An inquiry resulted as to whether or not a murder had been committed.
The woman’s name was Jennie Barth, and the circumstances behind her being placed in the asylum and how she died is something stranger than fiction.
Two weeks before her death, Barth reportedly “went crazy” during a revival meeting in Spring Lake conducted by the Rev. McIntosh. According to one newspaper, Jennie “suddenly became a raving maniac during the progress of the revival.”
Jennie Barth, 45, lived alone with her 10-year-old daughter at her Spring Lake residence. Her husband, George Barth, was serving a five-year sentence in the state penitentiary on an attempted murder conviction. On Oct. 2, 1887, George had carved up Spring Lake barber Paul VanderVoort at the Grand Haven port during an argument over a shipment of whiskey, which both men claimed was theirs.
As a single mom, Jennie did laundry for others to make ends meet. At the time she went nuts, it was reported she was attending as many as “four revival meetings a day.”
A concerned neighbor, Sarah MacMahon, took possession of her daughter out of fear and contacted Ottawa County Sheriff Edward Vaupell.
Sheriff Vaupell, accompanied by MacMahon, took Jennie to the Michigan Asylum for the Insane, where she was lodged Jan. 27.
A week later, Jennie was dead, reported to have been “boiled in a bath tub,” according to the Detroit Free Press. The headline on the shocking article read, “Accident or Crime?”
“It could have not happened at a worse time,” Dr. William M. Edwards, medical superintendent at the asylum, told the Detroit Free Press. The state was already investigating practices and personnel at the facility.
The day after her death, Feb. 4, a grand jury was impaneled to investigate the incident.
From the moment Jennie arrived at the asylum, she had been defiant and uncooperative. She constantly cried “amen” at the top of her lungs, accompanied by a litany of vulgar expressions. She refused to wear garments and threw herself about the rooms.
Jennie had to be forced into compliance and was restrained in a wooden box frame that served as a bed. Her attendants — Rosa Smith, Anna Van Vleet and Minnie Irwin — force-fed her with a pump and wrestled to bathe her in a station across the hall from her room.
“She became so filthy, two and three baths were necessary,” the Free Press reported.
At 8 a.m. Feb. 3, the three women brought Jennie into the bathing station and placed her in a tub. After the bath, Rosa Smith, the supervisor of hall 6, turned on the water once again and walked away for a moment when she heard a clamor. Smith claimed she thought she had turned on “the cold water” to prompt a defiant Barth to get out of the tub. She had done just the opposite, turning on the hot water.
Jennie was scalded severely on her legs, arms and upper body. She was immediately wrapped in gauze bandages and received urgent medical attention.
Physicians did everything they could to help, but Jennie died 12 hours later.
Suspicion immediately fell on Smith — who, according to some reports, had grown sick of Jennie. Many news sources speculated a murder might have been committed or act of negligent homicide.
Other reports stated Smith, who came from Otsego and was a graduate of State Normal School, was “one of the best” attendants at the institution and an admired former school teacher.
The grand jury conducted interviews with staff and physicians, but the autopsy revealed the true manner of death. In the released findings, the medical examiner and coroner stated while “parboiling” might have contributed to the death, the injuries caused in the tub were not life-threatening. The cause of Jennie’s death had been heart failure. The report added that Jennie, who weighed 200 pounds, had been in extremely poor health.
Smith had been cleared of a charge of murder. However, her negligence could not go unpunished.
“While not of a criminal nature or amounting to criminal carelessness,” the report said, “we recommend her discharge from the asylum.”
Accepting the recommendation, the Michigan Asylum for the Insane fired Smith.
Jennie Barth’s death brought about change in regards to procedures the state put in place for monitoring staff and patient treatment at Michigan asylums.
Treatment and care got a little better for patients as a result of the tragedy.
Jennie’s body was never returned to Spring Lake. She was buried Feb. 6, 1891, at Riverside Cemetery in Kalamazoo, next to what now is the Borgess Medical Center.