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Paranoia in the heat

Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century asylums have had a very bad press, but while there were many abuses and poor conditions some historical perspective is required. The bleeding of patients went out of vogue in the mid-nineteenth century and surgical cures were uncommon. The application of chemical treatments in the form of insulin and metrazol convulsive shock treatment only began in the 1930s. The therapeutic use of electroshock therapy was rarely used in public state asylums during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The more notorious electroconvulsive shock treatment, considered good for schizophrenia and depression in particular, which is responsible for much of the bad press, was only widely adopted in America during the mid-twentieth century. Many patients’ experience was one of a regulated working life, cultural activity, and contemplation, as much as that was possible in the increasingly crowded accommodation.29 For others, of course, it was a living hell. More to the point, the intent of asylum employees was not to contain murderers for life but to restore their sanity so that they could be returned to the courts. But was cure possible? It was certainly rare, but here is one ‘success’ story.

On 2 August 1935 a forty-six-year-old resident of Cleveland, Ohio, named Matilda Waldman, gaunt, prim, and bespectacled, walked into the delicatessen run by Ida Cooper, aged fifty-seven.30 After a brief exchange of words she took out a revolver and shot Cooper dead. As she fled the store two passers-by, Michael and Edward August, seized Waldman until police arrived. She told them, ‘A holdup man just killed Mrs Cooper’.

As Waldman pulled the trigger, her husband Samuel was in the office of Cleveland Police Prosecutor William H. Schneider complaining of the hex magic being worked upon him by Cooper. Ida’s husband Isadore was also present. Earlier that day, Samuel had gone to Isadore and begged him to get his wife to remove the spell he was convinced she had cast over them. They argued and Samuel went off to the police station and requested a warrant for Ida’s arrest. No action was taken and so a few hours later Samuel returned to the station to renew his request. Meantime, Cooper had gone there too to complain about Samuel’s behaviour. Schneider managed to soothe the immediate situation and the two men left in a calmer state. But when Cooper arrived back at the delicatessen he found his wife lying dead on the floor and police sergeant Stephen Tozzer in the act of arresting Matilda.

She told him, ‘I killed her because for six years she has been bewitching me and my husband’.

The Waldmans were poor, with Samuel scraping a meagre living peddling razor blades. Newspapers reported they had two children, but the prior history of the Waldmans is difficult to pin down.31 The Coopers were first-generation Jewish immigrants. Isadore was from Poland and his wife emigrated from Kiev in 1892— following in the footsteps of many other Jews from the then Russian city to escape its systematic repression and periodic pogroms. They spoke Yiddish to their clutch of children. In America the Coopers had moved around, settling for a while in Pennsylvania and Maryland, Isadore working as a plumber. They eventually put down firm roots in a poor district of Cleveland where Isadore ran a secondhand store before setting up the delicatessen. Ida supplemented their modest income by telling fortunes using cards and a crystal ball.

In 1912 Samuel Waldman went to have his fortune told by Ida. She gazed into her crystal, and the strong impression this left upon him sowed the seeds of the tragedy that would unfold twenty-three years later. For six years after his consultation, he believed that Ida had bewitched him. He only felt relief when he left Cleveland and settled elsewhere. He met and married Matilda and all was well until he bumped into Ida again. The couple began to be tormented by nocturnal disturbances and plagued by strange illnesses. They could not eat or sleep, and experienced bouts of paralysis and blindness. Worst of all, they were periodically menaced by fireballs that danced through their bedroom. They kept all the windows and doors shut, blocked up the keyholes and papered over the windows. All to no avail.

The summer of 1934 had been the hottest on record in Ohio since state weather records began in 1883. July and early August in 1935 saw a return of the sweltering temperatures. Life in the city’s tenements was verging on unbearable. Like many other residents, the Waldmans could have left their windows and doors open to provide some ventilated relief. But the Waldmans could not take this risk because of the fireballs. And so on the 2 August, at their wits’ end, they finally decided to force Ida to cease her torments. While Samuel went to get a warrant form the police, Matilda decided to take matters into her own hands. As she explained to police, ‘At 2:00 pm, I lay down on the bed and some power told me I was in great danger, so I got my husband’s gun and went to the Cooper store. “I’m Waldman’s wife,” I told Mrs Cooper. “Oh, yes, you’re the wife of the fellow who thinks I’ve put the witch on him”’. Matilda then handed her the following letter, which she ordered Ida to sign:

I, Ida Rose or Ida Cooper, agree to release Mr Mrs Waldman & his children and family from the witch craft. I have done till now & I’ll never do witch craft to Waldman family any more all my life.

Ida merely laughed, at which Matilda reached for the pistol in her handbag and fired three shots.

Matilda was charged with first-degree murder. Samuel was also arrested. On 3 August she was brought to the police court where she pleaded ‘not guilty’ and stated she felt no remorse for her actions. ‘I feel like a new person... I feel so relieved I can’t explain it’. ‘Would you do it again?’ asked the presiding judge. Well, judge, I hope I never have to’, she replied. Matilda was charged, without bond, to stand before the next Grand Jury. The trial never took place though, because following psychiatric tests she was declared to be a paranoiac suffering from delusions of persecution. On 13 November she was committed to Lima State Hospital for treatment. Samuel was declared temporarily insane and taken to Cleveland City Hospital. He was subsequently released and apparently moved to Detroit.

The fortress-like Lima State Hospital had been built at great expense in the countryside a few kilometres north of the town of Lima, following a decision of the Ohio General Assembly in 1906. It was dedicated to the incarceration and cure of the criminally insane, and could house over 1,200 inmates who were put to work in the kitchens, laundry, gardens and dairy farm. Matilda remained there until December 1938. Her case was overseen by Dr Herman Turk, who was promoted to superintendent at the Hospital in 1938. He was not one of the ‘strap ‘em down and stick in the needle’ psychiatrists of the period, dismissing the padded cell as a relic. We gain some insight regarding his professional views from an article he wrote in 1941 on the therapeutic value of libraries in curing insanity. ‘Reading furnishes one of the greatest means of relaxation to the emotional tension... Reading subdues angers, fears, and dreads, and the intense delusional ideas that may be present’.32

Turk was an expert witness in several murder cases before and after his involvement with the Waldman case. According to Turk, Matilda had ceased to suffer from delusions after about a year at Lima, and in December 1938 he declared she was completely sane. This meant a return to Cleveland to face trial. On 6 January 1939 the judges acquitted her of murder on the basis that she was insane on 2 August 1935. Matilda nearly collapsed, though, when the court ordered that she would have to return to Lima State Hospital due to a legal technicality. This concerned a requirement that Turk and another psychiatrist agree on her sanity, after further observation, and formally notify the judge of Allen County. Her case was heard again at a sanity hearing in March 1939. Turk told the court that Waldman’s case was ‘the most clear-cut case of induced insanity, I ever saw’.33Shortly afterwards Matilde was finally released from Lima Hospital. She made her way to her parents in Detroit and so out of the limelight for good. Had justice truly been done?

Another 1930s’ witch killer, Albert Shinsky of Shenandoah, Shuylkill County, Pennsylvania, was less fortunate than Waldman.34 His case highlights the inconsistencies in the post-trial judicial and medical treatment of those sent to psychiatric hospitals. Waldman was fortunate to be under Turk’s care. ‘We find the border between insanity and sanity so slight that only one trained in the subject can define it’, Turk once said. In Shinksy’s case it took decades to detect.

Like the Waldmans, Shinsky, a twenty-four-year-old Lithuanian American, one-time farm labourer, miner, and taxi driver, suffered from nocturnal disturbances. He believed a fifty-nine-year-old widow named Susan Mummey, a former neighbour of his family when they occupied a farm in nearby Ringtown, sent a black cat to torment him at night. ‘Often’, he said, ‘the cat grew so large that I was almost smothered by its fur’. Sometimes he saw Mummey’s face in that of the cat. He visited numerous hex doctors, one of whom put him on a special diet of raw milk straight from the udder. Convinced by his Bible reading, on 17 March he went to Mummey’s home and shot her dead. While in jail, Shinsky explained, ‘I was hexed. There was nothing else for me to do. I had to kill her... the electric chair will be better than the suffering of the last seven years’. ‘I am a new man’, he told journalists, and relished eating his first hearty meals in years.

The district attorney Leroy Enterline was determined that Shinsky be sent to the chair, but the medical profession had other ideas. Dr Walter G. Bowers, the respected superintendent of the Shuylkill County Hospital for the Insane was brought in by the jail’s warden to assess Shinsky’s mental state. Bowers had considerable experience, having worked as a psychiatrist at hospitals in Philadelphia and Norristown. His experiments in hydrotherapy and massage twenty-five years earlier had attracted interest in the profession. He suggested that therapeutic bathing and massage helped improve the mental condition of those suffering from mania and dementia praecox.35 After a two-hour examination Bowers declared Shinsky to be suffering from the latter condition. Dementia praecox, or premature dementia, was defined by German psychiatrists in the late nineteenth century and began to be used widely in American medical literature in the 1910s. While its cause was unknown, it was thought to be incurable. It was used interchangeably with schizophrenia, which became the orthodox term for the same set of symptoms when dementia praecox fell out of formal medical usage in the early 1950s. There have been recent calls for the term to be reintroduced to replace schizophrenia.36

Shinsky’s case was brought to an insanity commission where his condition was confirmed. Instead of frying in the electric chair, a spell at the Fairview state hospital for the insane beckoned. Whether bathing was part of his treatment I do not know. Enterline did not forget, though, and in 1937 he sought an indictment against Shinsky ‘as a safeguard’ in case he was released from the hospital. Ten years passed before a petition was lodged for Shinsky’s release. It was unsuccessful. Thirty-four years after the crime, Shinsky was still in Fairview State Hospital, but a local attorney, William J. Krencewicz, was trying to obtain a psychiatric re-evaluation to have him declared sane. Arthur Lewis interviewed him—‘I know if this happens I’ll have to stand trial for killing Mrs Mummey, an act I deeply regret’, he said. ‘But I’m willing to take that gamble. I was a stupid, foolish, superstitious young man when I did it. God knows I’ve been sorry ever since. But I do think I’ve been punished enough’.37 The petition was unsuccessful.

In October 1975, forty-one years after the hex murder, Shinsky was brought back to Schuylkill County where he was put in the Wemersville State Hospital pending a hearing as to whether he was sufficiently recovered from insanity to finally stand trial. As the record of the hearing shows, the decision was based considerably on whether he still believed in witchcraft or not. One medical expert testified that in his opinion Shinsky ‘never has really given up this belief in witches’. On the subject of witchcraft ‘he tends to become evasive or guarded in his replies’. This was born out when Shinsky was questioned and asked point- blank, ‘Do you still have a belief in witchcraft?’ ‘As I said’, he replied, ‘if I knew what I know now, it wouldn’t have happened in the first place. It was all a bad mistake’. He was asked if he believed in hex signs. On this he was clear. ‘I do not’, Shinsky said. ‘Did you believe in witches back in the early 1930s?’ ‘Well, it seems so’. ‘I was just an ignorant youth at the time that I shot that poor woman’, he explained. The hearing found Shinsky to be sufficiently sane, and in 1976 he finally got his wish to be tried for the murder of Susan Mummey. He died back at home in Ringtown in May 1983.38

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