Letter to Dr. Elliott Kinney
Dear Dr. Kinney:
TheBoard of the Northern Michigan Insane Asylum accepts your request for personal time off. The transition from physician in a hospital for the body to an institution devoted to illnesses of the mind is a difficult one. We have reviewed your log sheets and have discovered that for the past few months you have worked approximately sixty hours a week, an exhausting load for any professional. We have agreed to grant you the holidays off with pay. You are asked to return to the Asylum on February 1, 1933. At that time we hope you will resume your duties to the patients that have so come to rely on you.
From the Record Eagle
December 27, 1932
…According to the State of Michigan Health Department, the rate of new tuberculosis cases is on the rise. While not officially an epidemic, the disease is spreading at an alarming rate. The Northern Michigan Insane Asylum has donated one of the wings of the institution to offset Munson hospital’s overburdened facility. If you or a loved on develops symptoms common to tuberculosis, please seek medical treatment at the asylum at once. It is a closed ward and will allow you to fully recuperate and lessen the chances of spreading the disease.
Ama placed her hand over the curve of her abdomen. She could no longer fit into the dresses her husband had given her. For Kinney called himself her husband and it was how she thought of him. She thought she could remember their wedding on the shore of Lake Superior. No. Michigan. Lake Michigan. And the wind was warm and the waves were gentle and the sun shone as if blessing them with good fortune.
There was something not right though. Ama sat in a chair and breathed heavily. She could no longer inhale and make her stomach flat. It would not flatten. She wasn’t sure what was happening to her, but felt perhaps it was like the stories her….who? Who told her? She vaguely remembered hearing her papa tell her about demons and the fight against evil and the other papa drawing pictures on her walls. But that wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right. A girl didn’t have two papas. She had one. And her father’s name was Edward and her mother’s name was…Lucy…and her name was Rose.
At that moment something within her stomach fluttered and she became aware of the creature inside her.
Mallie Lyn Peters was in the kitchen when she heard Mrs. Kinney screaming. She thought of her now as Mrs. Kinney as it was so much easier than Rose or Ama or whomever the doctor wanted to believe she was. “I don’t know that I agree with his experiments” she’d thought to herself over and over. At the same time, they didn’t seem to do harm exactly. It’s just that the woman who he claimed as his wife had started out so wild and raw and beautiful in a way. Now, she was like so many of the doctors’ wives. Pale and timid and as tremulous as a butterfly. This wouldn’t happen to her, Mallie assured herself. When George finally asked her to marry him (for surely he would) she wouldn’t lose an ounce of who she was to him. Not one ounce.
She abandoned these thoughts along with the slice of cake she was eating and ran up the long stairs to attend to the mistress. “Madam! Madam Kinney? Are you all right in there? May I come in, ma’am?” Mallie hesitated at the door. There was, of course, no lock on it and she could certainly enter it of her will, but she didn’t want to upset the doctor if he found out. She placed her ear to the door and confirmed that the Mistress inside was crying. Mallie opened the door gently and then just as gently closed the door behind her. Mrs. Kinney stood in front of her, naked, and achingly beautiful. Her long dark hair fell over her shoulders and touched the top of her heavy breasts, for they were heavy and Mallie noted at once the curve of the woman’s abdomen.
“What is wrong with me?” Mrs. Kinney asked in a shaking voice. “There’s a creature…” she whispered.
“A creature?” Mallie felt a deep sadness penetrate her heart. She’d really thought that Mrs. Kinney was well. That somehow she’d managed to avoid the illnesses that floated in the asylum like a mist.
“A creature! Here!” And she pointed to her stomach.
It took Mallie a moment to understand. “Why…Ma’am, don’t you know? That’s not a creature but a child you’re expecting. You’ve got an angel growing inside you, you do.” Mallie smiled warmly at the woman and reached for her robe. She draped it tenderly across the woman’s shoulders. She seemed to flinch at the touch and then relaxed into the comfort of the robe. “Ma’am, sit down. Please. I’ll get you something to eat. You’ve got to eat more when you’re eating for two.”
Mrs. Kinney sat on the side of her bed. She did not acknowledge Mallie, but turned instead to look out the window. Outside it was swirling white: a blizzard. “A child,” she said as Mallie left the room. Mallie wasn’t sure if she’d said the word with hope or with fear.
Inside the asylum, chaos swirled. White sheets flapped as orderlies made beds, moved equipment, set up screens between the beds, then abandoned doing so when they ran out of both. The coughing could be heard even outside the ward. At first men and women were separated, but within a week the ward was filled with both sexes. They lay on cots, sat in chairs. The coughing became a chorus and blood sprinkled. Fevers spiked and nurses ran from bed to bed tending the sick. There was running. Cries of pain. Screams pleading to be released. The Superintendent stood at the entrance to the ward, watching the chaos rise and crash like waves. “You are here for your own good!” called Christopher Grooms. “For the value of society! You are here to heal!”
To that, a frail woman with stringy blond hair said “We are here to die.”
“I don’t know what to do,” the head nurse said to him. “We don’t have any more beds left, sir. We don’t have the staff to support this. Tell the city we cannot…”
Mr. Grooms stopped her with a glance. “You have no concept at all with what we’re dealing with. The state has offered us money, real money and…” He breathed heavily. “Take over Ward C. Combine the three levels of asylum patients into one area except for the highest paying ones. Let them continue to have their space until we can figure out something for them. Call in all support staff and physicians that are on vacation. We will ride this out. It’s only an epidemic. Epidemics pass.” He did not finish the sentence but the nurse understood. Epidemics passed when everyone died.
It was during this conversation when an inmate disappeared from the asylum. Robert Kostic was no longer in solitary. No longer in the Men’s Ward. The orderlies assumed he’d been sent to the TB ward, and the TB ward no longer cared who entered. They only recorded how many they were treating to secure funds from the state. And so, Kostic slipped quietly out of the asylum and straight into the brewing storm.