"Be careful, or you're going to

Dunning — the name scared Chicagoans for many decades. It was the common name for the Cook County Hospital for the Insane, which served as both an asylum and a poorhouse. Dunning hovers in the background of Alchemy of Bones ... playing a prominent role later in the book when newspapers report on a possible connection between Dunning and the Luetgert murder case.

In his book Challenging Chicago. Coping with Everyday Life, 1837-1920 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998), Perry R. Duis writes: "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 dread place imaginable… Dunning … evoked images of gloomy institution walls, the cries of the insane, and the hopeless poor peering from its window."

At least one of the women mistaken for Mrs. Luetgert ended up at Dunning. Caroline Johnson, the woman obsessed with digging into the ground in Melrose Park, was sent there after an appearance in the insanity court. The other cases up on the same day included a man who thought he was a talking machine and a woman who had kept her husband awake nights by telling him about a magpie who wore a silk hat and ate nothing but sawdust.

Other patients taken to Dunning that year included a man who imagined himself to be a first-rate pugilist, a woman who constantly feared being poisoned, a man who thought he was Christ, a woman found in park looking for a "prince" who had promised her marriage, a man who wandered about the boulevards ogling women and girls, several people who were hearing voices, and a man who had cut off one of his hands, explaining, "I have read in the Bible if they right hand offend the cut him off, and I cut him off. I think he will grow again."

Dunning was far out on Chicago’s northwestern edge. It had been built in 1854 on farmland, but now the city was encroaching on its once-rural setting.

The patients in the Dunning asylum in the 1890s were diagnosed with illnesses such as mania, monomania, melancholia and several kinds of insanity: impulsive, epileptic, alcoholic, emotional, senile, puerperal and circular.

The doctors examining the patients also tried to determine what "exciting cause" had brought on the insanity. In most cases, they were unable to come up with anything, but the causes they did list included religious excitement, marital infidelity, sunstroke, disappointment in love, alcohol, abortion, narcotics, puberty and overwork. One of the most common causes of male insanity was masturbation.

Dunning officially closed on June 30, 1912, and reopened the next day as Chicago State Hospital. It later became the Chicago-Read Mental Health Center.

Click here to read about an 1897 body-snatching case at Dunning.

The following are various articles on Dunning that the author collected during the research on Alchemy of Bones.

Reporter Katherine Reed offered a look at "A Day at the Poor House" in the September 24, 1892, issue of The Graphic:

This population is shifting, smaller in summer than in winter… All able to work are put at something the ill are assigned to hospital wards, while those who could work but won’t, are turned adrift.

"Whisky brings the most of them," said the superintendent, "and in winter particularly they vibrate between the Bridewell, Clark street lodging houses and our place. They’re foreigners mostly, or of foreign parentage not a native American here. We have one Chinaman up stairs a cripple."

The only diversion offered is religious service. There is mass every morning, a priest of Sunday, Sunday-school at three in the afternoon, besides ministers of every denomination in rotation…

Across the hall from the chapel, and up a short flight of stairs is the woman’s consumptive ward, light and clean, but of sickening odor… its wide entrance-doors were open and a strong breeze swept through them to the chapel, children’s ward and stairways to the wards below.

In summer most of the children are out doors playing in the grounds. …

The sleeping wards are all alike large oblong rooms furnished only with windows on three sides, pine floors and rows of bed with blue-checked calico covers fastened at the corners with sizable safety pins… The women’s wards are more attractive because much cleaner, and also because of touching little attempts at decoration. A stand for water that in a man’s ward would be bare has a chintz clean cover and flounce where the women are, and one sunny corner near a window is gay with bits of Turkey red, geraniums on the sill, cheap chromos and paper flowers…

Inmates care for all these rooms so far as practicable, but many are too old and infirm to do anything except sit about in joyless groups or resourceless solitude. Their faces seem incapable of change or of lighting up everywhere the same stupid stolidity…

In the ward for imbeciles is a child with pretty brown rings of hair, soft fair skin and dark eyes but a mind dark, too. It lay on the floor gurgling to itself, and aimlessly dabbing the air, unable to co-ordinate its movements enough to brush the flies from its face. Beside it on a bed lay what is medically known as a monstrosity a mistake of man or nature, or both perhaps.

Here is the poorhouse kitchen, with its big stationary kettles and copper tanks, tin lined, for tea and coffee. The place is not inviting. …

The dining room is even less palatable. … Its furnishing consists solely of sixteen wooden tables 3 by 12 feet, flanked on two sides by benches. The only attempt at decoration is a scrubbing three times daily.

On  January 2, 1898, the Chicago Tribune recounted the unsolved mysteries of 1897, including an incident that had occurred at Dunning on March 25, 1897.

A headless body, which the most persistent efforts of the police have failed to identify… On March 25 a party of workmen cleaning out the sewers at Dunning found a headless trunk in a catchbasin near the asylum. The right arm was also severed from the body at the elbow joint. A Coroner’s jury rendered the verdict that the man "met his death by drowning."

The body was attired in a white shirt and a pair of black trousers. Shoes and stockings were on the feet. The clothing was not marked in any way and there was nothing in the pockets by which the man could be identified. That the body did not come from the insane asylum was certain, as there all the clothing is marked so as easily to be identified. Besides there was no record of any missing patient.

Chicago Inter Ocean, April 30, 1897:


Frank Johnson of No. 2033 Seipp avenue, who, in a fit of religious mania, cut off his right hand a few days ago, was before Judge Jones at the detention hospital yesterday.

When the Judge asked him why he did it he said in broken English: "I have read in the Bible if they right hand offend the cut him off, and I cut him off. I think he will grow again." An order was made committing the man to Dunning.

Chicago Daily Tribune, August 8, 1897:

Martha Grote, an inmate of the Dunning Asylum for the Insane, died on Friday night of laudanum poisoning. The woman managed to get into the drug closet, and swallowed the narcotic without the knowledge of the attendants. Her conditions was not noticed until the following morning. Every effort was made to revive her, but without success. A Coroner’s jury returned a verdict of suicide, and censured the attendants for carelessness.

Martha Grote was admitted to the asylum July 8. She was suffering from acute melancholia as the result of the death of her 5-year-old child. The child died from diphtheria, and the woman blamed herself for not securing the services of a physician sooner. She attempted suicide a dozen times before her husband made application to have her put under restraint.

The woman was placed in cottage No. 3, which is under the charge of Dr. Kearney, one of the woman physicians connected with the institution. Dr. Kearney had to exercise the greatest vigilance to prevent her from committing suicide. The woman insisted, however, that she must go and meet her child, and declared that she would never stop until she had ended her life.

Thursday night the ward was left in charge of Miss Garrahie and Miss Jones, attendants. Dr. Kearney made the rounds at 9 o’clock, and at that time there was nothing wrong with the woman.

The drug locker is in a small hallway outside the main ward. The attendants have medicines to administer at certain hours but the orders are exceedingly strict to keep the locker under lock and key. In some way Mrs. Grote managed to evade the vigilance of the attendants and secured possession of the poison. There were five ounces in the vial and the woman swallowed one ounce.

The next morning she was discovered to be in a comatose condition, and, though every restorative known to medical science was applied, they were without effect.

It was a mystery how she had broken into the cabinet.

"The affair is a mystery to me," said Dr. Kearney, "though there must have been unpardonable carelessness somewhere. The orders about the medicine locker are exceedingly strict. The insane are sly, however, and the woman must have watched her opportunity to slip out and secure the poison while the door was temporarily unlocked and the attendant’s back was turned. At any rate, the bottle was found in her bed.

"We tried to keep her alive by artificial respiration, but she was too far gone. That the woman was determined to commit suicide was shown by the discovery of two of her stockings tied together by her apron strings and formed in the shape of a noose. This was taken from beneath her pillow."

"I would rather have lost a month’s salary than have this thing happen," said Superintendent Lang, [sic, Lange] "for Dunning is suffering from past ills and the present management gets the benefit of it. The institution is being run stricter today than any time in its history, yet those things will happen in spite of the utmost vigilance. The trouble with us out here is that we do not have enough attendants. In the State asylums there is always an attendant for every sixteen patients, while here we are not allowed more than one attendant to thirty and forty patients. There are sixty patients in Dr. Kearney’s ward and only two attendants at night. It is very hard to watch so many. Yet I do not condone the leaving of the medicine locker open. This was the worst kind of carelessness and if I knew who was guilty of it that person who have to leave the asylum instantly."

A Chicago Inter Ocean article from October 24, 1897, lists cases at the Cook County Detention Hospital, including many people who were sent to Dunning. Many of those admitted to Dunning exhibited symptoms such as hearing voices and feeling that they were being persecuted.

Two men are brought in by the benevolent doctor in charge of the Bridewell. They were "run in" there for disorderly conduct, but after serving out their sentence they were proven insane rather than disorderly. One was plain crazy; the other is 26, and imagines himself to be a first-rate pugilist, having once fought and whipped eight men who tried to rob him, he thinks he has also been victor in the biggest "mill" ever fought. Both go to Dunning for safe-keeping and shelter for the approaching winter.

Theresa K. may be 35 and is so emaciated that one could count every bone in her hands, face, and neck. Her husband says that he can see that she is insane, but cannot tell what she does or says that makes him think so. She walks about night and day, sometimes excitedly, sometimes listlessly; again she will tear everything to pieces within her reach, or will climb on the ledge in the window and be in great danger of falling; talks about her sister, long since dead, and declares her food is poisoned purposely so she can’t eat. Has been ill for several years, and goes to Dunning, for which her friends pay…

Catherine T. is 56, and has been a terror to her family for seventeen years, or since the birth of her last child. Her doctor testified that she was something like a wild cat, when he was called in to see her; has been ill for six months, her husband thinking at first it was temper from her scolding so much. "All the same," she interrupted, "I have cooked and washed all along for the whole family, and I wish I was dead." But this is not necessary, for her way is paid to Dunning, over which preside very womanly and scientific women, who will soon have her in a convalescent condition, and in a mood grateful for the privilege of living.

A 90-year-old woman who had walked from Kankakee, found wandering the streets and talking to herself.

Maggie Mc. The doctor in the case testified that she can’t be trusted in public, her conduct not being proper. Five years ago she had a fall that left her unconscious for several hours; her wrist was broken at the time, and now there is a suspicion that her skull must have been fractured. She is silly, helpless, Irish, very poor, and 28 years of age. Dunning…

Fredericka W. was found in the park by an officer sitting on the curbstone. When questioned she said she was searching for a prince, who had promised her marriage; 35, with weather-beaten complexion, and unkempt. Dunning.

Catherine L. is about 35; she never speaks except under provocation, then she throws things at the head of any one within reach, and calls vile names, her language being very rough; talks to herself, and is often furious; she threatened to throw a burning lamp at a neighbor; her best friend seems to be herself, with whom she talks and laughs. She owns a flat building, where she is obliged to live alone because her tenants will not remain. But the greatest sin that is laid to her is that she has a pet cat, which she carries about and talks to it, and laughs over it. Continued.

Sarah S. is a pretty blonde and furious in her madness. Her father says that a young man paid her court for a year, then suddenly became non est. She has been unmanageable for a month and now goes to an asylum…

Fannie C. is about 28. Her sister (the only relative in this country) testified that she thinks every one is against her, that she buys many clothes and things that are unnecessary. Two years ago she was adjudged insane, but the sister managed to have her stay with her, and paid for her in extra work. She runs away, and cries for her mother, who has been dead five years, and latterly took to brandishing a carving knife and threatening to paint the house read. Kankakee and paid for by the sister, who earns $3 a week at housework.

Edward H. worked for a lady in the suburbs at gardening and other things pertaining to it. He grew silly and was discharged, then worked at several other places, and was continually talking about the daughter of the first place he worked at. He is 30, and has a rich, Irish brogue; but there was method in his madness, when he wrote love letters to "Birdie," enclosing an offer of marriage and a $20 gold piece in one. He has upward of $200 in his possession for which the court appointed a conservator and sent him to Dunning…

William L. is 45 and looks to be 65. An officer found him wandering about the boulevards ogling women and girls. When the court said, "Dunning," and the bailiff quickly headed him toward the door, he turned in amazement and shouted "It doesn’t take long to do up a man here."

Considine Z. is 25 and was found by an officer hanging around a Polish church, where he had picked up a red lamp and threw it at the alter and did other descrations (sic) because "the Irish had been served before he was by the priest." Dunning.

William Mitchell is colored and 43; extremely emaciated. His sister testified to his delusions of knowing that people are after him for murderous purposes. For eight months he hears the voices of spirits and knows to whom they belong. Dunning…


A Chicago Inter Ocean article on November 7, 1897, described the climate at Dunning as "salubrious" and described the following patients who had been committed recently.

B. is a Swede and a tailor by trade; has worked steadily for a long time; has become emaciated and unsteady in speech and action, and shows that sewing is no more conducive to health and sanity for men than for women; he hears voices, and has other such delusions, has read much; is suicidal, and tried to jump over the banisters at the detention into the basement. Kankakee, and paid for…

—— P. … cries and frets, and is very excitable, flying into a passion whenever he attempts to do anything…

Timothy O’B., has wife and two children, aged 16 and 19. His nephew testified that he had acquired the big head, ordering dry goods jewelry in great abundance, with no cash to pay; he also imagine he has valuable and paying property. He is 48 years of age and a boiler-maker by trade. He has in reality $2,000 worth of property, bringing in $10 or $11 of monthly rent, and a flat for themselves to live in, and some expectations from the wife’s parents. His trouble began by falling from a ladder two years ago and hurting his back and side, and alter, after developing rough behavior, it is said that he was struck over the head by a policeman, thought which he has become a raving maniac, necessitating cuffs and irons in order to take him to the station and finally to detention. Dunning temporarily and paid for…

John E. N. is 28, and is the perfect image of ex-Governor Altgeld. He was in the bicycle business for a year, then sold the property, and the money was lost. His brother testified that he has been arrested several times for walking the streets day and night. Now he is the prophet and the Christ, seeing and knowing people who are down in the earth. When Judge Carter asked him specifically about these delusions he looked up sharply and said: "Why, don’t you see those people yourself, and you an intelligent man?" He, too, had not good mother or nurse to teach him, when a little lad, the difference between right and wrong, and now he will spend some time in Dunning, where his first primary lesson in morals will begin, to the end that he may become a worthy citizen and not an imbecile…

John L. has wife and three living children, two having died; rolls over and over and jumps often two hours at a time; has delusions of persecution, and declares his blood boils; he heard two men talking together that they would bury him in a hole which they would dig between their houses. He has been in this condition for three years; and when he is ready to retire, instead of going to bed, he will walk about the room for hours. His son and wife testified that he had been steady and kind to his family until this cross came upon him. Dunning.

Chicago Daily Tribune, December 22, 1897:

Another suicide has occurred at Dunning. At 5 o’clock last night Henrietta Pope broke into the medicine closet, secured a bottle of carbolic acid and drank sufficient to kill herself immediately.

Two female attendants have been suspended on account of the affair. Ms. Ellen O’Connor and May Shea are charged with neglect of duty in connection with the affair.

[There had been another suicide on Monday morning. Attendants Nestle and Hamilton were suspended on account of that incident.]

Chicago Inter Ocean, January 9, 1898:

"Over the bills to the poorhouse!" That tells the story.

Call it an asylum for the poor, a home for the friendless, refuge for the indigent, or by any kindred name, the existing conditions are invariably the same, and by no circumlocutions can one forget, for one moment that the place designated is the poorhouse.

Generations of persons have been brought up with a righteous fear of this popular institution, for, unfortunately, it is popular. Sunday-school stories of the early ‘50s were rich in poorhouse lore. They moralized and prophesied; they related of quaint old ladies who had seen better days; then brought their characters into poverty and turned them "over the hills." But always to some purpose, understand; the plot was thickened by the introduction of a wealthy relative whose existence had been unsuspected heretofore, and this convenient personage is charitable enough to die a few chapters on, and, leaving no will, his vast accumulations are obliged to descend to the next of kin. Of course, this next of kin is discovered to the reader to be no other than the quaint old lady herself, and she, lingering awhile in graceful allegory, soon sails away from the poorhouse and shortly after has a "stroke"  quaint old ladies from poorhouses always have "strokes." Her dying words are those of warning, and of a nature to be considered helpful in presenting a moral to the Sunday-school child’s mind that will prove helpful to him in after life, and incidentally to the county.

The poorhouse of romance is, usually, far out from town on some lonely country road, hidden in a dreary grove of scraggly maple trees. The "keeper" is pictured as a gruff man, of course, but the novelist allows the wife a more tender heart, and then the quaint old ladies tell you all about it. In some districts the county land has to be worked, which is attached to the premises, and here its paupers are the laborers. Such an institution then becomes a poor farm, and its inmates consider themselves on a higher social plane than the dwellers in mere poorhouses.

Our country poor in country poorhouses are, many of them, eminently respectable, and their cases are pitiable. The city poor in city poorhouses are, on the contrary, of quite a different class. As an instance, the condition of the inmates of the Cook county poorhouse at Dunning may be cited. This institution is one of the greatest of its kind in the world. Here one day this week the register showed that 1,433 paupers were being cared for, and it often happens that the number of inmates runs up to 1,900. It is a hard fact that there are scarcely a dozen of them who come half way up to the requirements of the pauper in romance. Of course, it must be remembered that at the Dunning institution destitute cripples and invalids, likewise imbeciles and idiots, dependent on charity, are taken care of. To these one’s heart goes out, even though many of them have brought their misfortunes upon their own heads.

Of the fairly able-bodied male inmates at Dunning many perform some kind of labor and do it expeditiously and faithfully.

Picture of Dunning inmates: Chicago Inter Ocean, Jan. 9, 1898.

To read more about Dunning, see Perry Duis' book Challenging Chicago.