The Crusade for Forgotten Souls: Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946–1954
Susan Bartlett Foote
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018
312 pages; soft cover; photos; $22.95
Reviewed by Gary Gleason

Susan Bartlett Foote has written an impressive book that combines a great story and exhaustive research about the early years of social welfare reform. The Crusade for Forgotten Souls: Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 19461954, won a Minnesota Book Award in April and is seen through the lens of several mental institutions, the history of which dates from the late 1800s. Foote, a professor emeriti in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, relates how society, religion, and politics, meld and push key players beyond their comfort levels into a strong foundation still relevant today.

Foote’s personal connection to this subject is significant. While closet cleaning, she discovered the personal papers of her former father-in-law, the Rev. Arthur Foote, who was a Unitarian called to ministry at St. Paul’s Unity Church. Handwritten notes, newspaper clippings, and copies of speeches were primary sources that led her to unearth an array of material, answering many of her own questions and providing convictions for the future.

While relating sometimes tedious details, the author provides welcome narrative that creates a compelling story. Institutions then were known to be places where people were sent for social control, not for treatment. Most were committed involuntarily, and all were sorted by behavior, not diagnosis. To these circumstances come five key individuals:

  • Engla Schey, daughter of Norwegian immigrants whose father lived at a facility in Fergus Falls until his death. Schey found was a caregiver in several Minnesota facilities.
  • Arthur Foote, a young Unitarian minister from the Twin Cities.
  • Genevieve Steefel, a social activist with ties to the Unitarians.
  • Geri Hoffner Joseph, an award-winning journalist invited by Rev. Foote to report on the state institutions.
  • Luther Youngdahl, the state’s Republican Governor from 1946–1951, known as the Minnesotan who found himself in the midst of social reform.

This disparate group called for drastic improvements, each with a significant role in moving from treating people with mental illness as disgraced and incurable criminals to Youngdahl’s proclamation that “mentally ill patients are human beings, each one divinely endowed by his creator, which a theologian calls a soul and a psychiatrist calls a personality.”

It is widely thought that the Governor moved what had been a public policy issue to a moral crusade, inscribed in legislative action. He noted that the future would depend on how descendants of the Minnesota pioneers build for the future and maintain their inherited security, freedom, and democracy.

While not all of Youngdahl’s work survived through the next administration, the foundation was set. Prophetically, he concluded with these words: “The world is in turmoil and crisis…yet hazards and uncertainties must not sap our courage or paralyze us into action.”

Foote writes with intertwining complexities that can seem overwhelming, as well they are and continue to be. She concludes with considerations she believes must remain intact. Effective political leadership is crucial, the policy making process needs improvement, citizen advocates are critical to proper oversight, and the media has a responsibility to present information that the system doesn’t.

While it might be tempting to assign full blame to the institutions themselves for the conditions described, they did the best they could with what they had, and what they had was inadequate facilities and equipment, untrained staff, and some troubled souls who worked and lived in these conditions. Remarkably, Foote has crafted a stirring document that reminds us of the work done and challenges us to continue on this foundation.

Gary F. Gleason holds degrees in American studies and social services from Hamline University and Minnesota State Mankato. He built a career in executive management, leading community-based services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.