Phoenix’s Insane Asylum Drove Tucsonans Crazy

Insane asylum, Thieving Thirteenth, 1885, Phoenix, Tucson, Arizona State Hospital, Arizona history, Arizona historian, AZHistorian, John Larsen Southard, John Southard, Southard

An early-twentieth century hand colored postcard depicting a seemingly idyllic scene on the grounds of the Phoenix asylum.
Image credit: Author’s collection.

Tucsonans Go Crazy Over Phoenix’s Insane Asylum

March of 1885 was a momentous month for Arizona’s Thirteenth Territorial Legislature, a group known to history as the “Thieving Thirteenth.” The legislative body described in a March 28th, 1885 Arizona Weekly Citizen article as “not excelled in its provisions for a first-class steal from the Territory” passed bills authorizing the establishment of a teachers college in the then small town of Tempe and a university in Tucson, the most populous city in Arizona at the time. The teachers college, initially named Tempe Normal School but now known as Arizona State University, received an appropriation of $5,000 while Tucson’s university brought that city $25,000 in funding. Nonetheless, Tucsonans were both disappointed with and outraged by the gift the territory’s solons bestowed upon them. In place of showing gratitude for his town’s new institution of higher education, the editor of a Tucson paper decried the Phoenix area’s capture of “the plum of the legislature pie” with “emoluments [amounting] to almost half a million” and presciently predicted that C. C. Stephens, one of Tucson’s legislators, “will be insulted when he returns.”

Why were Tucsonans so upset with their haul from the Thieving Thirteenth? Because their prize proved to be a university that the city was said to “not care a fig about.” Instead, residents of the Old Pueblo coveted Phoenix’s big score – the territorial insane asylum now known as the Arizona State Hospital and the $100,000 appropriation associated with that facility. Angry about losing this well-funded institution to the relatively new and still rather small city of Phoenix, Tucson newspaper editors wrote scathing pieces belittling the future capital city and cursing its good fortune. Southern Arizona journalists continued to attack Phoenix’s victory for several years after the 1885 legislative session adjourned sine die, as demonstrated by an August 3rd, 1889 Arizona Sentinel article expressing concern that “the Great Salt River [V]alley” was “no place for the insane” due to its stifling heat. While calling attention to “the poor suffering humanity that [sweltered] within” the asylum, the piece altogether disregarded the well-being of sane Phoenicians and conveniently overlooked Tucson’s high summer temperatures.

In the end, however, Tucsonans came to love their university, which now boasts enrollment of more than 40,000 students and an annual budget exceeding $450,000,000. With approximately 60,000 students attending courses in Tempe alone, the once-modest Normal School now lays claim to the title of largest public university campus in the United States. Phoenix’s asylum, the so-called plum of the 1885 legislative session, is now largely unknown to most Arizonans and operates on a budget of just $30,000,000 – far smaller than that of the University of Arizona. So, it seems that the much maligned C. C. Stephens has been vindicated – something likely to be deemed crazy by a Tucsonan of 1885.


“Summer Days All Winter” – Arizona’s Climate


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As residents of much of the country are still digging out from the recent polar vortex and its associated snow, ice, and Arctic temperatures, those of us in central and southern Arizona are enjoying the balmy weather that passes for … Continue reading

Santa Claus, Arizona – Postmarks From A Postage Stamp-Size Town

Santa Claus, Arizona

The Santa Claus, Arizona remailing ‘postmark,’ as applied to the back of a postcard prior to the piece being routed to the Kingman Post Office for final distribution.
Image credit: eBay

While Prescott holds the title of “Arizona’s Christmas City,” as made official by Governor Rose Mofford in December of 1989, other towns in the state can rightfully boast strong historical Yuletide associations. Christmas, Arizona, a onetime Gila County copper mining community since erased by an open pit mine operation, received its name in honor of the day on which prospectors staked the area’s first legal mineral claim. The Christmas, Arizona Post Office faced a surge of activity each winter as a result of the town’s status as a popular remailing hub. Remailing entails receiving envelopes and parcels from elsewhere and affixing a local postmark prior to sending the mail along to its final recipient. Although the now nonexistent town of Christmas lost its Post Office in 1935, a Mohave County real estate development quickly stepped in to fill the holiday postmark void.

California transplant Nina Talbot founded Santa Claus, Arizona, a Yule-themed roadside attraction and ultimately unsuccessful real estate venture, in 1937. While Richard Helbock’s booklet entitled A Checklist of Arizona Post Offices 1856-1988 does not list Santa Claus as ever having a bona fide United States Post Office, the town nonetheless managed to capitalize on its jolly appellation. Through 1961, the community’s de facto postmaster cleverly leveraged the town’s moniker by creating an unofficial postmark bearing St. Nick’s likeness. Although the uniquely named development failed as a real estate project, its North Pole-inspired name brought subsequent owners a modicum of financial success primarily through seasonal remailing operations. The now all-but-abandoned town along US 93 has long since stopped stamping letters and parcels with Kris Kringle’s image prior to forwarding the pieces on to the nearby Kingman Post Office for final handling. Instead, those hoping to gain a seasonally appropriate postmark must now route their mail through Santa Claus, Indiana, a still-popular remailing center that handles a tremendous volume of mail every December.

Coincidentally, Santa Claus, Arizona was not the only Mohave County community bearing a name that lent itself to remailing opportunities. The now-deserted town of Valentine, Arizona (named not for the holiday, but rather, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Valentine), a settlement less than fifty miles east of Santa’s desert home, provided a widely-used remailing service for many years. Romantics far and wide sought Valentine postmarks for their love letters until the 1975 closure of the hamlet’s Post Office, effectively ending Arizona’s run as a remailing center.