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The Topeka State Hospital as it stood in November, 2008
The Topeka State Hospital, a publicly funded institution for the care and treatment of the mentally ill in Topeka, Kansasmarker, was in operation from 1872 to 1997. Located at 2700 W 6th st, the hospital opened in 1879 after the Osawatomie State Hospital, once thought to be sufficient, became overcrowded with mentally ill inmates.

Patient Treatment and Abuse

There were horror stories from the early 1900s about patients being abused, neglected, or raped. One newspaper reporter told of seeing a patient who had been confined in leather straps so long, the skin was growing around the straps. A common sight during those times was patients sitting in rocking chairs in the hallways all day long, with no opportunity for other activity. Legal commitment papers couldn't be found for some of the patients, and some patients couldn't even be accurately identified. Many patients still were being admitted as a result of the legal process and weren't having their actual mental conditions evaluated by hospital officials. Patients were sometimes kept chained and nude for months or even years.

An alarm arose in 1948 over the deplorable conditions at TSH, caused by such factors as reduced expenditures by the state and a shortage of psychiatrists, psychologists and other professional personnel. Gov. Frank Carlson appointed a five-member panel to study the situation. After the committee released its report in October 1948, the Legislature doubled the appropriations for mental hospitals, made TSH a training center for psychiatric personnel and implemented other changes.

The major reform begun that year produced rapid improvement in conditions at TSH, though limited frequently by a lack of funding from the state government. The practice of placing patients in rocking chairs in the hallways during the daytime was discontinued. Incidents of patient mistreatment were investigated and corrected. Psychiatrists from the Menninger Foundation volunteered some of their own time to examine patients, and Menninger psychologists helped organize a department of psychology at TSH.

Forced Sterilizations

In 1913, the Kansas legislature passed the first sterilization law in the state. Many felt that the law was problematic, and thus its enforcement was less than stellar. In an attempt to make the process of the law easier, a second law was passed in 1917 which eliminated some of the work for the institutions. The 1913 law was directed at “habitual criminals, idiots, epileptics, imbeciles, and insane”. The 1917 law targeted the same groups, but eliminated the courts’ approval from the decision.

After the passage of the sterilization law in 1913, 54 sterilizations occurred over the next seven years. Because there was still a great deal of doubt and uncertainty regarding the laws, sterilizations occurred at a relatively slow rate up until 1921. However, with the passage of new laws and a new widespread acceptance, sterilizations began to increase rapidly until 1950. The rate of sterilization decreased steadily until 1961, when they ceased altogether. The rate of sterilizations per 100000 residents per year during the peak period of sterilizations, in the mid 1930s, was about 10. At least early on, most of Kansas' forced sterilizations took place in the State Hospital in Topeka.

Turnbull v. Topeka State Hospital and the State of Kansas

In 2001, Cynthia Turnbull, a psychologist at the Topeka State Hospital (TSH) in Kansas, sued her employer and the state for sexual harassment after she was sexually assaulted by a patient. The jury found a sexually hostile work environment existed at TSH, but it split over whether TSH should be held legally responsible for that environment. After learning of the jury's inability to decide, the district court granted an earlier defense motion for judgment as a matter of law. The sole issue on appeal was whether that ruling was proper. They held that it was not, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Murder of Stephanie Uhlrig

Stephanie Uhlrig worked as a music and activity therapist in the general hospital population. One of the patients at Topeka State Hospital was Kenneth D. Waddell, who had been placed in the custody of state mental health authorities after having been found not guilty by reason of insanity for the charge of aggravated battery. Waddell was initially placed in the Larned State Security Hospital, but on April 1, 1987, he was transferred to the Topeka State Hospital where he was placed in the Adult Forensic Ward (referred to as the "AWL unit"), which was a special unit secluded from the other units because it contained higher risk patients. This unit was closed due to budgetary constraits, and Waddell was eventually moved into the general population.

On February 23, 1992, Uhlrig and another therapist took Waddell and other patients off grounds to watch a movie. Upon returning to the hospital and dropping off the other patients, Waddell attacked and killed Uhlrig, and her body was found in the bathroom in one of the buildings on the grounds.

The United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, decided on Aug. 30, 1995 that "While Uhlrig's murder was undeniably tragic, it was not the result of reckless and "conscience shocking" conduct by the state mental health administrators sued in the instant case," thus affirming the district court's grant of Defendants' motion for summary judgment.


In 1988, the hospital lost its accreditation to receive federal Medicare and Medicaid payments. The Health Care Financing Administration determined that the State had omitted two patients from its inspection of care review at the hospital, which appealed and lost .

By the 1990s, the mental health movement was away from the hospital model and toward community-based programs. Partly because the community-based model appeared effective and partly because it was cheaper, the Kansas Legislature decided to close one of its three mental hospitals. TSH was chosen for closing and went out of business May 17, 1997.


The unmarked cemetery occupies a 2.8-acre plot on the northeast corner of the old Topeka State Hospital grounds and cradles the bodies of patients buried there over a 75-year period. The cemetery, which measures about 150 yards by 50 yards and is about 100 yards west of the 100 block of N.W. MacVicar, was assigned to the Kansas Department of Administration after the hospital closed in May 1997.

No signs, stonework, paths or roads mark the area as a cemetery. Of the 1,157 graves there, only 16 have headstones. The 2000 Kansas Legislature authorized construction of a memorial for people buried in the cemetery, including a plaque identifying the memorial, fencing to go around the cemetery and the inscription of the names of the dead.

The main building was on Kansas' "1997 Preservation Watch List"


  1. Topeka State leaves mixed legacy
  2. Kansas Eugenics
  3. Justia US Court of Appeals Opinion
  4. Uhlrig v. Topeka State Hospital
  5. Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services; Docket No 88-131
  6. Memorial for TSH cemetery needs funding Steve Fry, The Capital-Journal, Sunday, September 30, 2001
  7. Topeka State Hospital

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