In 1921 a burglar called the “Laughing Eel” began serving a ten-year prison term, but it was 33 years before he got his freedom back. Like thousands of other incarcerated people with mental illnesses, Louis Ross was diagnosed as “criminally insane” and moved to a state hospital with a virtual life sentence. Despite his slippery reputation, the Laughing Eel found himself trapped at an institution that refused to believe he could ever improve or rejoin society.
Ross was born in Pittsburgh in 1899 and began his criminal career at a young age. Though his father was a city policeman, he spent his teenage years hopping between local gangs, shoplifting and joining in the occasional robbery. Before long he earned a reputation as a reliable stickup man who always got away. But it wouldn’t last. Arrested trying to escape from a jewelry store robbery in 1917, he was sentenced to ten years in juvenile industrial school. Ross received good conduct marks (except for one count of heckling and fighting with other inmates), and was paroled in two years. Back in Pittsburgh, Ross decided that other gangsters would just slow him down. From now on he would operate alone and on his own terms.
In 1920, reports of a mysterious bandit surfaced in Pittsburgh papers. With Ross’s true identity unknown, the only thing victims could agree on was his maniacal laughter during robberies. Frustrated detectives complained he could gleefully slip out of any trap. After several brazen break-ins blocks away from the county police station, reporters dubbed Pittsburgh’s slickest criminal a “Laughing Eel.” Ross’s reputation as a strange and dangerous criminal was made.
Sensational reports of the Laughing Eel’s bizarre behavior shocked the public. Officers were ordered to “shoot to kill” if they encountered him.1 After the Eel stole the last thirty cents in a young errand boy’s pocket with his trademark laugh, merchants reported their “clerks and proprietors have been armed with revolvers with orders to shoot and then ask questions.”2 Fueled by the publicity, police resolved to put the Eel behind bars no matter the cost.
After months of havoc, The Laughing Eel’s luck ran out, and he was cornered by police. Brandishing two pistols, he nearly shot his way out but was captured after wounding one officer. The Eel had been caught, but reporters wondered: how long would he remain behind bars?
In a packed courtroom, a judge quickly found The Laughing Eel guilty of several counts of robbery. Ross, recently married and appearing regretful, pled guilty and asked for leniency and a chance to “go straight” for the sake of his wife. Noting the violent and frightening nature of his crimes, the court was unmoved. In the “best interests of society,” Ross would serve the maximum allowed by law—ten years.3
After two years in a Pittsburgh prison Ross suffered a nervous breakdown and was transferred to Farview State Hospital, a maximum security mental institution for the criminally insane near Scranton. Transferring to Farview, in theory, meant that Ross would be treated until he was able to return to prison and finish his sentence. In reality, it meant Ross would be incarcerated indefinitely until staff decided he was sane and safe to rejoin society.
Farview was one of dozens of mental hospitals dotting Pennsylvania’s map in the 19th and 20th centuries. Like other states, Pennsylvania began operating these institutions in the mid 1800s amid calls to protect people with mental illnesses who were cruelly imprisoned or living in poorhouses. Concerns about heredity and mental illness also convinced many psychiatrists of the value of therapeutic treatment and segregation from society institutions offered. Pennsylvania’s hospital system grew prodigiously each decade. Farview was opened in 1912 to house the state’s population of “criminally insane” men considered too dangerous for other hospitals.
Pennsylvania’s legal definition of “criminally insane” was ambiguous at best. State officials could classify anyone with signs of insanity or mental illness and “known criminal tendencies” as criminally insane and commit them to Farview without any medical or judicial review.4 Though a psychiatrist diagnosed Ross with dementia praecox (schizophrenia) on arrival, his prison records indicate he was in good mental health and well behaved before transferring. It’s likely his reputation as the Laughing Eel and criminal history factored heavily into the decision to transfer Ross to Farview.
At first Ross was glad to be at Farview, where he thought psychiatrists would help him get over the urges for crime he felt. But he quickly learned he would not be getting any specialized treatment. He was never examined again and never received therapy of any kind.
Farview was an institution where officials could incarcerate men considered criminally insane without the normal limits of criminal law. Release was only at the discretion of hospital staff or court order; prison sentences no longer counted at Farview. Chronically overcrowded and understaffed, one official admitted “we know very little about very many of the criminal patients sent to Farview.”5 As long as men like Ross were locked up and segregated from society, the state was content to turn a blind eye to inmate conditions. Unsurprisingly, most incarcerated people never received any formal treatment at Farview. Neglect and abuse were constant, and the most common way to get discharged was death.6
But Ross improved on his own and by 1940 it was clear he did not belong at Farview. His trademark laugh and all other physical manifestations of mental illness disappeared. Attendants noted that Ross was “pleasant, coherent, and relevant,” and normal “in every respect” but never recommended his release.7 He only appeared agitated when he spoke about going home. Nevertheless, his requests for examinations or parole hearings were routinely denied.
Ross’s case was common. Dozens of Farview inmates, some as young as 14, showed “no evidence of insanity,” and more than half of its inmates were incarcerated despite their expired prison sentences.8 Without any advocates for his release, he was trapped.
In 1954 Ross took matters into his own hands and escaped. With $200 he won from guards in illegal football pools, Ross hitchhiked to the Pittsburgh office of an attorney friend of his father’s. Knowing Farview would never release him willingly, he decided his best chance for freedom was through the courts and asked for help filing a lawsuit.
In the trial, state officials argued he was “undesirable and dangerous” for release.9 Even though Ross hadn’t been examined or treated since 1923, Farview was confident the court would accept this testimony and order Ross incarcerated until they decided he was no longer dangerous. Newspapers seemed to agree and still referred to Ross as the Laughing Eel, proof of the weight his criminal past still carried.
But when the judge called defense witnesses, a different story emerged. Ross had cleverly hired four psychiatrists to examine him, who all testified he was clearly fit for release.10 Ross’s few patient files were subpoenaed, and they indicated that Farview’s own staff considered him sane since at least 1943, and likely years earlier.
With overwhelming evidence in Ross’s favor, it was clear Farview was holding him even though he was not mentally ill and his prison sentence had long expired. The horrified judge ordered his immediate release, saying Farview “would necessarily condemn a patient for life with no hope of returning to society.” He called Farview “the road of no return.”11
Fearing public wrath if Ross ever committed another crime, Farview had refused to even consider release, even though he was clearly not a danger to society and had served his sentence. One official remarked “We’re glad we are in no way responsible” for Ross’s freedom.12 The stigma of his crimes and mental illness could not be erased in their eyes.
After the trial Ross’s attorney wrote Pennsylvania’s governor alleging there were hundreds more men like Ross still wrongfully imprisoned at Farview. Internal investigations confirmed the claim, but Farview would not change its ways until compelled by court order in 1971. “Nobody ever said that what they were doing to patients here in the past was wrong,” Farview’s superintendent bluntly stated in 1976, “there were never any complaints from the public … the view was that the public wanted these people locked up and heavily controlled.”13
Farview reveals some of the serious flaws in the criminal and mental health system of the 20th century. Lack of quality psychiatric services, institutional neglect, and unclear release standards could easily amount to life sentences for people found insane once and never examined again.
Ross’s experience in Pennsylvania’s prison and mental health system is both extraordinary and tragically familiar today. With the high rates of incarceration among Americans with mental illnesses, prisons have become the largest mental institutions in the country. Yet, studies indicate the quality of mental health care in prisons has dropped in recent years. Millions of men and women are caught between prison and mental illness like Ross.
Navigating the American criminal justice system is difficult for anyone, and those with real or perceived mental illnesses face even greater challenges. Improvements in mental health care are often not extended equitably to people considered violent or criminal. When we have conversations about mental health and prison reform, we must remember the close historical ties between prisons and mental institutions.
When we’re thinking about people whose lives straddle prison and mental health systems, we also need to consider how their lives are affected inside institutions, and by the world outside their walls. This includes more than just psychiatrists and their patients, but also prison administrators, judges, and bureaucrats, along with the press and greater society. How each sees criminality and mental illness, often in opposition with each other, can decide the fate of some of our most vulnerable neighbors.
- “Police Hunt Bandit; Robs Two More Stores,” The Pittsburgh Post, February 13, 1920. Return to text.
- “Laughing Eel Still Eludes Sleuths,” The Pittsburgh Post, February 15, 1920. Return to text.
- “Sent to Prison,” The Jewelers Circular, May 11, 1921. Return to text.
- “Biennial Report of the State Hospital for the Criminal Insane,” 1920, Farview State Hospital, RG 23.247: Records of the Department of Human Services, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg. Return to text.
- “Semi-Annual Meeting at Danville Proceedings,” 1914, Proceedings and Programs of the Semi-Annual Meetings of the Association of Trustees and Medical Superintendents of the State and Incorporated Hospitals, RG 23.247: Records of the Department of Human Services, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg. Return to text.
- R. M. H. and B. B. W. “Hospitalization of Mentally Ill Criminals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 110, no. 1 (1961): 92. Return to text.
- “Comth. ex rel. Ross v. Dye,” The Pittsburgh Legal Journal, Volume 102 (1954), 486. Return to text.
- “Memorandum Book of the Committee on Lunacy,” 1910-1921, Committee on Lunacy, RG 23.347: Records of the Department of Human Services, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg. Return to text.
- “Comth. ex rel. Ross v. Dye,” 486. Return to text.
- “Comth. ex rel. Ross v. Dye,” 487. Return to text.
- “Comth. ex rel. Ross v. Dye,” 488. Return to text.
- “Laughing Eel Free after 30 Years in Insane Hospital,” The Portsmouth Herald, December 9, 1954. Return to text.
- “The View from Inside—Guards Still Run This Place,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 28, 1976. Return to text.