As we are quickly approaching Halloween and the finale of our five weeks of historical horror, we’re rounding this week up as the top five abandoned insane asylums. These places have not just been home to the mentally ill, but unfortunately were also houses of horror for many of the patients and staff who worked in them. So be prepared to feel on edge when reading about the buildings that went down in history, together with the sorry lot of souls that fell into the system.
1) Danvers State Hospital, Danvers, MA (1874-1992)
Built as one of the architecturally well-known Kirkbride buildings, the Danvers State Hospital building was a classic example of the prestigious Gothic style that was developed with good intentions of providing plenty of light, space and care for mentally ill patients. However, Danvers soon passed its maximum holding of 450 patients to the point of over 2,000 (expansion of the building had been conducted) in the 1930’s and 40’s. A long system of underground tunnels made it easier for nurses and doctors to navigate the grounds but the severity of overcrowding led to patients being kept in the basement. By the 1920’s lobotomies, straightjackets, shock therapies and drugs were the common protocol as the best resort for controlling the masses. Cleanliness was surely lacking. Danvers began closing its wards in 1969 due to massive budget cuts and deinstitutionalization but took nearly three more decades before completely closing. The majority has since been demolished, which is unfortunate considering the grandeur of such an architectural treasure.
2) Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, Trenton, NJ (1848-present)
The first mental hospital in the state of New Jersey, and the first in the world built based on the Kirkbride theory, Trenton has a horror story beyond the norm. The first superintendent admitted and treated only 86 patients from 1848 to 1907 when Dr. Henry Cotton became the director. This man believed that mental illness stemmed from infections. He founded this theory on the fact that people with high fevers can behave delusional, so he theorized that an untreated infection in the body must be the source of mental illness. That being said, Dr. Cotton used this believe as basis for his extracting of teeth. If that didn’t cure the insanity, then a tonsillectomy, followed by removing the testicles or ovaries, gall bladders, spleens, cervixes, stomachs and, most commonly, colons was sure to do the trick. Of course surgeries, especially back then, commonly lead to infections and often death. Patients began to develop a justified paranoia of the operating room, in which case the surgery was still performed even as the patient would violently protest. The eerie part of this story, if you can believe it, is that upon Cotton’s death due to heart attack in 1933, he was considered to be a pioneer of psychiatric treatment. Even The New York Times said so. Much of the hospital is still in use, however several of the original buildings have been abandoned and fallen to neglect.
3) Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, Weston, WV (1864-1994)
Another Kirkbride-based building, this asylum is another story of overpopulation. Designed to house 250 patients, in the 1950’s it was up to 2,600; far more than the staff could easily care for. Perhaps it was the acreage that set the tone for the facility: 666 sprawling acres, but the people seeking “treatment” there were actually often times epileptics and alcoholics mixed in with the criminally insane. By the 1980’s, unruly patients were locked in cages. Who knows how many have died due to neglect and mistreatment over the years, including botched lobotomies, but the numbers are in the thousands. Several television shows have gone to investigate the paranormal activity said to frequent the place. Today, The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is open to those brave enough to spend the night every Saturday night.
4) Topeka State Hospital, Topeka, KS (1872-1997)
This place was a true house of terror for the mentally ill in the early 1900’s. Reports of rape, neglect and abuse were rampant. One witness saw a patient who had been strapped down for so long that his skin had begun to grow over the leather. Many patients were left confined or chained for extremely long periods. In 1913 a law was passed to force sterilization on “habitual criminals, idiots, epileptics, imbeciles, and insane.” The law was problematic and there was not a significant number of sterilization performed, being at its peak time about 10 in every 100,000 patients. In 1992, Stephanie Uhlrig was working as a therapist at the hospital. She had been out with patients and staff to a movie and upon their return was brutally murdered by a patient. Her body was found in a bathroom. In 2010 the buildings were demolished.
5) Fernald State School, Waltham, MA (1848-present)
In order to really be on the horrific side of the spectrum, make an insane asylum an asylum for children. Fernald State was a place where young boys who placed low on a terrible intelligence test were sent for “school,” as well as boys who were dropped on the front step. They were treated as prisoners, with “Red Cherry” day being when all would sit in a circle until a name was called in which case he would enter the circle, remove his pants and endure a twitching until his bum was cherry red. But that was nothing compared to the oatmeal the boys ate. MIT conducted a study for Quaker Oats where the boys were fed oatmeal strongly laced with radiation. The boys who participated were told they were joining a science club. In 1957 the boys managed an uprising, which lead to some being imprisoned elsewhere, while media finally gave attention to the conditions of the school. “The State Boys’ Rebellion”, written by Michael D’Antonio, is worth reading to learn the details of the boys’ stories and how they earned their freedom and justice.