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Homicide at Rochester State Hospital, 1889

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Black and white photograph of Rochester State Hospital.

Rochester State Hospital's buildings and grounds, undated. Reproduced in Rochester: Mecca for Millions (Marquette Bank and Trust, 1979), page 231.

The 1889 death of inmate Taylor Combs led to a scandal, and then major reforms, at the Rochester State Hospital for the Insane.

On April 1, 1889, attendants August Beckman and Edward Peterson reported a death to Dr. Jacob Bowers, superintendent of the Rochester State Hospital for the Insane. Inmate Taylor Combs, age thirty-seven, had fallen from a scaffold while cleaning the ceiling, requested a glass of water, and then left to lie down. He was found dead a short time later.

Bowers summoned the county medical examiner, who found that Combs had suffered a broken breastbone consistent with a fall and probably died of internal bleeding.

This version of events began to come apart the next day. John Date, a young painter working at the hospital, reported seeing Beckman and Peterson beating Combs with a cane, then a broom handle, and finally kneeling on his chest. Bowers immediately fired the two attendants but informed neither the county attorney nor the hospital board of the likely crime.

Date repeated his story, and word got out. Beckman and Peterson were charged with manslaughter, Bowers was suspended, and Governor William Merriam ordered an investigation.

Over the summer of 1889, 138 witnesses came forward. Their testimony ranged from praise for Bowers and his staff to disturbing tales of beatings and intimidation.

The investigative committee faced a difficult task. Many of the witnesses had been sent to the hospital for insanity, making their testimony at times doubtful. High turnover among attendants, which contributed to the abuse, meant that few of the accused could be confronted.

While the committee worked, the criminal justice system acted swiftly. In June Peterson and Beckman were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison terms of three and four years, respectively.

In mid-September the committee made its report. Though it absolved Bowers of wrongdoing, it found serious systemic problems. These included insufficient professional staffing; deficient supervision of attendants; twenty sustained cases of physical attendant-on-inmate abuse; and low pay rates that impeded the hiring of qualified staff.

The report also described how attendants concealed the abuse, teaching each other how to beat inmates without leaving marks. It revealed a culture of secrecy in which attendants concealed their coworkers' crimes and intimidated inmates into silence.

One issue that the report did not address was race. Beckman and Peterson were young white men from the countryside of southern Minnesota (and, in Beckman's case, from Germany). Combs was black, born a slave in Missouri. He had come to St. Paul as a youth, then twice been convicted of rape. He was serving a thirty-year sentence at Stillwater Prison when he was transferred, in 1887, to the state hospital for the insane for "chronic mania."

Combs's record at Rochester was mixed. He was polite and a diligent worker but made occasional, and loud, threats of violence. Just days before his killing he had had a high-volume dispute with Beckman. It is plausible that Combs's status as triply abject—a convict, mentally ill, black—made him easier to kill. But the committee left Combs's death mostly to the courts.

Bowers responded to the report with a letter of resignation. He argued that in a hospital whose inmate population exceeded eight hundred, and over ten years of service, twenty documented cases of abuse amounted to a commendable record.

At least some of the committee's recommendations were put into effect. Medical staff was turned over, a female physician was hired, and a nurses' training program was created. The new superintendent, Dr. Arthur Kilbourne, made positive changes in treatment. In February 1902 the St. Paul Globe printed a full-page story of praise entitled, "New Methods of Treating the Insane at Rochester." It appeared that Taylor Combs's killing had some good effects for those who came after him at Rochester.

Then on November 10, 1902, a different story broke. Attendants had killed an inmate at the Rochester State Hospital with blows to the ribs and sternum. Kilbourne's reforms, it seemed, had improved the hospital but not assured that incidents like Taylor Combs's murder could not happen again.

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"Attendants Examined." Rochester Post and Record, November 11, 1902.

"District Court." Stillwater Messenger, November 23, 1877.

"Evening of Testimony." Rochester Post and Record, November 14, 1902.

"Hospital Investigation." Rochester Post, October 4, 1889.

"Inquest Continues." Rochester Post and Record, November 12, 1902.

"Inquest Continues." Rochester Post and Record, November 13, 1902.

"The Inquest Ends." Rochester Post and Record, November 15, 1902.

"Inquiry at Asylum." Rochester Post and Record, November 10, 1902.

"Insane Hospital Report and Investigation." Rochester Post, June 14, 1889.

"Killed a Man: the Asylum at Rochester the Scene of a Cold-Blooded Murder." St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 2, 1889.

"Killed by Attendants." Rochester Post, June 7, 1889.

"The Killing of Combs." Rochester Post, June 28, 1889.

"A Nameless Crime." Stillwater Messenger, June 15, 1877.

Minnesota State Board of Corrections and Charities. Third Biennial Report of the State Board of Corrections and Charities to the Legislature of Minnesota. St. Paul: Pioneer Press Company, 1889.

——— . Fourth Biennial Report of the State Board of Corrections and Charities to the Legislature of Minnesota. Minneapolis: Harrison & Smith Printers, 1891.

"New Methods of Treating Insane at Rochester." St. Paul Globe, February 23, 1902.

"Report of the Grand Jury." Rochester Post, June 21, 1889.

Patient case books, 1879–1903
Rochester State Hospital (Minn.)
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: See patient casebook number eight containing information about the personal and medical history of Taylor Combs, compiled during his residency at Rochester State Hospital.

Records of Governor William Merriam, 1888–1901, (bulk 1888–1893)
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gov025.xml
Description: Governor Merriam's papers contain the proceedings of the committee tasked with investigating Taylor Combs's death.

"Whitewash Brush Used: Verdict of the Coroner's Jury on the Death of Halm at Rochester Asylum." St. Paul Globe, November 15, 1902.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Rochester State Hospital.
Black and white photograph of Rochester State Hospital.
Headline of a June 2, 1889 St. Paul Pioneer Press story describing Taylor Combs's killing.
Headline of a June 2, 1889 St. Paul Pioneer Press story describing Taylor Combs's killing.
Black and white photograph of Dr. Jacob E. Bowers, superintendent of Rochester State Hospital, c.1875.
Black and white photograph of Dr. Jacob E. Bowers, superintendent of Rochester State Hospital, c.1875.
William R. Merriam
William R. Merriam
Black and white photograph of Dr. Arthur Kilbourne, 1902.
Black and white photograph of Dr. Arthur Kilbourne, 1902.

Turning Point

On May 30, 1889, an Olmsted County grand jury indicts hospital employees August Beckman and Edward Peterson for manslaughter. Taylor Combs's violent death becomes public.

Chronology

1869

Sixteen-year-old Taylor Combs is convicted of rape in Ramsey County on October 6 and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

1872

Governor Horace Austin pardons Combs on January 1.

1877

On November 22, Combs is convicted again of rape and sentenced to thirty years in prison.

1887

On June 30, Combs is transferred from Stillwater Prison to Rochester State Hospital for the Insane.

April 1, 1889

Combs is found dead at the hospital.

April 4, 1889

Superintendent Dr. Jacob Bowers fires the two attendants, Edward Peterson and August Beckman, he believes to be responsible for Combs's death.

May 30, 1889

The Olmsted County grand jury indicts Peterson and Beckman for manslaughter.

June 1889

Governor Merriam appoints a commission to investigate patient abuse at the hospital. Drs. Bowers and Collins of the hospital are suspended.

June 27, 1889

Beckman and Peterson are convicted; the following day they are sentenced and sent to prison.

Septem-ber 16, 1889

The commission issues its report; Bowers resigns as superintendent.

Novem-ber 7, 1902

Inmate George Halm dies of injuries to the ribs and sternum suffered in a violent struggle with attendants at the hospital.

Novem-ber 14, 1902

A coroner's jury rules Halm's death accidental.