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The Alienist


Herr Dr Reinhld Kolb came to Agincourt in the mid-1920s. His sister Edith Kolb Wasserman–much older; Reinhold was the youngest of the Kolb children–had come here with her husband Franz to open what would become the community’s longest independently-owned hardware store. Dr Kolb showed up briefly in Howard’s story about Agincourt’s resident dramatist James (a.k.a Seamus) Tierney. Now seems as good a time as any to flesh out Kolb’s character and career.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

The play’s the thing…

When his parents came to town for Saturday shopping and socialization, Jim Tierney, barely 12 or 13, was left to his own devices and, as often as not, attended what must have been the last public performances of puppet theater in The Commons. Strong stuff for a freshman teenager, those puppet shows were the therapeutic outreach of our own resident alienist Dr Reinhold Kolb.

The Alienist


Though the term may have passed from common use by 1925, “alienist” probably described Kolb as well as psychotherapist or psychologist would do today. Herr Dr Kolb arrived in our community about 1924 or 1925 to stay briefly with his sister Edith Wasserman; a visitor from Austria, Kolb was intent on relocating his medical practice to America, but rural Iowa may not have been his goal.

Our country’s earliest mental hospitals were run by Quakers. They were facilites run by families who lived with their inmates in domestic settings, where the measure of your improvement was the distance from your room to the family’s living quarters; improved behaviour was rewarded with closeness to the door. The model for deinstitutionalization today might be Geel, Belgium, where patients are mainstreamed in a town once visited by Dymphna, patron saint of the criminally insane.

We may never know why Dr Kolb chose to remain in Agincourt. With the Wasserman’s aid, he leased an outlot on east Thoreau near the Gnostic Grove (poigniant in two respects) and built a clinic that was more village than asylum. Kolb’s clients—what else should we call them: patients, inmates?—occupied cabins, dined family style, and inched their way toward to door. In his way, Kolb merged the wholistic methods of 19th century Quakers (read about them; their innovative methods have been underappreciated) with the Progressive techniques imported from Europe. We may also fail to appreciate Kolb’s contributions to mental health in Fennimore County.

Many stories can never be completely told.

Can Dymphna help the chronically depressed as well?


  1. […] there, on a Saturday afternoon when his parents shopped and transacted business, a twelve-year-old James Tierney attended one of Kölb’s last puppet shows. Tierney matured to be the founding director of Agincourt’s Prairie Playhouse, and who can […]

  2. […] with another character, Jim Tierney, eventual director of Agincourt’s theatre company. It was one of the last of these performances that convinced the your Tierney to pursue a career in the dramatic […]

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