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The Crusade for Forgotten Souls: Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946–1954

The stirring story of the reform movement that laid the groundwork for a modern mental health system in Minnesota

In 1940 Engla Schey, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, took a job as a low-paid attendant at Anoka State Hospital, one of Minnesota’s seven asylums. She would work among people who were locked away under the shameful label “insane,” called inmates—and numbered more than 12,000 throughout the state. She acquired the knowledge and passion that would lead to “The Crusade for Forgotten Souls,” a campaign to reform the deplorable condition of mental institutions in Minnesota. This book chronicles that remarkable undertaking inspired and carried forward by ordinary people under the political leadership of Luther Youngdahl, a Swedish Republican who was the state’s governor from 1946 to 1951.

Susan Bartlett Foote tells the story of those who made the crusade a success: Engla Schey, the catalyst; Reverend Arthur Foote, a modest visionary who guided Unitarians to constructive advocacy; Genevieve Steefel, an inveterate patient activist; and Geri Hoffner, an intrepid reporter whose twelve-part series for the Minneapolis Tribune galvanized the public. These reformers overcame barriers of class, ethnicity, and gender to stand behind the governor, who, at a turbulent moment in Minnesota politics, challenged his own party’s resistance to reform. The Crusade for Forgotten Souls recounts how these efforts broke the stigma of shame and silence surrounding mental illness, publicized the painful truth about the state’s asylums, built support among citizens, and resulted in the first legislative steps toward a modern mental health system that catapulted Minnesota to national leadership and empowered families of the mentally ill and disabled. Though their vision met resistance, the accomplishments of these early advocates for compassionate care of the mentally ill hold many lessons that resonate to this day, as this book makes compellingly clear.

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