Manteno State Hospital was for most of the twentieth century the largest institution for the mentally ill in Illinois, and one of the largest in America. Located in Kankakee County about forty miles southeast of Chicago and fifteen miles west of Wilmington hospital, Manteno State Hospital opened in 1930 and from its inception was in the forefront of technological and psychological advances in the treatment of the mentally ill throughout its history. For one thing, the 1,000 acres of grounds of Manteno State Hospital were landscaped, and the interiors of its 100 buildings were decorated (during the 1930’s, with WPA murals executed and installed by well-known artist Gustaf Dahlstrom to create a pleasant and salubrious ambience for both patients and staff.
The first of these murals, installed in the administration building lobby, depicted the legend of the Indian maiden Mantenau, for whom the town is named. With a population which ultimately exceeded eight thousand patients, the hospital was a community unto itself, with (starting in 1945) its own newspaper – the Manteno State Hospital News. MSH was also the first state hospital in Illinois to open its own synagogue, when it acquired a Torah and Ark for conducting Jewish services in 1953. Occupational and art therapy programs, such as the drum corps (instituted in 1955), were an integral part of MSH treatment. An annual Art-o-Rama exhibit and sale of patients’ artwork was instituted in 1957. The hospital even had its own Cinemascope movie theater, which opened in 1955, and its own bus line. Manteno State Hospital also had a farm colony worked by patients which produced over $30,000 in farm products in 1938, and provided the dining halls with fresh produce as well as earning spending money for the less-seriously ill inmates. A subterranean root cellar, completed in 1939, was used for storing vegetables.
As new psychiatric techniques for treating mental illness were introduced, they were quickly adopted as part of Manteno Illinois healthcare. For example, treatment trials of the Metrazol shock therapy for treating certain forms of schizophrenia and depression were begun in 1936, shortly after the technique was invented. Insulin, electro pyrexia, and electric shock therapies were also employed. A tuberculosis sanitarium was opened at Manteno in the fall of 1937. As new psychiatric drugs, such as chlorpromazine, reserpine, and other drugs used to treat schizophrenia and epilepsy were invented in the 1950’s, their effects were carefully studied at MSH. Since most voluntary admissions were patients with chronic alcoholism, a pioneering Alcoholics Anonymous program was instituted at MSH in 1958.
Manteno State Hospital was also closely associated with area educational and research institutions. In 1939 an outbreak of typhoid fever resulted in sixty patient deaths, which caused the authorities to issue a quarantine and a moratorium on new patient admittances for six months. As a result, Monteno State Hospital became a center for typhoid and malaria research; and later on research programs in steroid treatment of breast cancer were introduced. In 1947 the hospital became associated with the University of Illinois Department of Psychology, which offered its students two-month residencies at Manteno as part of their training. In 1950 the Manteno State Hospital bacteriological laboratory became part of the Illinois state Department of Health.
In the 1970’s Manteno State Hospital was rocked by several scandals, including the revelation of experimental surgeries which had been done on patients without their consent in the 1950’s, as well as charges of sexual abuse and a high percentage of patient deaths. The hospital population by this time had fallen to three thousand and continued to fall, and it was increasingly difficult to obtain competent staff. The hospital began to receive “undomiciled patients”: when a homeless person with no family ties showed up at any Chicago or Wilmington Illinois hospital, they were automatically sent to Manteno. Although Manteno was never designed to deal with violent patients, more and more mittimus patients – felons who were more intelligent and violent than regular patients – were sent to the hospital. Walkaways – escapees from the hospital due to inadequate supervision – caused fear in the community. By 1983 Governor Thompson decided to close MSH, which shut down operations on December 31, 1985.