Sanitary Conditions at the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kans.


1919 circa


Sanitary Conditions at the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kans.


1919 circa


Account of the sources of infection at Ft. Leavenworth


WWI conscientious objection / objectors


Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas


Huebener, Theodore


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


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Sanitary Conditions at the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kans.

In general the evils in bad sanitation at the Disciplinary Barracks are not due to any defects in the building – which is a new structure with modern equipment, but rather to inefficiency and gross carelessness on the part of the administration. No attempt is made to inculcate any ideas of hygiene and health; practises [sic] and habits which are absolutely vile prevail among the men uncensored.

In spite of the foul air in the wings, due to the incessant cigarette smoking of the men, no window may be opened, not even at night, “without an order from the Quartermaster”. All sweeping is done dry, which causes huge clouds of dust to rise and inevitably affects the throats and nasal passages of the men. Fully 75% of the inmates are always troubled with coughs, sore throats, obstructed nostrils, etc. As the men on the tiers calmly sweep the dirt over the galleries, hurl old newspapers and magazines down and – sometimes – even expectorate from their tier, the lot of those below is by no means enviable. In the morning the ground floor is always a filthy mess. Also the steps of the iron staircases are open, so that the mud and dirt shuffled off one’s boots drops on the heads of those below.

In most of the wings, including the solitary cells, there are porcelain wash-basins. These, however, have the exasperating weakness of permitting only the water to flow off slowly and leaving the grime behind. In the Sixth Wing, where there are six men in a cave-like cell, there is but one small portable tin basin to each cell, as well as but one drinking cup – generally, very battered and rusty. Each man has his own soap (Palmolive) towel, tooth-brush, powder (Dr. Lyon’s) comb and brush. In each cell there is a porcelain stool. This situation would not be so bad were it not for the fact that men with venereal diseases active as well as latent, are together with others. (1)

In the Mess hall the same danger of contagion exists, for the only segregation practised [sic] is not for hygienic reasons, but for the purpose of separating the colored men, the vegetarians and the second and third class prisoners. No provision is made for the venereals. (2). the danger is especially great because the ugly tin-ware is not at all scrupulously clean and because most of the food is served by hand. Bread, butter, sliced beets, sausages, bologna and even jelly are distributed in this manner. As the food is always handed by the waiter to the end man at the “table”, and he in turn passes it along, a slice of bread very often passes through a half dozen hands before it reaches its destination. This is especially agreeable as men on the gangs – even the begrimed coal-heavers – get no opportunity to wash before the noon meal. A serving spoon is never given; each man uses his own form or spoon to abstract his portion from a serving dish (when there is one). The uneaten bread is afterwards collected and used again. (3) the same apparently is done with the tea and coffee. Following is a weekly men [sic]:-


(1) Major Adler claims that “they are very careful” about communicable diseases, whereas Capt Chambers claimed that segregation was futile as “they’re all degenerates, anyway”. Wm Arthur Denham (No 15336) a conscientious objector reported to the Major an active case of gonorrhea which he had discovered among his five cell-mates. Cornelius Voth, another C O, discharged Jan 28, 1919, contracted this same disease, presumably at the Disciplinary Barracks, or in the Guard House at Fort Riley.

(2) Two men ate in the Mess Hall with the other prisoners, who at the Ft Riley Guard House had eaten from separate dishes (which they had to wash themselves) at the doctor’s order.

(3) After having passed through so many hands and having been on the same smeary table.

[page 2]

“Slum” which is the chief article of diet, is a slimy concoction of gravy, potatoes, dissected frank-furters and sometimes, carrots; it is serve from six to nine times a week. The attenuated, pathological “Wieners” are ubiquitous, appearing in the slum, the beans and, probably, the hash, besides being served whole. Only twice a week, Wednesday and Sunday, is anything like an approximation to real meat served; the rest of the week it is “embalmed” products. The coffee contains no milk and no sugar and is undrinkable. The bread, however, is very good. The “syrup” is merely sugar and water. The sugar in the rice and tapioca if present at all, is not perceptible.

Cleanliness and care are obviously not predominating virtues among the kitchen force; a rat was found in the slum; one discovers pieces of newspaper baked in the corn-bread; pebbles and other foreign matter accompany the beans. The driver of one of the gang’s “chow wagons” one day dropped his dirty glove in the tank containing the slum; he rolled his sleeve up to his elbow and calmly reached in. Such incidents are common.

Another potential source of infection is the bath-room. The soap is kept in tin receptacles as large as garbage cans and resembling these closely in appearance. In the same room the prisoners are shaved, the barbers frequently being inexperienced and the equipment being of the rudest description. The chairs look like specimens of domestic juvenile carpentry. The shaving is done “close” and with reckless “dash, so that lacerations are in order. The lined used looks not at all too inviting.

No provision whatever is made for manicuring the nails. Most of the men bite them off. One C.O. remarked that he was not averse to doing this with his finger nails, but thought his ‘toe-nailes [sic] too tough for such a method.’

If one is going to be sick, he must divine it the evening before, so as to inform the room orderly to wake him for early mass. Then the prisoner goes to the hospital, where he diagnoses his own case and usually specifies the medicament he desires. He can get pills, salts or oil. If he has a sore throt [sic], he is marched into the operating room (whether occupied or not) and is “swabbed.”

Out on the gang, the danger of of [sic] infection is largely that of the common drinking cup. The water is kept in a stationary can or carried about in a pail, into which the men dip one or two cups of water. The universal habit of exchanging cigarette “butts” is very unhygienic too That such customs prevail is not surprising, but nothing is done to abolish them is deplorable, especially when the utmost rigor is exercised to compel a prisoner to maintain a certain prescribed neat arrangement of his possessions on his bed. He is tried for defacing his cloths, but not for tattooing his person; he is punished for having a “dirty bowl”, but not for possessing a dirty mouth.

- Theodore Huebener


Huebener, Theodore, “Sanitary Conditions at the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kans.,” Conscientious Objection & the Great War: 1914-1920, accessed September 21, 2021,

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