Manteno State Hospital

Personal Account – “Lifer”
May 27, 2009, 12:26 pm
Filed under: Personal Accounts | Tags: , , , , , ,

WARNING: This account is not for the squeamish! It depicts scenes of graphic violence and disturbing behavior.  Reader discretion is advised.

“Employee X” – Former Employee Manteno State Hospital 1970s to closing

“Employee X” started coming to MSH at the age of 4.  His mother (an alcoholic single mother) and his grandmother both worked at MSH.  He grew up on the wards.  Both his mother and his grandmother would take him on the wards with them when they worked.  “Employee X” had somewhat of a “body guard”.  He was a rather tall black fellow who had unforgettable red hair.  When trouble would stir this man would scoop up “Employee X” and lock him in the medication room.  “Employee X” would then find the step stool and push it over to the door, climb up and watch the rumble through the small square security window in the door.

When “Employee X” got to be about 18 years old he quit school and started working at MSH.  It was easy for him to get hired because he already knew many of the employees from growing up at the hospital.  He firstly became a security officer.  “Employee X’s” unfortunate initiation was that of having to make his first call on a patient behind the bakery.  Apparently this patient was notorious for escaping, running as fast as he could to the back of the bakery, leaping into the dumpster and gorging himself on food scraps and waste.  He would do this until an officer, intern or attendant would pull him out.  This wasn’t the only disgusting habit this patient had.  When “Employee X” finally had wrestled him out of the garbage he then got him into the back of his security vehicle and was soon overcome by quite a stench.  When “Employee X” started to get the patient out of the vehicle he found out that he had defecated all over the seat and had proceeded to smear the feces all over the place.  The other officers got a good laugh.

At a later point in “Employee X’s” career he saw this particular patient who had never spoken in all the years he had worked there.  One day he found the patient standing and acting as if he was reading the newspaper.  He passed by and said something about him not fooling anyone because everyone knew he couldn’t read.  Much to “Employee X”s amazement, under his breath the patient mumbled “CAN TOO”.  “Employee X” froze in his tracks, backed up and asked if the patient said something.  “Can too, read”, the patient said.  “Employee X” was stunned and pointed out a paragraph in the paper.  To this day he swears the patient read the paragraph out loud “like a scholar”.

“Employee X” took the time to recount some of the worst cases he had encountered while at MSH.  One of the worst being a rather large black lady named “Patient J”.  “Patient J” was addicted to pain and would abuse her own physical being in some of the most gruesome ways.  “Employee X” told of an instance when “Patient J” had been left alone and had made a sewing needle out of a clickable ball point pen by wrapping cotton thread around the pocket clip and clicking the pen to extend the writing tip.  She then had proceeded to gouge through her own flesh and sew her breasts together.  “Employee X” had found her like this.

On another occasion, “Employee X” told of “Patient J” wildly rummaging through the commissary at one time.  Apparently she found and stole 4 “C” batteries and took off.  By the time security forces had found her, the batteries were nowhere to be found.  They searched her area of the hospital, her belongings, her clothes, her body cavities but did not find the batteries.  While security pinned her to a table in the medical office a doctor checked the dressing on a wound that she had received from some sort of previous surgery.  When he removed the dressing he found the unthinkable.  “Patient J” had stolen the batteries, ripped her flesh wide open and shoved them inside of her body.  Forceps were required to remove the batteries from her wound. (Not long after MSH closed, “Employee X” heard that “Patient J” died at the facility she was transferred to.)

The worst case that “Employee X” ever remembers is an 18 year old boy who got sent down from Chicago to the “sociopathic” ward where MSH kept what I will simply, yet inappropriately call “the criminally insane”.  This ward was “open” like all the other wards on campus, but only open within itself.  The patients of this ward were not allowed outside of the buildings boundaries unless escorted by guards.  The buildings had a large fence around them topped off with barbed wire rolls.  These patients had done very bad things like committing murder, rape and other criminal acts.  Some, it was suspected were not crazy at all but would rather spend their sentence in a mental institution rather than a prison.  So this 18 year old “gang banger” (as “Employee X” puts it), ends up in the ward unfit to stand trial.  One day “Employee X” comes onto the ward only to find the kid curled up into fetal position and barely coherant.  The kid is bloody and upon further investigation they find that he had been gang raped so badly by the other patients on the ward that his colon is now protruding from his anus and that he needs serious medical attention.  “Employee X” says this is the worst thing he ever saw at MSH.

MSH also had a lot of suicides.  Patients would kill themselves in a variety of ways, all of which were pretty terrible.  “Employee X” said that he even heard of a patient who ran across a room so fast and rammed his head into a wall hard enough to split it wide open and kill him or her.  The worst, however was a young man who hanged himself in a sitting position.  He wrapped a towel or sheet around his neck and around the handicapped bar in the shower and just quickly sat down to hang himself.  By the time “Employee X” arrived on the scene the item around his neck was so tight that they could do nothing but cut it off.  “Employee X” took some scissors to the cloth and finally cut the man free.  A doctor pronounced him dead and they prepared the body for the morgue.

“Employee X” says that they used to take the bodies, lie them out flat, face up then tie their big toes together.  They would then cross the arms across the chest, tie the thumbs together, wrap the body in a paper towel like swaddling and then make sure that the body when placed on the morgue slab had the head lined up with the body on the headrest in the drawer.  This was all so that when rigor-mortis set in, the body would be in the proper position.   When “Employee X” placed the body in the drawer and adjusted the head, he pulled his hand from under the corpse only to find blood on it.  He panicked and quickly started ripping away at the dressings, yelling for a doctor and thinking in horror that somehow the young man might still be alive.  When the doctor arrived he pronounced the young man dead and when he turned the body over found two incisions in the neck where “Employee X” had accidently broken the flesh in his fury to cut down the hanged man.

Another time “Employee X” said that he had to take a body to the morgue which was located in the basement of the Bowen building.   Once inside you rolled the gurney into the  elevator that would take you down to the basement.  On this particular run “Employee X” had a new inexperienced young lady helping him with the task.  Unbeknownst to her, bodies tend to jerk or spasm a bit as rigor-mortis sets in. (Much in the same way a spider’s leg will spasm when severed.)  About half way down to the basement, in between floors, the elevator came to a sudden halt.  Shortly thereafter the body of the deceased began to convulse as rigor set in.  Much to the shock of “Employee X”‘s accomplice the body began to twitch and spasm right before her very eyes.  Struck with utter horror and shock the woman began to scream and slowly sank into a ball upon the elevator floor.  “Employee X” called on the radio for someone to get them out of the elevator for the sake of the terrified woman and the sake of his own ears.

*”Employee X” also made mention that the hospital had had its own crematorium which had been located in or near the tuberculosis unit, a building named “Trudeau”.  Wether or not the law at the time required such institutions to cremate the bodies of deceased TB patients or not, is unclear at this time.  (It seems unreasonable to me that cremation would have been manditory considering the way TB is transmitted, but they may have done this as a precaution.)

One of the other things that “Employee X” mentioned was a grave concern for the old hospital cemetery.  Over the years he has noticed that the grave markers have been sinking into the ground as well as disintegrating, most probably from the acid rain so prevalent in the Chicago area.  This was an issue that I thought could be a project for the group “Friends of Manteno State Hospital”.

“Employee X” said that there were a lot of longshoremen who would find themselves at MSH.  After months out at sea it was not uncommon for them to  find themselves with a fat paycheck and nothing better to do but drink and brawl.  Often they would end up in detox or committing themselves to MSH for alcohol treatment.  They were particularly strong and rowdy patients and when you checked them in money would come out of every corner of their clothes and body.  It would be hidden in their shoes, shirts and other “unmentionable” places.

“Employee X” also spoke of the closeness that was required of employees.  Much like a military troupe, the employees had to stick together, had to watch each others’ backs and had to have a certain degree of trust.  Making enemies of co-workers was not smart and you did not want to work with anyone who didn’t like you.  If the “shit hit the fan” and you were attacked by a patient and on the ward while working with someone who didn’t like you, that could easily result in serious injury or worse when no one comes to your rescue or calls for back-up.

According to “Employee X” the women’s wards were much more dangerous than the men’s wards.  When women lost it and went off, they went off big time.  Whack out, and all-out war.  They could mess you up and they were sneaky about it.  Men, were somewhat predictable.

When MSH closed it has been said by many an “ex employee” that bus loads of patients were driven into Chicago and dumped onto streets, with no food, shelter or families.  They had no one to take care of them and no facilities to take them in.  Not long after, “Employee X” was shopping in Chicago with his wife one day when he heard someone call his name.  Recognizing that the man was a former patient in his care at MSH he quickly hurried his wife into the store they had intended to shop at.  He remained outside and spoke with the man who said that he was now living in a cardboard box under a bridge not far from there.  He also remembered an incident where “Employee X” had had to restrain him, but he now realized that “Employee X” was only doing his job.  “Employee X” gave the fellow $5 asking him to please use it for food, not drugs or alcohol.

“Employee X’s” passion for MSH goes so far and so deep as he will tell you.  He says that he told his wife before he married her that there were two women in his life, Manteno State Hospital and her.  For “Employee X”, MSH is his home, where he grew up and where he was raised.  His family was that of the workers, professionals and even the patients of MSH.  On the wards you had to be tight with other employees or you could end up dead.  It is as if working there was like surviving a war where at any moment anything could happen.  Your platoon was your fellow shift workers who watched and perhaps even “scratched” each others’ backs.


2 Comments so far
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As a “social work trainee” at Manteno from mid-1964-mid-1966, I can confirm that this account, while certainly lurid, is in no way an exaggeration. I’m speaking now about the issue of staff cohesion. As someone who was not a member of the nursing staff but had to interact with patients and staff on many of the wards, it was my observation that, unfortunately, staff cohesion often became staff collusion, and in their attitudes staff often behaved as much like prison guards as health care professionals. Admittedly, even after the introduction of Thorazine and TV the wards were not easy places to work, and many staff were benign and even caring. But as is true in prisons, some staff were arbitrary and cruel, and in such cases these men and women were seldom if ever reported by their colleagues. Indeed, if a member of the psychology or social work or medical staff reported such an incident (something never encouraged by the administration despite lip service paid to the contrary), the nursing staff closed ranks, and the whistle blower was at risk. An example: a psychologist when I was there reported patient abuse by staff. The next time she went to interview a patient on the all male “epileptic ward,”after a short time she realized that the entire staff of three men had disappeared, leaving her alone on a ward of over 100 men, many actively disturbed and all sexually deprived. It was staff’s way of telling her (and other hospital professionals) to look the other way or keep their mouths shut.

Phil Penningroth


OH sooo true Mr. Penningroth. I worked there from 1967 thru 1981. and Employee X was so right on and has a good memory! Thanks for sharing.

Comment by Rose Johnston

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