attacked a nurse, throwing formaldehyde at the woman’s face and partially blinding her. We can only guess at what treatments Bertha endured in an effort to control her violent outbursts. She lived in the asylum for over 20 years and died there on May 5, 1939.

Her obituary in the Lincoln Evening Journal noted, “When arrested she would readily admit what she had done, and would gloat over men being easy marks. At the hospital it was reported that she had been a very difficult patient, and had caused the authorities much trouble.”

Featured photo: Bertha Liebbeke, carte de visite mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.