CPS Unit Number 144-01

CPS Unit Number 144-01


CPS Unit No. 144, a Mental Hospital unit located at Hudson River State Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York operated by Mennonite Central Committee, opened in April 1945 and closed in April 1946. The men worked as attendants and performed other roles. College aged women worked on the wards in a Summer Service unit at the hospital.

Poughkeepsie, New York, United States
Location Description:

Hudson River State Hospital with a capacity of 4,131 patients was located in Poughkeepsie, New York.  The patient census exceeded capacity at 5,000.The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) mental hospital unit, the only such unit in New York State, opened in April 1945 to help manage the overcrowding.

Camp staff:

Directors: Bertran Smucker, David Shank

The people:

Thirty men comprised the unit, most of them Mennonite.  Averaging 22.5 years of age, the men had completed an average of 1.5 years of college.  All but one of the men had completed service in the foreign relief training units at CPS Camp No. 18 in Denison, Iowa, CPS Camp No. 27 in Mulberry, Florida, or CPS Unit No. 85 in Howard, Rhode Island, all operated by the Mennonite Central Committee. 


One third of the men had previous experience in mental hospital units. 


The twenty-nine women in the summer service unit served in the wards from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, although they sometimes filled in on other shifts.  They ranged in age from 18 to 31, with most being 19-22 years old. The majority of the college-age women were students, yet a small number taught elementary school.  Most reported Mennonite affiliation and two identified Methodist denominational affiliation.  Two of the women had served at the Ypsilanti women’s unit the previous summer and one had been at the Howard, Rhode Island summer unit.

The work:

All who served as ward attendants worked forty-eight hour weeks, eight hours a day for six days.  Hospital attendant vacancies stood at more than two hundred and fifty when the unit arrived.  Attendants’ jobs, primarily custodial in nature, involved keeping patients and wards as clean as was possible, and patients from injuring themselves. 


Eleven men served in a building housing “disturbed” patients; two on the treatment ward assisting with administering insulin and electric shock therapy; eight others in Ward 41, which housed approximately 115 men, all of whom, according to one assignee “were destructive, incontinent, feeble or occasionally assaultive”.  Others performed various duties in the infirmary, admissions, the laundry and the tubercular ward. (Robinson p. 199)


The men received regular training from the hospital superintendent and physicians through a series of evening lectures on mental hygiene and psychiatry.  The COs staffed different buildings at the hospital.


The hospital provided living quarters along with food, uniforms and laundry service for the men.  The men received a $15 monthly allowance to cover toilet articles and incidental expenses.

Camp life:

Dr. John R. Ross, Superintendent of the hospital, had served as superintendent at the Rhode Island State Hospital for Mental Disease in Howard, where he had used CPS help to improve care. 

CPS men lived in the comparatively new Male Home, in individual rooms with an individual shaving mirror and medicine cabinet.  They represented over fifty percent of the men housed in that area.

The evening lecture series on mental hygiene and psychiatry included titles such as “Mental Hygiene from the Standpoint of Prevention”, “Old and New Ideas about Insanity”, “Nervousness: Its Causes and Prevention”, “Child Psychiatry, Historical Review of Psychiatry”.  

J. Willard Linscheid reported efforts by the unit members to improve conditions for the hospital's patients, focusing particularly on the largest ward (to read more, please see "An Evaluation of the Work Done on Ward 41" as listed under "Other Materials").

The CO women (COGs), prior to entering the wards, were briefed by assistant director Bert Smucker about the recent dismissal of four regular attendants for abusive treatment of patients.  The women met to come up with COG standards for working and living at the hospital.  Those included

  • Speak a greeting to anyone, everyone on the hospital campus, in the corridors, on the wards, in the cafeteria;
  • Be willing to do any task regardless of how menial or filthy;
  • Be willing to mingle and eat with others in the dining room;
  • Discuss first with your ward attendants any concerns you may have about unsatisfactory conditions; and
  • Be at anytime ready to give witness to what you believe.  (from the Evaluation of the Women's Summer Service Unit as reported in Taylor, p. 223)

Many of the regular employees were standoffish at first and gave little help.  The COGs kept following their standards and after several weeks, some of the regular attendants softened.  The COGs did every kind of work, some expressing frustration that they could not do more to help patients.  For many, the experience confirmed their commitment to the principles of nonresistance and Christian love.  For more information see Taylor pp. 228-235, and Goossen, pp. 107-08.

Shortly after the men arrived, several CPS ward attendants in Ryan Hall, the building for disturbed and violent patients, reported violence and abuse by regular ward attendants, as they were required to do. They accused four attendants of “kicking, hitting and slapping the patients”. Both Superintendent Ross and the supervisor of male employees had anticipated potential problems between the COs and the regular attendants in Ryan Hall in terms of patient care.  Dr. Ross immediately dismissed four men, two of whom were war veterans and three union members. 

The Poughkeepsie New Yorker covered the story the next day.  The American Legion and labor groups demanded trials for the dismissed men, as well as an investigation of the CPS unit, which they believed “was being coddled” by Dr. Ross.  Over the next several months, at least seventeen newspaper stories involved the COs or the fired attendants. 

John S. Oyer, writing nearly sixty years later, recalled that tense time. 

The superintendent called in four of our unit to ask if they had witnessed mistreatment of patients in their wards.  They had.  He collected the names of the attendants who beat patients and summarily fired them.  The town and the hospital workers were outraged and they shunned us.  It took them many months to get over their anger.  The experience of extreme hostility etched itself in my memory and opened me to later discoveries of the normality of persecution of Christians in their pursuit of a biblical way of life.  Later one of my secular university professors was moved by this simple account. (“Detour . . . Main Highway”: Our CPS Stories p. 52)

John’s wife Carol Shertz Oyer also worked at the hospital as a ward attendant in the summer of 1945.  “A significant experience . . . was the tension between the CPS unit and the community.  The American Legion was strongly opposed to the unit.  Our men keenly bore the brunt of this resentment.” (“Detour . . . Main Highway”: Our CPS Stories p. 100)

In the meantime, Eleanor Roosevelt and her secretary visited the CPS unit and the women’s unit on July 9 at the invitation of Edna Ramseyer, to discuss foreign relief training.  A special interest of hers, Mrs. Roosevelt had been following the relief training program for COs at Brethren, Friend and Mennonite colleges, then blocked by the Starnes Amendment.

While there she discussed the mental hospital with the COs and the COGs and had an opportunity to speak with Superintendent Ross.  In her nationally syndicated column “My Day” written on July 11, she expressed her support for the COs at Hudson River State Hospital, the headline reading “Mrs. Roosevelt Told COs Raised HRSH Standards”.  The column went on to say that “the superintendent had told her COs had been of ‘tremendous help’ in disclosing certain practices which existed at the hospital and about which he could never get any ‘real evidence’.” She described the important work done by COs in mental hospitals.  (in Robinson p. 200)

Next to the front page story in the Poughkeepsie New Yorker was a photo showing General Dwight D. Eisenhower placing a wreath on the grave of the late President Roosevelt at Hyde Park, New York on July 10 as Mrs. Roosevelt looked on.  The newspaper, the following Sunday took a more sympathetic position on COs than previously, concluding with its concern about the future of the hospital after the COs left.  (Poughkeepsie New Yorker, 11 July 1945, and 15 July 1945, 10A  as reported in Taylor pages 258-59; Sareyan pp. 91-94.)

The COs did testify in civil hearings over the fired attendants.  The dismissals held.  The New York State Civil Service Board refused to overturn the superintendant’s decision.  Since Dr. Ross was acting within his legal authority and backed by the support of progressive and religious groups in the community, the incident subsided.  This contributed to “unity in the group that helped make it one of the most successful hospital units”. (Gingerich p. 242) 

The education program began at the time of the arrival of the summer service unit.   Edna Ramseyer, professor at Bluffton College in Ohio, led the unit and taught introduction to relief.  She had worked with American Friends Service Committee volunteers and refugee children in Spain, and had also taught nutrition at Goshen College in the foreign relief training program.  Ramseyer had advocated for women to become involved in the CPS program, inspiring the formation of Conscientious Objector Girls, or COGs. 

Women kept a tight schedule of ward work and unit activities.  Evenings included relief training on Mondays, Bible classes on Tuesdays, choir practice followed by church service on Wednesdays, mental hygiene classes on Thursdays and vesper services on Sundays.  Friday evening was free and recreation activities were scheduled on Saturdays.  The women also held group devotions at 10:00 pm five nights a week. The group took organized excursions to New York City, Vassar College, Lake Mohawk, Washington, D.C., the Catskill Mountains, and Hyde Park.  Both the COs and the COGs attended presentations by invited speakers at the hospital. 

Men took French and German in separate classes, while both men and women took other classes together. Vassar College faculty taught Comparative Economic Systems during the winter and Don Smucker taught The Bible and Modern Thought.

As in other CPS camps and units in New York State, some of the men formed quartets and sang in the local area while others helped maintain a local youth center in their off duty time. 

Samuel Yoder, in reflecting on his four-year experience in CPS, including his final assignment at Poughkeepsie, wrote,

In late December 1945 I was discharged.  I was going home.  The overnight trip gave me time to reflect on my four years.  I had served in five units from coast to coast.  I had switched cultures and church affiliation.  I had met wonderful persons in CPS, believers from Mennonite General Conference, Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ and a large number from the Mennonite Church if which I am now a part.

I had matured in my Christian faith and was stronger and more sure about my peace position.  My experience in three mental hospitals in a small way was a part of the fabric that laid the foundation for our own Mennonite Mental Health program . . .

. . . I arrived in Goshen via New York Central on a Saturday morning and as I stepped off the train there was no band to play, no parade to ride in, not even yellow ribbons tied around the old maple tree. 

But there was the horse and buggy—my folks were there to meet me and welcome me home . . . . (“Detour . . . Main Highway”: Our CPS Stories p.75)


For more information on Mennonite mental health and training school units, see Melvin Gingerich, Service for Peace: A History of Mennonite Civilian Public Service. Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee printed by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA 1949, Chapter XVI pp. 213-251.


For more information on women COs see Rachel Waltner Goossen, Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-47. Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.


For personal stories of CPS men, see Peace Committee and Seniors for Peace Coordinating Committee of the College Mennonite Church of Goshen, Indiana, “Detour . . . Main Highway”: Our CPS Stories. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1995, 2000.


For additional information see Mitchell Robinson, “Men of Peace in a World at War: Civilian Public Service in New York State, 1941-1946”, New York History 78:2 (April 1997), pp. 174-210.


See also Alex Sareyan, The Turning Point: How Persons of Conscience Brought About Major Change in the Care of America’s Mentally Ill.  Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1994.


For more in depth treatment of mental health and training school units see Steven J. Taylor, Acts of Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009.