Kankakee State Hospital
Once you drive past the tree-lined entrance, the circular paths seem to curl quietly through the hundreds of old oak, pine, and walnut trees. Dotted among this sea of green stand the many cottages of rough-cut limestone. The Kankakee State Hospital for the mentally insane presents a tranquil, bucolic landscape. Its post-Civil War architecture bespeaks a Midwestern college campus, not an insane asylum.
In the years immediately following World War II, the population at the hospital soared as many families turned to the state to care for their mentally ill family members. The hospital's 250 acres warehoused nearly five thousand mentally ill patients—"M-I's" the staff called them. Each crowded ward was lined with sixty to seventy beds, and the central dining halls, where the residents gathered in mass, were filled with rows and rows of long wooden tables. No one had separate living quarters.
Kankakee State Hospital was built originally to accommodate the “cottage system, ” a strategy developed in the late nineteenth century, where the mentally insane were cared for in small, homelike buildings scattered throughout the grounds. Patients who functioned well worked the farm and watched over the cattle. They tended to the garden and orchard, washed the laundry, sewed the hospital staff's uniforms, and wove their own rugs. It was here, in the turn-of-the-century environment, that Ruth Ann Steinhagen began her struggle to come to grips with her life after shooting Eddie Waitkus.
In the 1950s, despite the overcrowding, the culture and organizational structure at state mental hospitals had changed little from the 1890s. The