Murder at Rochester’s State Hospital for the Insane – Post Bulletin
Hospitals of all kinds are meant to be places of comfort and healing.
In 1889, however, a patient at Rochester State Hospital for the Insane was killed in a case involving patient negligence and substandard staff. It cost the life of a man, caused the resignation of the superintendent of the hospital and damaged the reputation of the establishment.
And the crime only came to light because a witness overcame his fear and finally told authorities what he had seen.
Rochester State Hospital was originally established by the state legislature in 1876 as an institution for drunks. It was to be funded by an annual tax of $10 on all establishments that sold liquor. The tax was challenged in the state Supreme Court, where it was ruled constitutional. But given the unpopularity of the tax, the whole idea was scrapped by the state and the mission of the new hospital was changed to the treatment of mental illnesses.
With the $36,000 in liquor tax that had already been collected, the state purchased a 160-acre farm from Jacob Rickert east of town – the current location of the Federal Medical Center in Rochester – and began construction of the main hospital building. Dr. Jacob Eaton Bowers, assistant superintendent at St. Peter’s State Hospital, has been named superintendent of the new Rochester facility.
Bowers had taught French and German at a high school in Canada before attending and earning his medical degree at the University of Michigan.
“There never was a gentleman in Rochester more highly respected or more greatly esteemed by all who know him,” according to Joseph Leonard’s “History of Olmsted County,” published in 1910.
On January 1, 1879, the new Rochester State Hospital for the Insane received its first patients – 100 patients transferred from St. Peter’s Institution. Over the next decade, Bowers and his staff set high standards for the operation of the institution.
The hospital operated a farm in what is now Quarry Hill Park. In 1882 what is now the Quarry Hill Caves was dug to serve as a cellar for the storage of many farm grown vegetables. A team of six men from the public hospital dug the series of caves in the soft sandstone.
However, “a most unfortunate event”, as Leonard described it, took place on April 1, 1889.
Two hospital staff attendants reported that Taylor Combs, a 37-year-old patient they were monitoring, fell from scaffolding while cleaning the ceiling. According to attendants August Beckman, 25, and Edward Peterson, 23, Combs asked for a drink of water after his fall and then went to bed. Shortly after, he was found dead.
A seemingly cursory examination by the county coroner determined that Combs had suffered a fractured sternum and died of internal bleeding.
Combs, a black man born into slavery in Missouri, was serving a 30-year prison sentence for rape when he was sent to the state hospital for treatment for “mania.” He was reported as a polite patient but was prone to outbursts of violence. He and Beckman had had an argument of some sort a few days earlier.
The “accident” story was accepted by hospital authorities, and Combs’ body was returned to his family in St. Paul. However, word quickly spread that John Date, a 20-year-old laborer, had painted in a nearby hallway and witnessed what had happened to Combs. Date, however, was afraid of reprisals from Beckman and at first refused to say what he had seen.
Eventually, Date revealed to authorities that he observed Beckman and Peterson beat Combs with a broomstick and cane, then kneel on the victim’s chest.
Superintendent Bowers, when informed of Date’s version of events, fired Beckman and Peterson, but did not bother to report what had happened to the hospital board or to law enforcement. It turns out that, as the History of Olmsted County reports, the legislature at the time was considering a major appropriation for public hospitals, and any adverse publicity could have jeopardized that funding.
But as news of Date’s story spread, Bowers was suspended, Beckman and Peterson were charged with manslaughter, and a state investigation was opened. Combs’s body was exhumed and an examination revealed that the fatal injuries were much more serious than originally thought.
At a trial in June, Beckman and Peterson were found guilty and sent to prison. Beckman was sentenced to four years in prison and Peterson was sentenced to three years.
Meanwhile, officials began a lengthy investigation into conditions at the hospital. Governor-appointed investigators interviewed dozens of witnesses, including hospital staff and patients. A pattern of patient abuse by poorly paid and undertrained attendants has been uncovered. Bowers, however, was absolved of any wrongdoing in the Combs case.
In fact, investigators “highly praised his ability and conscientious loyalty” in running the hospital, according to Leonard’s book. Now that he has been exonerated, Bowers has resigned from his position. He went into private practice, first in St. Paul, then in Duluth.
Before leaving Rochester, Bowers was feted with a reception at the Cook Hotel, where he received a gold watch, and where “highly commendatory addresses” were delivered by, among others, attorney CC Willson (who had represented Beckman and Peterson in their lawsuit), and Dr. William W. Mayo.
The hospital closed in 1982. Rochester Federal Medical Center was built on the grounds of the old hospital in 1984.