“The Midnight Raid” – How Richard Krieg Exposed Lakeshore Hospital

Patients at Eastern State Mental Health Hospital await medication. (Credit KNS)

On Jan. 26 1971 the biggest news across the country was the murder conviction of hippy cult leader Charles Manson and his gang of drug induced sycophants, but not in sleepy little Knoxville, Tennessee.

“You bet your life there will be an investigation.” – Governor Winfield Dunn

On that cold January day in Knoxville, the News Sentinel ran the following headline , “DUNN PROMISES PROBE AT EASTERN STATE HOSPITAL.” It was the culmination of months of work by State Representative Richard Krieg. Krieg, who still lives in West Knoxville today, sat down with me this week to discuss these events, and was kind enough to let me write about them.

Just over two years before the announcement of the probe, Krieg had become the youngest man ever elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives at age 22. He proudly recalls that the first vote he ever cast was for himself (in 1968 the voting age was 21, but he and his colleague, 23 year old Rep. Victor Ashe, soon had it lowered to 18.)

Mental health admittedly was not one of his priorities when he took office, but it wasn’t long before a concerned whistleblower began contacting him about conditions at a mental health facility in his district. “She was an acquaintance of a good friend,” Krieg recalls of the informant who to this day he has never identified. She worked at the Eastern State Mental Health Hospital, as it was known then. It is the facility my generation knew as Lakeshore Hospital, on the site where the popular Lakeshore Park is now found.

The informant relentlessly kept after Krieg for two years, insisting that all was not as it seemed at ESH, and that conditions were much worse than any outsider would have believed. After two years of her advocacy, and with him beginning a second term and feeling more sure of himself as a legislator, Krieg agreed to see for himself. The only issue was that the informant insisted if he arranged a tour with the hospital superintendent, it would be a rigged show, and he would be cleverly misled and only shown the model aspects of the facility. So Krieg set out on what the Knoxville News Sentinel would later pejoratively dub “The Midnight Raid.”

What he found was shocking. He arrived at eleven p.m. while she was on duty. She let him in the facility and showed him the vile underbelly of mental healthcare at ESH.

(Credit: University of Tennessee Archives)

What was most shocking? Probably the rats.”

The facility was in disarray. Cells lined the sides of the hallways, with patients sleeping in damp dank corners behind locked doors latched shut with twisted metal spoons, sometimes on two inch thick cots on the ground. Rats and roaches were seemingly everywhere. It was a scene from a nightmare. There was a great room, packed with folding chairs with the infirmed sitting around a sad little TV set. Pipes were leaking, beds were stacked in crowded hallways, nothing about the hospital was sanitary. It could drive a sane person mad just living in such conditions.

Krieg quickly formed a plan. He knew incoming Governor Winfield Dunn might be willing to act, but the only way to affect change then, as it remains now, was to get the attention of media. So he came back, this time with photographers, journalists and a cameraman from WBIR and the Knoxville Journal. The members of the press, equally horrified at the putrid state of affairs, seized the opportunity and gave it prominent coverage.

(Credit: University of Tennessee Archives)

Before the story broke, Krieg met with the new Republican Governor, the first in nearly fifty years, and warned him of the coming firestorm. Dunn was appreciative and came to support his efforts.

Not everyone though was so supportive. Krieg met fierce opposition from the Knoxville News Sentinel, who dubbed his trip “the midnight raid” and accused him of grandstanding for media attention. The powers that be always have tools to protect the status quo.

Despite the efforts of the establishment, Krieg won out in the end. The bright light of truth illuminated the conditions at the facility for the community at large through the cameras and printing presses at WBIR and the Knoxville Journal, and Dunn had no choice but to take action. On Jan. 26, he suspended and later dismissed the top brass at ESH and the State Department of Mental Health, and sent a personal aide from his office to oversee the facility. Then in his budget for 1971, he included a whopping 1.3 million additional dollars for the facility. Krieg proudly announced this to the Knoxville Civitan Club at local staple S&W Cafeteria.

In 1977, the facility was renamed Lakeshore Mental Health Hospital, and by 1980 many of the patients were released under the supervision of physicians and able to carry on more normal lives. Sadly, as funding decreased for mental health across the nation over the ensuing decades, fewer and fewer people were able to receive treatment at the facility. In 2012, it closed its doors for good, and Knoxville has been without a mental health facility since. Many of the homeless sleeping under our bridges would have been and should be housed in a facility for those whose severe mental illnesses prohibit them from caring for themselves.

But the story does not end there. Just last month the Knox County Commission approved Mayor Glenn Jacobs proposal to bring a small mental health facility back to Knox County for the first time in almost a decade.

Krieg and other champions of mental health causes will be glad to hear this. When I asked him what his enduring memory of his time at ESH was, he said the pervasive sense of helplessness in the facility, both from the patients and the staff, many if not most of whom really wanted to help the sick. Now, if even in a very small way, we will have that opportunity again, but it would never be possible without Richard Krieg and his “Midnight Raid.”

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