The Story Of Dunning, A 'Tomb For The Living'
For a long time, Chicagoans were scared of Dunning. The very name “Dunning” gave them chills. People were afraid they would end up in that place.
Today, the Chicago neighborhood, out on the city’s Far Northwest Side, looks like a middle-class suburb. “If peace and quiet are what you seek, look no further than Dunning,” the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2009. Some of the area’s younger residents have no idea what used to be there: an insane asylum, a home for the city’s poorest people, and cemeteries where the poor were buried.
“I grew up in this area,” says Michael Dotson, who is 29. “I’ve passed by this vicinity a hundred times, and never knew anything about it.” Dotson recently stumbled across a website that mentioned the old Dunning asylum. And then he saw a headline claiming that 38,000 bodies might be lying underneath the old Dunning grounds, their burial places unmarked.
That prompted Dotson to pose this question to Curious City:
What’s the history behind Cook County’s former Dunning Insane Asylum and the people buried near there?
It’s a long history with many dark chapters. Curious City can’t detail the entire history, so we focused on finding out who lived at Dunning — and who is still lying in Dunning’s unmarked graves. In both life and death, the people who ended up at Dunning were some of Chicago’s least fortunate residents.
Here’s how historian Perry Duis describes Dunning’s reputation in his 1998 book “Challenging Chicago”:
For many generations of Chicago children, bad behavior came to a halt with a stern warning: “Be careful, or you’re going to Dunning.” The prospect sent shivers down the spines of youngsters, who regarded it as the most dreaded place imaginable.
Chicago resident Steven Hill, who is 60, recalls: “It was a term used in the ’50s and ’60s — ‘If you and your brothers and sisters don’t behave, we’ll send you to Dunning.’ And that used to scare kids, because they knew that it was a mental institution.”
Mundelein resident Ross Goodrich, who is 81, heard a similar expression growing up on the West Side in the 1930s and ’40s. “Whenever anyone would act a little nutsy, any of the kids, we’d say, ‘Oh, gotta send them to Dunning.’ It was a pretty common expression,” he says.
Hill and Goodrich are interested in the history of Dunning because both of them had great-grandparents who died in the institution in the early 1900s.
The complex occupied 320 acres of land between Irving Park Road and Montrose Avenue, stretching west from Naragansett Avenue to Oak Park Avenue.
It was never actually named Dunning. But the property just south of it was owned by the Dunning family — so when the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway extended a line to the area in 1882, the stop was named Dunning Station. And then people started calling the institution “Dunning.” (In its early years, people sometimes called it “Jefferson,” since it’s part of Jefferson Township.)
When it opened in 1854, it wasn’t an insane asylum. The Cook County Infirmary was a “poor farm” and almshouse. County officials opened its doors to people who had fallen on hard times and found themselves unable to earn a living.
“They didn’t provide very many services,” says Joseph J. Mehr, a Springfield clinical psychologist who wrote about Dunning in his 2002 book, “An Illustrated History of Illinois Public Mental Health Services.”
“What they really provided were a place to sleep and food,” he says. “And that was pretty much the extent of it.”
But from the very beginning, many of the poor people who were sent to live at the almshouse had mental illnesses. “In some ways, it’s almost similar to what we have today,” Mehr says, “in that we have a lot of people who are homeless and living on the streets, and a significant portion of them are people who are mentally ill.”
So the county added an “Insane Department” at the almshouse. And then, in 1870, it built a separate Cook County Insane Asylum on the grounds.
“The feeling was it’s better to isolate the population of the mentally handicapped, the indigent, and keep them far away from the city proper,” Chicago historian Richard C. Lindberg says.
But Mehr sees another motivation behind the asylum’s location, far from downtown Chicago. “The idea was to get people who were disturbed out of stress-inducing situations,” he says. “Asylums were built out in the country, and they were really pastoral, bucolic places where people could relax.”
That was the idea, anyway. In reality, Dunning was chronically overcrowded, and patients were neglected and abused.
“You could think of this place as the prototypical evil dark asylum of literature,” Mehr says. “There wasn’t much treatment. People … weren’t fed well. The food was terrible — weevil-filled. … People didn’t get the kind of medical care that they ought to get. … For many, many years, it was really a terrible place.”
Abuse and corruption
In 1874, a Tribune reporter described Dunning’s poorhouse as “a shambling, helter-skelter series of wooden buildings” where dejected-looking people with matted hair and tattered clothing were “crowded and herded together like sheep in the shambles, or hogs in the slaughtering-pens.”
“The rooms swarm with vermin,” an attendant told the reporter. “The cots and bed-clothing are literally alive with them. We cannot keep the men clean, and we cannot drive the parasites away unless they are clean.”
The reporter couldn’t take the smell in the room, exclaiming: “For Heaven’s sake let us get out; this stench is unbearable.”
Political corruption was part of the problem at Dunning. County officials treated it as a patronage haven, hiring pals and cronies who had no expertise in handling mental patients. Employees got drunk on duty, partying and dancing late at night in the asylum. Some of the asylum’s top authorities used taxpayer money to decorate their offices and hold lavish parties while patients were suffering in squalor.
“Everybody was a political hiree,” says Al Opitz, a neighborhood historian. “So consequently, they had nobody to report to other than the political boss.”
In an 1889 court case, Cook County Judge Richard Prendergast described Dunning as “a tomb for the living.” He criticized the asylum for squeezing 1,000 patients into a space better suited for 500. “The presence of so many lunatics in a room irritates all,” Prendergast said. “Fighting among the patients at night is frequent.”
That same year, two attendants at the Dunning asylum were charged with murdering patient Robert Burns. They’d kicked him in the stomach and given him a gash on the head. A defense attorney claimed these “blows and kicks … were beneficial to the insane man, as they were a sort of stimulus or tonic,” according to the Tribune. Jurors acquitted the attendants, blaming Dunning’s overcrowding rather than the actions of individual employees.
Even under the best of conditions, doctors didn’t have many effective treatments for people suffering from mental illness. The only drugs they had at their disposal were sedatives. “If a person was terribly agitated, they might dose them with chloral hydrate, which would pretty much knock them out,” Mehr says. “That’s the ingredient in what used to be called a Mickey Finn in a bar.”
According to an 1886 state investigation, one of the sedatives used at Dunning was a mixture containing chloral hydrate as well as cannabis, hops and potash. The investigation also found that Dunning was serving two kegs of beer a day; patients as well as employees were apparently drinking the beer.
The same state probe harshly criticized the food Dunning served to its inmates. A lack of fruit and fresh vegetables had caused an epidemic of scurvy, with about 200 patients suffering from the illness. “The cooking, we are convinced, was bad,” the investigators said.
In spite of all their appalling discoveries, the investigators quoted one doctor who said “there were some attendants who were most excellent, who were conscientious, and endeavored to mitigate the sufferings of the insane in every way possible.” But these employees were in the minority, and they felt intimidated by Dunning’s irresponsible workers.
The situation inside the Dunning poorhouse seemed somewhat better by 1892. A journalist who visited that year didn’t encounter the same horrors others had witnessed in earlier times. But she reported that many of the poorhouse residents were “too old and infirm to do anything except sit about in joyless groups.” The superintendent told her that many people ended up in the poorhouse as a result of alcoholism. “Whisky brings the most of them,” he said, adding, “They’re foreigners mostly.”
In that era, Chicago newspapers often reported the stories of local people suffering from mental illness, openly describing their symptoms and sometimes publishing their names. In many of these stories, patients were taken first to the Cook County Detention Hospital (at the northwest corner of Polk and Wood streets), where judges ordered them committed at Dunning.
Here’s a sample of several cases reported in 1897:
- Frank Johnson was committed to Dunning after he cut off his right hand in a fit of religious mania. “I think he will grow again,” he told a judge.
- John E.N., 28, believed he was Jesus Christ.
- Timothy O’B. became “a raving maniac” after a policeman struck him in the head.
- William Mitchell, 43, an extremely emaciated African-American man, said he was hearing “the voices of spirits” and believed that people were “after him for murderous purposes.”
- Theresa K., 35, was sent to Dunning after she refused to eat, declaring that her food was poisoned.
- Catherine T., 56, “was something like a wild cat.” Maggie Mc., who may have fractured her skull five years earlier, was described as “silly, helpless, Irish, very poor, and 28 years of age.”
- Fredericka W., 35, who was unkempt with a weather-beaten complexion, was sent to Dunning after a policeman found her sitting in a park. She said she “was searching for a prince, who had promised her marriage.”
- William L., 45, was arrested when a policeman found him “wandering about the boulevards ogling women and girls.” After hearing the details of the case, a judge declared, “Dunning.” As the bailiff quickly hustled William L. toward the door, the patient turned around and shouted, “It doesn’t take long to do up a man here!”
Patients like these were sent by train from the Cook County Detention Hospital to Dunning. “It was a hospital car, and they had a doctor aboard and a couple of nurses,” Opitz says. “The train was called the ‘crazy train.’ … There was a guard on both ends so people couldn’t get out.”
About half of Dunning’s patients suffered from “chronic mania,” according to the asylum’s annual report for 1890. Other patients had conditions described as melancholia, impulsive insanity, monomania and circular insanity. The doctors listed masturbation as one of the most common “exciting causes” of insanity among Dunning’s male patients. According to the report, other patients had become insane as a result of religious excitement, domestic trouble, spiritualism, sunstrokes, disappointment in love, alcohol, abortion, narcotics, puberty and overwork.
Dunning’s unmarked graves
Throughout its early history, Dunning also included cemeteries — not only for poorhouse residents and asylum inmates who died, but also for anyone who died in Cook County and whose family couldn’t afford to pay for a burial. Some bodies were moved to Dunning from the Chicago City Cemetery, which was underneath what is now Lincoln Park. The people buried at Dunning include 117 victims of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and Civil War veterans — including Thomas Hamilton McCray, a Confederate brigadier general who moved to Chicago after the war and died in 1891.
One of the most notorious people buried at Dunning was Johann Hoch, a bigamist who was believed to have married 30 women and murdered at least 10 of them. After he was hanged at Cook County Jail in 1906, other cemeteries refused to accept his body. “In that little box that they had made at the jail, the remains of Hoch were buried anonymously somewhere on the grounds at Irving and Naragansett,” says Lindberg, who told the story in his 2011 book “Heartland Serial Killers.”
The same fate befell George Gorciak, a Hungarian immigrant who died penniless in 1895, succumbing to typhoid. His family took his body to Graceland Cemetery, apparently unaware that they needed to pay for a plot there. By the end of the day, they’d hauled his coffin out to Dunning, where burials were free in the potter’s field.
The burials at Dunning included many orphans and infants — and adults whose identities were a mystery. In 1912, an “Unknown Man” who’d apparently stabbed himself to death was placed in the ground at Dunning.
Scandals sometimes erupted over bodies being stolen from Dunning’s cemetery by people who wanted them for anatomy demonstrations. In one 1897 case, four bodies were taken as they were being prepared for burial. Henry Ullrich, a watchman who worked at Dunning, was convicted of selling the corpses to Dr. William Smith, a medical professor in Missouri.
The professor claimed that the watchman had offered to kill a “freak” and sell him the body. Smith recalled telling Ullrich, “I only want the dead ones.” Ullrich supposedly replied, “That’s all right, Doc … he’s in the ‘killer ward’ and they’d just think he’d wandered off. They’re always doing that, you know.”
County officials denied the existence of a “killer ward.”
State takes control
In 1910, Dunning’s poorhouse residents were moved to a new infirmary in Oak Forest. And in 1912, the state took over the Dunning asylum from Cook County, changing the official name to Chicago State Hospital.
Conditions had already been improving at Dunning over the previous decade, Mehr says. One reason was the construction of smaller buildings to house patients. And a civil service law passed in 1895 had decreased the problems with patronage. After the state took control, Mehr says, “It ended the scandals around the issue of graft and corruption.” But incidents of patients being abused still made news from time to time, he says.
Ross Goodrich says his great-grandmother, an immigrant from Prague named Fannie Hrdlicka (pronounced Herliska), was placed in Dunning when she became depressed after one her children died.
According to the family story, he says, “When the baby died, my great-grandmother rocked the baby for a couple of days, and wouldn’t let it out of her arms. And then she was placed in Dunning because they thought she was a little crazy. But we suspect it could have been a case of postpartum depression. … If she was having mental difficulties of any kind, I’m not sure that there were any other places available in those days for her to go.”
Hrdlicka was released from Dunning and then readmitted. She died there in 1918.
Steven Hill says he doesn’t know why his great-grandfather, John Ohlenbusch, was living at Dunning when he died in 1910. But the death certificate says he had dementia, so Hill suspects Ohlenbusch may have had what later became known as Alzheimer’s disease. Hill says his grandmother never discussed her father’s death at Dunning.
“People did not talk about the rough lifestyles they had and how poor they were,” Hill says. “But I do know they had a very, very tough life.”
Goodrich and Hill would like to find out more about what happened to their ancestors at Dunning, but documents are not easy to find. The Illinois State Archives in Springfield has Chicago State Hospital’s admission and discharge records from 1920 to 1951, but you need a court order to see them. Some early Cook County records, showing patients who were sent to Dunning between 1877 and 1887, are available for anyone to see in the state archives branch at Northeastern Illinois University.
Changing mental health treatments
In the first half of the 20th century, Chicago State Hospital used several different treatments for mental illness. Hydrotherapy used hot or cold water to soothe people who were depressed or agitated. Fever treatments induced high temperatures to kill off bacteria in the brains of patients with syphilis.
Lobotomies were not performed at Chicago State Hospital, but Mehr says the hospital did send some of its patients elsewhere for the treatment, which cuts the brain’s frontal lobe. “That’s like shooting someone in the head with a shotgun,” he says.
For a time, some patients at Dunning and other Illinois hospitals were given electroshock therapy “once a day, every day for years, which is just an absolute abomination,” Mehr says. “That was a terrible thing to do.”
A new era of psychiatric treatment began in 1954, with the discovery Thorazine, the first in a new wave of drugs that directly affected the symptoms of mental illness.
Mehr, 71, worked for a year at Chicago State Hospital, during an internship from 1964 to 1965. He says the conditions he witnessed were vastly superior to the travesties of Dunning’s early history. “My impressions weren’t all that bad,” he says. And yet, he adds, “The problem … was that these state hospitals were overcrowded.”
Chicago State Hospital’s buildings closed after it merged in 1970 with the nearby Charles F. Read Zone Center, which had opened on the west side of Oak Park Avenue in 1965. Since 1970, it has been known as Chicago-Read Mental Health Center. Today, for better or worse, fewer people with mental illnesses stay for prolonged periods of time in hospitals.
In the years after Chicago State Hospital closed, the state sold much of the property. Today, the land includes the Dunning Square shopping center, which is anchored by a Jewel store; the campus of Wright College; the Maryville Center for Children; and houses and condominiums.
State officials apparently didn’t realize that human bodies were buried underneath a section of the Dunning land when they sold it to Pontarelli Builders, which began work putting up houses. In 1989, a backhoe operator working on the project found a corpse. The state had recently passed a law requiring archaeological assessments before construction is allowed on any property where human remains have been found, so archaeologist David Keene was hired to examine the site. Keene was on the faculty at Loyola University at the time, and now he runs his own company, Archaeological Research.
“The area was just littered with human remains, with human bone all over the place, where they had disturbed things,” he says.
Keene has a vivid recollection of that corpse found by the backhoe. It appeared to be a Civil War veteran. Much of the body was still intact, probably because it had been embalmed with arsenic, a common treatment at the time, which would kill any organisms that would try to consume the flesh.
“He was cut in half at the waist by the backhoe,” Keene says. “His skin was in relatively good condition … I mean, you could see his face. But there was considerable deterioration on the face. You could see the mustache. You could see his hair. He had red hair, but it was patchy. The other distinguishing features of the face were no longer there. And he had a jacket on … it was obviously a military jacket. We only saw it briefly. We didn’t spend a lot of time with it — mostly because the odor was unbelievable, to say the least.”
Keene guided a careful excavation of the land around this gruesome discovery — stopping the digging whenever a coffin or human remains were revealed. He determined that a five-acre cemetery was hidden, just northwest of the current-day corner of Belle Plaine and Neenah avenues. As a result of Keene’s findings, that property was set aside as the Read-Dunning Memorial Park, which was dedicated in 2002. Construction was allowed on the land south of it.
This was just the second-oldest of three cemeteries on the Dunning grounds. The earliest cemetery was near the original poorhouse, just west of Naragansett Avenue and north of Belle Plaine. County officials had supposedly moved the bodies out of that cemetery into the second graveyard, but Keene says bodies did turn up there during another construction project. “We found a little over 30 individuals there, and we were able to remove them so (the developer) could build his building there,” Keene says.
And when Wright College was under construction on the former asylum grounds in the early 1990s, scattered human remains surfaced there, too, Keene says.
“A femur would pop up,” he says. “And it wasn’t associated with a grave of any sort. It was just mixed in with the soil from previous construction and removal of buildings in the past. In this area, you can walk into any one of these yards and dig in the flowerbeds and come up with human remains. They’re part of the scattered remains from construction activity that took place in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Every time they built a building, human remains would go flying.”
As Keene explains, state officials constructed hospital buildings between 1912 and the 1960s on this land without any regard to whether people had been buried there.
“The state came in and — as far as we can tell, from the archaeological evidence — removed any surface evidence of burials in the entire area,” Keene says. “They actually built right on top of graves.”
The third Dunning cemetery was located farther west — underneath what is now Oak Park Avenue near Chicago-Read Mental Health Center. While Keene was conducting his investigation in 1989, some workers walked over and told him they’d found human remains while they were working on a broken water main at Chicago-Read’s entrance.
“So we just walked over there,” Keene recalls. “And sure enough, there were human remains everywhere. And so we began doing some research there to figure out what the boundaries were.”
Keene says it’s obvious that someone must have known about the existence of those graves when the road was put on top of them. “It’s pretty clear,” he says. “When we were there — and this is just the plumbers trying to get to the leak — they were cutting right through coffins. So somebody had to cut through some of those coffins in order to put the original lines in.”
In 1989, genealogist Barry Fleig studied the available records about Dunning and documented that more than 15,000 people had been buried in the graveyards there. But the records are incomplete, and Fleig extrapolated that the total is closer to 38,000.
Opitz says the county’s record keeping was slipshod. “So consequently, the number of cadavers or people that were buried here is somewhat nebulous,” he says.
The exact figure is unknown, but Keene says 38,000 is a reasonable estimate. For Keene, the lesson of the Dunning graveyards is that burial places are not as permanent as many people think they will be.
Neighborhood resident Silvija Klavins-Barshney, 50, says she was shocked when she found out about Dunning’s graveyards a couple of years ago. She serves as the vice president of the church board of the Latvian Lutheran Zion Church, which is located inside a building that was part of Chicago State Hospital. After learning about the Dunning cemeteries, she created a Facebook page called “38,000 Souls Forgotten: The Read-Dunning Memorial Project.” She hopes she can persuade city or state officials to improve the Read-Dunning Memorial Park, such as adding landscaping or a more substantial monument.
The Illinois Department of Central Management Services owns and maintains the park.
“The more research I did, the more I felt that the story needs to get out,” she says, “because most of the people … who were buried here are people that were forgotten in life. They were just left. Or disposed of. Or hidden. And if that’s how they lived their lives, how dare we allow them to live their afterlife like that? … How can 38,000 people be buried and then forgotten?”
Michael Dotson — who posed the question about Dunning for Curious City — visited the Read-Dunning Memorial Park with WBEZ in April. “When you look around the vicinity, you see apartments and condos and houses and a college and construction going on in the background,” he said. “It’s really hard to … realize what was here. But if you can kind of separate yourself from all of that, there’s just that slight feeling of fear and dread and a little bit of sadness and also fascination. … It’s crazy to think what was here and what’s here now and that we’ve completely lost sight of that.”
Robert Loerzel is a freelance journalist and the author of “Alchemy of Bones: Chicago’s Luetgert Murder Case of 1897.” Follow him at @robertloerzel.