The Psych Ward for People Who Broke Into the White House

For hundreds of years, people with mental illnesses have tried to visit the president—with many ending up in the same Washington hospital.

Last month, Omar Gonzalez, an Iraq War veteran from Texas, hopped the White House fence, overpowered a guard, and made it all the way into the East Room before he was apprehended by a Secret Service agent. Gonzalez had a knife on his person, and it soon emerged that he had previously been arrested in July, when state troopers in Virginia found semi-automatic weapons, sniper rifles, and a map of the White House in his car.

Gonzalez’s arrest was covered heavily in the news, but a similar event the following day went almost ignored by the media. Kevin Carr, a teenager from New Jersey, was arrested after he parked his car near a restricted White House entrance and refused to leave. Carr told Secret Service agents that he was “the prince of peace” and that he communicated regularly with President Obama and Vladimir Putin using telepathy.

Gonzalez received most of the attention, but Carr—unarmed, and, it would appear, mentally ill—is the more typical of the two, even though both are part of a long tradition of unwanted White House visitors. Earlier this week, 23-year-old Dominic Adesanya was arrested after he jumped the fence and kicked and punched two police dogs. Adesanya's father has said he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, and wanted to talk to the president about surveillance devices that he believed were hidden in his family home.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been a magnet for the mentally ill ever since the founding of the capital. “It is a notorious fact,” noted the Washington newspaper The Intelligencer in April 1835, “that this city, being the seat of government, is liable to be visited by more than its proportion of insane persons.”

That particular story referred to Richard Lawrence, an unemployed housepainter who earlier that year had twice visited the White House asking to speak to President Andrew Jackson. On his second visit, he was admitted, met Jackson, and asked him for $1,000. The president said he was busy and Lawrence was sent away. A week later, Lawrence approached Jackson as he was leaving a funeral and fired two pistols at him. Both guns misfired, and the enraged Jackson charged the gunman and began beating him with his cane. Lawrence later told police that the president had killed his father. He also claimed to be King Richard III. At his trial, it took the jury five minutes to find Lawrence not guilty by reason of insanity, and he spent the next 20 years at various asylums before he was eventually transferred to the newly opened Government Hospital for the Insane, now known as St Elizabeth's.

Over the next century and a half, St. Elizabeth’s became a temporary home for thousands of disturbed people who travelled from all over the country to deliver a warning, offer policy advice, or seek redress of grievance with the president, or another high official, in person. To security personnel and psychiatrists alike, they’re known as White House cases. Although they include would-be assassins such as Lawrence and John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan in 1981, the vast majority aren’t armed or violent. In a 1943 study of White House cases, Dr. Jay Hoffman noted, “It is the rule that these patients are, with certain notable exceptions, quiet, pleasant, congenial, cooperative and well-behaved. They accept their enforced hospitalization with a remarkable degree of passivity and frequently without even verbal complaint.”

Typical cases have remained strikingly similar over the years. “People usually go to the White House to tell the president what God is telling them or to warn of some impending disaster,” says psychiatrist David Shore, who worked at St. Elizabeth’s in the 1970s and 80s. “In some cases, they think that they have come up with a great invention or performed some great deed and expect to be rewarded.”

Most are schizophrenic. Some are experiencing a temporary psychotic episode. A few are on drugs. The basic motivation—to accomplish great things or avert great danger by going right to the top—seems to have remained the same throughout the decades, although over the years, specific concerns have shifted. Case studies by a number of researchers provide snapshots both of the historical period in which they occurred, and of the delusions associated with them. Many of Hoffman’s patients came to Washington to complain about pensions owed them from service in the First World War, to advise the president on how to steer the country out of the Depression, or to warn him about Nazi plots. After John F. Kennedy took office, women arrived claiming that they were his wife, and after he was shot, men came announcing that they were Jackie Kennedy’s husband. In a 1965 paper, Dr. Joseph Sebastiani reported that a 44-year-old woman came to the White House in 1963 because “she hoped the president would stop the police persecution that had caused her ears to flop and her body to go out of shape.” After news of President Reagan’s polyp surgery in 1987, one man came to offer him a nutritional cure-all, dressed as Hitler.

By the 1970s, St. Elizabeth’s was the receiving hospital for almost every schizophrenic who showed up at a government building and wouldn’t leave. “In the standard admission forms,” Shore says, “the second box on the first page of the form, right after ‘name’ was ‘White House case, yes or no.’”

At this time, cases had spiked to almost 100 White House cases a year, from roughly 10 during the Truman administration and 40 under Kennedy—so many that the male out-of-state ward was known as the White House ward. My father worked there as a nurse’s aide in the early 70s. He describes a place that resembles the asylum in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: a sprawling, pretty campus; handsome brick buildings with security screens on the windows; orderlies in blue uniforms jingling keys on big chains; a sunny dayroom filled with silent, medicated patients. A couple of White House cases came in each week, and my dad would relieve the boredom of the job by chatting with them. He remembers in particular a man named Richard B., a gregarious, well-groomed guy of about 50 who always wore a suit. Richard B. followed Nixon around the country and was proud that all the Secret Service guys knew his name.

“Bob, I’ll tell you,” he said one day, approaching my father and looking deeply into his eyes, “this is my shot. This is the year it’s gonna happen. This is my last chance to be president.”

The doctors put him on thorazine, his moods stabilized, and after a few weeks somebody drove him to the bus station and gave him a ticket back to his home town in California. He was readmitted to the hospital twice over the next two years.

The path from the White House gates to the White House ward was well-worn by this time. “The Secret Service was quite good, quite sophisticated,” says Dr. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist in charge of the ward during the early 80s. “They were able to pick up the psychotic cases quickly.” Agents would send the visitors to St. Elizabeths, either directly or by way of local hospitals, where they would be examined, medicated, and left to wait until their families could be located and they could be sent home.

By this time, though, the movement to deinstitutionalize mental patients was well underway, and St. Elizabeths had gone from hosting 7,000 live-in patients at its height in the 50s to less than 3,000 in the 70s. Today, the hospital houses fewer than 500 patients. Most of its huge campus is abandoned and has been slated for redevelopment.

Last year St. Elizabeths admitted around five White House cases (although no one calls them that anymore). The Secret Service declined to provide specific details of how they deal with such visitors, but it seems to be pretty much the same routine as it was 30 years ago.

“If someone exhibits mental-health issues,” wrote a Secret Service spokesman, “the Secret Service transports the individual to a facility where emergency psychiatric assessments are performed.” This could be any one of a number of local hospitals that accept involuntary commitments of mental patients. There they are medicated, monitored, and sent back home, even as a steady stream of new visitors continues to arrive in the city with up-to-date warnings, advice, and inventions.

Kevin Carr, the New Jersey teenager, told police that he had an appointment with the president to discuss the conflict in the Ukraine. And Omar Gonzalez, expressing a fear that may be inspired by global warming, said he’d come to warn the president that “the atmosphere was collapsing.” As Dr. Hoffman wrote back in 1943, “It is only the content of the delusion that changes during the years; the patient otherwise is essentially the same.”