Saturday, October 15, 2016

Revisiting The Danvers State Insane Asylum

One of the things I love most about writing is weaving bits of history, folklore, legends, and mysteries into my work. I think it brings a feel of authenticity to my writing and it always provides me with a lot of entertainment. For pure color there is no setting more rich and mysterious than The Danvers State Insane Asylum in Hathorne, Massachusetts, a section of Danvers.
The Danvers State Hospital Main Building
  Built in 1874 as The Danvers State Lunatic Asylum, the building was vast and modeled on the design of Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, the supervisor of the Pennsylvania Hospital. Dr. Kirkbride was a progressive and compassionate man who believed that light, beautiful surroundings, and proximity to nature were critical to healing. Seen from the air, the building looked rather like a bird with outstretched wings. The idea was to offset sections of the building to allow for more windows, more light, and privacy.
Original Drawing
At the time of its construction the understanding of treatment for the mentally ill was fairly primitive. Doctors talked about balancing the senses but some of the treatments were mystifying by today's standards. Danvers proved to be an above average treatment center. In 1889 a training program for nurses was added and in 1895 a pathological research laboratory opened.
Abandoned Private Room
The hospital evolved over the years and finally closed in 1994. It quickly became a mecca for urban explorers and photographers. In 2007 it burned to the ground in a fire so enormous that it could be seen 17 miles away in Boston.
One of the many Common Rooms.
Glass blocks provided light without a view.
In 1988, newly arrived in Massachusetts, I took a temporary job in the hospital, at that time called Danvers State. I worked in one of the outbuildings in a ward for adolescent men teaching history and literature. It was always an experience to drive up that long, winding drive through the trees, into the shadow of the great main building, most of which was closed by then. Since my shift began in the early afternoon and ran into evening, it was usually dark when I left. I will never forget the sense of mystery and a little bit of terror that accompanied those rides. On the rare occasions when I had to go to the main building for a meeting or to pick up paperwork, my knees never seemed to work exactly right.
Locked rooms for solitary confinement
In my novel, Depraved Heart, one of the scenes is set in a dayroom in the main building. As a girl Rachel visited her mother—the beautiful but mad Rosalind. I found writing those scenes to be very evocative and, because I had not only a sense of the setting, but of the people who once inhabited it, words seemed to spill onto the page without my agency—but the scene turned out great.
Windows overlooking windows
In my soon-to-be-released, Ghost of a Dancer By Moonlight, Cleo meets her love interest, a photographer when he hires her to write the narrative to a book of photographs of the abandoned hospital.
Entrance to the main lobby
Much of the mystery of old hospitals like this is letting our imaginations run amok wondering about the people who were once confined there. The scariest place in all the world is the inside of the human head and people who are tormented by demons cannot help but terrify us. There but for the grace of God and all that.
Abandoned ward room
When I look at pictures like these, part of me just sees the sadness of a beautiful building left to ruin. But another part sees terror and torment, hears screams buried in the walls. I am glad I got to see the Danvers State Hospital before it burned and I hope I never have to go into a place like that again.
One of several cemeteries
Thanks for reading.



16 comments:

  1. Dr Kirkbride does indeed sound like a compassionate and progressive man. Which so many were not.
    I am sometimes grateful that walls cannot talk, because I don't think I could live with what they have to say.

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    1. Quite a few Kirkbride designed hospitals were built around the country and some of them are still standing.

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  2. Hi, Kathleen!

    Insane asylums have fascinated me ever since I was a boy and saw the Boris Karloff film Bedlam (1946). I enjoyed learning the history of The Danvers State Insane Asylum. How fortunate that a a man of compassion and vision designed the sprawling facility. Built a few years after the Civil War, Danvers State might have been another austere place to warehouse society's outcasts. Instead, thanks to Dr. Kirkbride, it was an oasis that literally and figuratively brought light into patients' lives. I am astonished to learn that fire was the culprit in the loss of yet another historic landmark. Can you please clarify something for me? I followed the link to the Danvers State site and clicked to the Chronicles page. As I understand it an apartment complex was under construction on the site in 2007 when the fire erupted, burning down three buildings and setting the project back several months. I'm trying to understand if it was only the new apartment construction that burned or if the original hospital structure was in the process of being converted into those apartments when the fire ignited. I'm confused.

    If mental institutions hold fascination for you then I urge you to watch the TV series American Horror Story: Asylum starring Jessica Lange, Sarah (Marcia Clark) Paulson and many other fine actors.

    Thank you very much, dear friend Kathleen, and enjoy the rest of your weekend!

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    1. The old hospital burned down as well as two out-buildings. As far as I know the new construction was smoke damaged but not burned. There have been a lot of rumors that some new residents have put their condos on the market after only a few months because of "weird" things going on. There was also a fuss made a few years back about removing the cemeteries. I don't know what ever came of that.

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  3. Chilling. It reminds me of an old derelict hospital that was up the road from me in North Carolina. Something about derelict buildings has always kind of captured my imagination.

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    1. Yes, I think a lot of us are drawn to such structures. We wonder about what really went on in there.

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  4. Hi Kathleen - what a fascinating post of a place that you had worked in at some stage. They are imposing buildings aren't they ... but mental institutions over the centuries haven't been exactly the easiest places to deal with ...

    This was a great post of history and emotion ... and I too would like to know the answer to Shady's question re what burnt down ... cheers Hilary

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    1. As I said to Shady, the original building and 2 out buildings burned down but the condos have been rebuilt since then.

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  5. Kirkbride certainly sounds enlightened for the times. I think a lot of institutions are scary when abandoned, so they make great settings. I always hated walking around my old school - after open evenings or the like - by myself. There's something creepy about busy buildings being deserted.

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    1. I think that is a good point about them having once been busy places. You think of how vibrant a school is and then suddenly everything is quiet. Echoes....

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  6. Wow - those pictures are so spooky and haunting. I love that you weave in your experiences into your writing. Kirkbride looks like it would definitely be a great source of inspiration.

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    1. Thanks. Yes, it certainly stirs the imagination!!!

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  7. Have you mined the time you taught there for a story? I can just see a part time teacher who is haunted on her drives to and from the hospital...

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    1. Hmmmmmmm.... I'll have to think about that! Thanks.

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  8. Fantastic photos and stories! Perfect for October.

    My mom grew up on the grounds of the old state TB hospital, her parents were both on the staff, and were provided an apartment. After it had been closed for years and was scheduled to be turned into the fire training academy, she took us to see the place. It was deliciously abandoned and creepy.

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    1. There is just something so interesting about such places. That sounds fascinating, too.

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