My mentally ill great-uncle spent 72 years in custody. Today he’d be isolated in a prison cell—or maybe homeless and dangerous.
To say I didn’t know my great-uncle, Wolfe Levine, would understate things. Though my grandfather and I were close, for years I didn’t know he had a brother. In retrospect, it’s clear Wolfe was simply unmentionable. We’d write it off today as the stigma of mental illness.
Wolfe’s story is tragic, dating from an era of large public asylums that America has sought to forget. His journey to the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Lima, Ohio, began in 1910 with a criminal conviction: one to five years in a reformatory for pickpocketing. Six years before, Wolfe had immigrated to America at age 14. Theft was not a shocking charge for a young man in Cleveland, living on a block of ramshackle frame houses with his widowed mother and her three other children. Once convicted Wolfe would never again be a free man.
After less than two years in the reformatory—later made famous as the setting for “The Shawshank Redemption”—he exhibited “persecutory delusions” and “auditory hallucinations.” That’s how he wound up in Lima, where the conditions were so bad that by 1974 a federal judge chastised Ohio for failing to ensure “dignity, privacy and humane care.”
My great-uncle was still there. He died in custody in 1982, at 92, and was buried near Toledo, the costs covered by a fund for indigents supported by a local Jewish federation. Wolfe had spent 72 years in institutions. In the language of reformers, he had been “warehoused” for his entire adult life. His aspiration to be a playwright, the occupation he listed when admitted to the reformatory, would prove a dark irony for someone formally diagnosed with dementia praecox—schizophrenia, as it later came to be called.
Yet the story is not so straightforwardly bleak as it seems....
Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute. From 1987 through 2006, he was director of case studies in public policy and management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. This piece was adapted from the Spring 2017 Issue of City Journal.