Ben Osborne shot Theodore Schrader to death in front of Atlanta’s Union depot Oct. 9, 1896, thinking that Schrader was somehow connected with having stolen Osborne’s soul and giving it to a dog. Osborne was arrested, indicted and held pending trial in the Fulton County jail.
On Nov. 19, Osborne appeared before Judge John Candler in Fulton Superior Court, his head bound with a string which he insisted was necessary to keep the dog’s brain in his head from exploding. Osborne refused to remove his hat in court and was permitted to keep it on. Osborne’s attorneys, the prestigious firm of Glenn, Slaton and Phillips, had already filed a plea of insanity and the case began with the testimony of doctors who had examined Osborne before and after his arrest.
The doctors testified to Osborne’s history of mental illness and his worsening condition in the weeks preceding the shooting. Ed Osborne testified that the family had made every effort to have Ben committed on a lunacy warrant, but had been unsuccessful. Drs. Knott and Jarnigan testified for the prosecution, saying that they were satisfied that Osborne was insane at the time of the shooting. Judge Candler gave the case to the jury, instructing them that they were to rule only on the matter of Osborne’s sanity, not on his guilt or innocence. The jury returned in three minutes with a finding of insanity and Judge Candler sentenced Ben Osborne to commitment in the state asylum at Milledgeville until such time as he should be judged cured and the legislature should pass a special act for his release.
Osborne was taken by train to Milledgeville the next day in the custody of Special Bailiff Bob Smith, a strange character who had until recently been a prisoner in the Fulton jail himself. While locked up, Smith had had a vision concerning “the virtue of women and the purity of men.” Upon release he had hired a hall and put up billboards around Atlanta announcing a lecture based on this vision. He faced an empty house the first night, but on the second evening drew a large crowd which came armed with eggs and apples. How Smith came to be entrusted with the care of his prisoner remains one of the mysteries surrounding Ben Osborne’s case.
Osborne had been in the asylum less than two months when Principal Keeper Dr. T.O. Powell told a Journal reporter that “Osborne has recovered and is all right mentally now, but he is predisposed to lunacy and there is no certainty but that he may relapse again.” By February 1897 Dr. Powell told Osborne’s parents that their son was cured and he was willing to write a certificate of sanity to present to the legislature. Osborne took heart on hearing of this and bitterly disappointed when Dr. Powell and Dr. Hagan, his family physician decided against lobbying for his release.
Osborne began to write letters to his mother complaining of insufficient food and exercise. When his father came to visit in June Osborne told him that if the legislature did not release him before the end of the year that he would escape the asylum and flee the country and no one would ever hear of him again. Mr. Osborne tried to get certificates of sanity from the doctors, but was again refused.
In December 1897 Ben Osborne wrote a letter, it is not clear to whom, charging Dr. T.O. Powell and his staff with persecution and mistreatment. Osborne claimed that state funds were squandered to support in luxury “would-be physicians who are given to indolence, hypocrisy and persecution.” He claimed that “my dear wife has been insulted by Powell and I am unable to redress her wrongs, but the rascals are marked, and some day retribution will o’ertake them and they will be consigned to the hell from whence they proceeded.”
Osborne stated that patients arriving at the asylum were bathed in a tub which was “a daily receptacle for filth, and in case they resist they are thrown to the floor by the attendants and choked to insensibility.”
Osborne’s letter was not made public at the time it was written, and neither were the deaths of several inmates of the asylum which occurred around the same time. Dr. Powell was widely held to be a model enlightened administrator and the state asylum was heralded in the Georgia press as an institution “of which too much cannot be said in commendation of the way in which it is managed.” The year was drawing to a close and Dr. Powell and his staff were preparing for the Lunatic’s Ball, an annual dance for the patients often attended by state officials, including the governor.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.