Historic America

The Manteno Madness

Manteno State Hospital was at one time the largest state mental hospital in Illinois, but its overcrowded corridors invited disaster. From typhoid epidemic to scandal, trace the tragic history of this forgotten asylum.

“It is not by confining one’s neighbor that one is convinced of one’s own sanity.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Novels (and the films based on them) such as The Snake Pit (1946), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), and even memoirs like Girl, Interrupted (1993) have permanently colored public perception of mental hospitals. Images of sadistic Nurse Ratched and torture disguised as treatment have horrified us for decades, but those of us who grew up after the closure of such facilities have no memory of the very real scandals that led to their condemnation.

At one time, Illinois had eleven state mental hospitals, located in Alton, Anna, Chicago, Dixon, East Moline, Elgin, Jacksonville, Kankakee, Lincoln, Manteno, and Peoria. Manteno State Hospital was the largest of these, and perhaps the one that attracted the most negative press. Ironically, hospitals like Manteno, with their “cottage system” of patient housing, were meant to correct the appalling conditions of what we now know as the classic “mad house” or “insane asylum” that Michel Foucault deconstructed in his influential book Madness and Civilization (1965).

Progressive hospitals like Manteno State proved not to be much better than their predecessors, and the Community Mental Health Act of 1963 began the long, slow process of de-institutionalization that eventually led to their closure.


Remembering 9/11 Two Decades Later

I remember September 11, 2001 as a tragedy, but for more than just what was lost on that day. It was a tragedy for all we have lost since that day.

Twenty years ago, at around 8am in the Chicago suburbs, I awoke to a phone call. It was my father, calling from work to tell me to turn on the television. He said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, and true to his word, there it was live on CNN: a black plume of smoke billowing out of the North Tower.

Moments later, I, along with millions of other Americans, saw a second plane smash into South Tower. At first, there was disbelief. “Did you see that?” I asked. “I think something is happening.” Then, a chill ran down my spine. Instinctively, I think, we all knew that everything changed with that second explosion.


Social Justice, Marxism, and Christianity

Christian social justice is a positive concept. It can and should be taken back from the secular left.

Simply defined, social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal access to economic, political, and social rights and opportunities, which is a concept most people can get behind. This perspective has become controversial, however, largely because of its co-option by the secular left, Marxists and socialists. The term “Social Justice Warrior” conjures images of hysterical activists and has become a pejorative even for people outside the political right wing. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Social justice incubated in the Catholic Church. In the 1840s, Father Luigi Taparelli used the term to criticize the major economic theories at the time for ignoring moral philosophy and for undermining the unity of society by dividing it into competing classes. Since then, the Catholic Church has been clear about its condemnation of both Marxism/socialism and unrestrained capitalism. 

Historic America

Prohibition and the Birth of the National Security State

For most of American history, the Federal government had little policing power. America’s experiment with Prohibition would fundamentally change that.

The Netflix miniseries Waco (2018) highlighted what many perceived as out of control Federal policing in the 1990s, an issue that has certainly not gone away. These concerns are just the latest in a long line of criticism that Federal law enforcement agencies have too much power. How did we get here?

The birth of the National Security State can be directly traced back to the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol, which was adopted in 1919. If not for the nationwide law enforcement necessities of Prohibition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would be nothing more than a few dozen agents in the Justice Department, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) would not exist.

For the first 100 years of United States history, the Federal government had very little internal policing power. Instead, it relied on private agencies like the Pinkerton Detective Agency, or left criminal investigation up to local authorities and individual states. In 1886, however, the Supreme Court ruled that states had no power to regulate interstate commerce. It was not until 1908 that U.S. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte organized the Bureau of Investigation and hired 12 agents for interstate policing.

Commentary Saudade

What Happened When I Tried to Start a Newspaper in Central Illinois

Freedom of the press is in serious trouble when a handful of self-appointed gatekeepers can so easily banish a news publication from store and library shelves.

In the summer of 2012, I briefly returned to Charleston, Illinois (where I had attended college) to help set up a monthly print newspaper. It failed spectacularly. The unexpected resistance I encountered taught me hard lessons about the limits of free speech and journalism.

Starting a newspaper is not easy. It takes hard work, travel, time, and financial resources. Still, it can be successful and rewarding with a receptive audience. Central Illinois is highly rural and conservative in temperament. Neighbors might be content to gossip on their front porches, but they’d rather not see the latest scandal plastered in the headlines.

For most of my life I had a naïve understanding of the role of the press. I imagined most newspapers shied away from controversy for any number of reasons, ranging from placating advertisers, adherence to a particular political or social agenda, or simply out of a lack of desire or resources to track down hard stories. I never thought pushback from self-appointed gatekeepers played a role.

Now I understand the blowback some of these news outlets face for reporting controversial events can be intense and make it difficult to conduct business.

Historic America

The Lynching of Adolphus Monroe

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

In the nineteenth century, “lynch law” reigned. The most infamous incident in Coles County occurred in the early morning hours of Friday, February 16, 1856 when convicted murderer Adolphus Monroe was lynched by a mob of angry citizens.

In October 1855, Adolphus got into a drunken altercation with his father-in-law, Nathan Ellington (who was the first county clerk), and gunned him down. Ellington and his wife, Fannie, strongly disapproved of their daughter Nancy’s marriage to Adolphus, who had a reputation for drinking.

Ellington confronted Adolphus about mistreating Nancy, and according to local historian Nancy Easter-Shick, Ellington struck Adolphus with his cane. Adolphus drew a small smoothbore pistol, shot him twice, and the two antagonists continued their mortal struggle on the floor. Adolphus was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged on February 15, 1856.


What is Totalitarianism? Part II

If the United States devolved into a totalitarian state, would we recognize it? Maintaining a free society requires knowing these warning signs.

In Part I, we defined totalitarianism as state-orchestrated control over all public and private life by an ideologically-driven political organization. In the words of the father of Italian fascism, Giovanni Gentile, the totalitarian state seeks “total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals.”

While this control is most obvious and pronounced under a dictatorship, democratic republics are not immune. A legislature may vote in favor of a totalitarian state just as easily as a dictator may impose one.

This is totalitarianism in theory, but what is it in practice?