Ben Osborne had been found not guilty of the murder of Theodore Schrader by reason of insanity and sent to the state lunatic asylum in Milledgeville in November 1896. After several months, the doctors found him in complete possession of his faculties, but hesitated to release him because of his history of recurrent bouts of insanity. Osborne grew impatient and angry with Dr. T.O. Powell, principal keeper of the asylum, and told his father that he would escape and flee the country if he were not released within a year.
On the night of Jan. 4, 1898, a masquerade ball was held at the asylum. Dr. Powell encouraged weekly dances for male and female inmates who were not considered dangerous, and once a year a more elaborate entertainment was held. The dances attracted much attention and were often pointed to as evidence of Dr. Powell’s humane and enlightened administration. Shortly before Osborne’s admission to the asylum, Governor W.Y. Atkinson had attended one of these soirées.
The masquerade was held in the auditorium of the women’s building. Shortly before midnight Osborne said he wanted to return to his room, and two attendants were detailed to escort him, apparently with some physical restraint. When the three men left the building, Osborne wrenched himself loose and pulled a pistol, which he fired twice at the attendants before running toward the main asylum building. At that moment Dr. Powell was returning to his apartment in the main building. He heard the shots, saw the figure coming towards him, and positioned himself to intercept him. As Osborne passed within a few feet of Powell he fired two shots at the doctor, one of which passed through his coat. Osborne did not pause, but kept running for the asylum gate and freedom.
The alarm was raised throughout the state and authorities went on alert in the counties adjoining Milledgeville, throughout Atlanta, and in Towns and Troup counties, where Osborne had relatives. Osborne’s cell was searched and a homemade rope found hidden. There were no clues as to how he had gotten a pistol or why he had not made his escape less dramatically with the rope.
The day after the escape the Constitution printed a remarkable letter from Ben Osborne which he had mailed from the asylum a few hours before his escape. Part of the letter, titled “A Voice from the Insane Asylum,” had been composed in November, and part in late December. The letter denounced Dr. Powell as a sadistic charlatan who presided over a living hell where patients were starved, tortured and murdered at taxpayers’ expense:
If a patient becomes extraordinarily crazy and hits an attendant or the doctor a towel is placed around his neck and he is choked to death, or “shut off,” as they call it. The cause of his death is reported as a severe attack of “convulsion” or “suicide.” Some when they arrive are not very crazy, but a few weeks of the above treatment under the most “scientific physicians” suffice to render him an incurable maniac… Life in the asylum, as it is conducted in Georgia, is worse than death, and in closing I wish to entreat the good people of the state to never commit any of their loved ones to such a place as this…
Osborne’s letter continued passionately articulate till nearly the end when he wrote of his blighted hopes of becoming one of the world’s greatest orators. He compared himself with Jonathan Swift and John C. Calhoun and said that he had become a Theosophist and intended “to shuffle off this cognomen and physiognomy which has from its infancy borne the brunt of sorrow and misfortune and take on one similar to some of the great men of ancient times.”
Osborne’s charges prompted several letters in the state press in support of Dr. Powell, one from a former inmate of the asylum, one from a patient still under treatment there, one from a physician friend of Powell’s, and one from an Alabama doctor who said that anyone who thought mistreatment went on in an asylum was obviously profoundly insane. The only newspaper to give any credence to Osborne’s charges was, predictably, Atlanta’s iconoclastic Looking Glass, wherein Orth Stein wrote, “The allegations of cruelty may or may not be true, but they do not read like fabrications. They ought to be thoroughly investigated but under present political conditions one might as well wish for the moon.”
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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