Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

We love looking at creepy photographs of former mental institutions that have fallen into disrepair, but sometimes the true stories behind these hospitals is far more horrifying. Here are a few abandoned and partially abandoned institutions will tales more chilling than their photographs.

Top photo from an abandoned building at Trenton State Hospital, by David Scaglione.

It can be hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to asylum stories; so many fall into the realm of urban legend or lore for ghost hunter TV shows. These are hospitals in which the events (or at least the allegations) are well documented in articles, books, and well cited histories. Many of the abuses that occurred in these hospitals were a product of megalomaniacal physicians, poorly tested treatments, and an overburdened mental health system. It's important to keep in mind the medical advances as well as the horrors, and to remember that there are plenty of people today who don't get the mental health care that they need. We may have moved past the ice pick lobotomy as a cure-all, but we're still working on eliminating the stigma on mental illness, improving mental health access, and ensuring that people in vulnerable positions enjoy autonomy and informed consent.

Metropolitan State Hospital

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by liza31337

There are plenty of disturbing tales surrounding Metropolitan State Hospital, which opened in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1930. On the grounds of the hospital sat the Gaebler Children's Center, which many of its former residents have described as being akin to a prison, with the children strictly disciplined and frequently sedated. Dinah Williams' book Abandoned Insane Asylums references a tale of an accidental poisoning of pediatric psychiatric patients during the 1960s, but that's not a story I've seen confirmed elsewhere.

The macabre tale for which Metropolitan is best known, however, earned it the nickname "The Hospital of Seven Teeth." In 1978, a patient named Anna Marie Davee went for a walk around the grounds and never returned. It wasn't until 1980 that her killer, a fellow patient named Melvin Wilson, brought police to the three separate graves where he had buried parts of her hacked-up body. As if dismembering her wasn't enough, Wilson kept seven of Davee's teeth as a souvenir.

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by liza31337

Metropolitan State was closed in 1992, as psychiatric care became increasingly privatized. By 2009, most of the buildings on the campus had been demolished, replaced with condo complexes. Only the hospital's administration building remains.

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by liza31337

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by liza31337

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by liza31337

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by liza31337

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by liza31337

Danvers State Hospital

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by Maria Salvaggio

Another Massachusetts facility, the State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers is actually quite famous in horror. It's said to have been an inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's Arkham Sanatorium (Danvers is also mentioned in Lovecraft's stories "Pickman's Model" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth") and it served as the setting for the film Session 9. The exterior even appears in the asylum level of the game Painkiller.

So what has earned Danvers State such distinctions? Actually, when the hospital was constructed in 1887, it was designed (by Nathaniel J Bradlee) according to the theories of mental health advocate Thomas Story Kirkbride, who believed in the compassion care and treatment of the mentally ill. That meant ornate interiors, private rooms, and long, rambling wings that would let the sunshine in. But while Danvers was meant to be an appealing place whose interiors promoted the health and wellbeing of its patients, its gothic design has captured the imagination of many a lover of horror.

Unfortunately, as the decades wore on, Kirkbride's influence touched nothing more than the main building's floor plan. The structure was originally meant to contain 600 patients, but in 1939, it had a daily population of 2,360, and the staff, whose size had remained relatively stable, was at a loss for how to control the patients, who were sick and dirty from their lack of care. Sometimes the patients died out of the staff members' sight, and weren't discovered until days later, rotting away in some forgotten room. Eventually, all of the nightmarish trappings of asylums were introduced: solitary confinement, straightjackets, electroshock therapy (which gets a bad rap, but was likely overused as a means to control patients rather than as a mode of treatment), and the lobotomy.

After psychiatrist physician Walter Freeman performed the United States' first transorbital lobotomy in 1936, many large psychiatric hospitals took to the procedure like an icepick to an eye socket, using it to treat everything from daydreaming and backaches to delusions and major depression. Danvers is often given the dubious title of the "birthplace of the prefrontal lobotomy" for its use and refinement of the procedure. While some patients certainly saw stunning benefits from this so-called miracle treatment, many others had adverse effects. Visitors to the hospital in the late 1940s described the patients as aimlessly wandering the halls, or vacantly staring at walls, perhaps a result of both their poor treatment by the staff and their various medical interventions.

Portions of the hospital were shuttered starting in 1969, with most of it closed by 1985, and the entire campus shut down in 1992. For years, the building sat empty, but eventually the property was bought up by Avalon Bay Development, which demolished most of the buildings, including the interior of the historic Kirkbride building. The Kirkbride building's facade was used as part of the new Avalon Danvers apartments. Some of the campus' tunnels, the cemetery, and facades of a couple of the other buildings remain, but the "modern ruins" version of Danvers State now exists only in photographs and videos.

Incidentally, the city of Danvers once went by a different name: Salem Village.

Trenton State Hospital

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by David Scaglione

The New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum (later Trenton State and now Trenton Psychiatric Hospital) was the very first founded on the Kirkbride plan, by activist Dorothea Dix. But like Danvers State, it was better remembered for its medical abuses than for its well intentioned beginnings. Dr. Henry Cotton became the director of the hospital in 1907 and eventually instituted treatments based on his own theories of mental illness. On the one hand, Cotton, who had trained at Johns Hopkins under the eminent Swiss-born psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, had a very progressive attitude toward care for his patients. He did away with the mechanical restraints that so many other hospitals used to control patients, introduced occupational therapy, increased the staff and ensured that the nurses would prevent violence against the patients, and instituted daily staff meetings about patient care.

But Cotton developed a dangerous theory about mental illness, one that turned his hospital into a house of horrors. After it was confirmed in 1913 that the spirochaete that causes syphilis can cause the disease's psychiatric symptoms, Cotton began to suspect that all mental illness was caused by bodily infections, and that the only way to cure the patient was to remove the offending infection. In 1917, he began removing his patients' teeth, even in cases where X-Rays showed no evidence of infection. He soon moved on to other body parts: gall bladder, stomachs, ovaries, testicles, tracts of colon, uteruses. Cotton claimed a cure rate of 85%, but in reality, his surgeries had an unconscionably high mortality rate. And he didn't always obtain consent from patients or family members—and, in fact, sometimes performed these removals despite their protests.

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by David Scaglione

What's perhaps more disturbing than Cotton's actual practice of these excisions is that he didn't perform them in secret. He published papers and gave presentations on his work. When Meyer sent another psychiatrist to report on the operations at Trenton State, he initially suppressed her report, allowing Cotton to continue his gruesome work. It wasn't just a single arrogant doctor who was at fault, but also an institution that allowed him to continue his maiming. Cottom remained at Trenton until 1930, three years before his death. The tooth-pulling practice remained in place until 1960. Andrew Scull's book Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine tells the tale of Cotton's tenure at Trenton.

Trenton Psychiatric Hospital is still operational, and the center of the Kirkbride building is still in use. But parts of the campus have been abandoned and have fallen into disrepair.

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by David Scaglione

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by David Scaglione

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by David Scaglione

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by David Scaglione

Topeka State Hospital

There is one story from Topeka State Hospital that is sure to make your skin crawl: According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, a reporter visited the facility at some point during the early 20th century and saw a patient who had been strapped down for so long that his skin had begun to grow over his restraints. Other patients were chained up while naked for months at a time. For many residents at that time, however, life offered a different similar sort of hell, even if they were unrestrained: an unending boredom. Patients were given nothing to do, nothing to stimulate their minds, and so they sat in rocking chairs in the hallway all day, rocking and staring and doing little else.

Fortunately, in 1948, Kansas Governor Frank Carlson, responding to reports of overcrowding and deplorable conditions, convened a panel to study the problem. The state legislature ended up doubling the appropriations for mental hospitals and the rocking chairs were removed from the hallway. Psychiatrists and psychologists began volunteering at the hospital, seeing patients and organizing a department of psychology at the hospital. In 1949, the hospital hired its first social worker, who prepared patients for their eventual release. Although the hospital did stumble in later years due to funding cutbacks, by the late 1960s, Topeka State was viewed as a leading psychiatric facility.

However, the hospital lost its Medicare and Medicaid accreditation in 1988, and like so many hospitals, lost patients to community-based programs during the 1990s. In 1997, the hospital closed its doors for good.

Fernald State School

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Whereas most of the institutions on this list were built in the spirit of the Kirkbride plan, Fernald State School goes back a bit further, to 1848, when it opened in Waltham, Massachusetts, as the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children. The school's first superintendent, Walter E. Fernald, was an advocate of eugenics before the word even existed. The school was originally intended as an educational facility for boys with low intelligence (and any other boy unceremoniously dumped not the school's doorstep) so they could lead productive, independent lives, but it effectively served as a prison for children whose only crime was being committed to the facility.

And the boys were treated like criminals; even their eventual release date was referred to as their "parole." They were physically and sexually abused in especially cruel ways. In his book The State Boys Rebellion, Michael D'Antonio describes events like "Red Cherry" day, in which one boy's name was chosen at random and his pants were pulled down and he was beaten until his bum was red as a cherry. They received substandard education, taking classes from sometimes unlicensed teachers and getting less than half the class time of their peers. There was no privacy, and the boys slept 36 to a room. The boys were not, however, subject to sterilization, a legacy from Fernald himself, who believed that sterilization would lead to promiscuity.

Perhaps most bizarre is the infamous Quaker Oats radiation experiment. During the 1950s, MIT researchers studied the way the body absorbs calcium and iron by feeding some of the Fernald residents cereal laced with radioactive tracers. The boys who participated in the study were told they were joining the "science club," but they, and in many cases their families, were unaware of the nature of the experiment. Although it wasn't proven whether the doses of radiation the boys consumed were at all harmful, in 1998, MIT and the Quaker Oats Company agreed to pay $1.85 million to the members of the science club.

Currently, Fernald remains partially open, but as a residence for mentally disabled adults. As of December 2012, there were 13 residents on the campus. Many of the buildings are no longer in use. You can see photos of one of the abandoned buildings at Lindsay Blair Brown's blog and the campus on Flickr.

Whittingham Hospital

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by underclassrising.net

London's Whittingham Hospital was once the largest mental institution in Britain, and it was a pioneer in the use of electroencephalograms. But the hospital's legacy was forever tainted in 1965, when a series of bizarre allegations against the staff of the St. Luke's division began to emerge. Over the next few years, these allegations began to spill out into the mainstream press, and the papers jumped on claims that patients were fed mixed-together food as "slops," that some were given only bread and jam to eat, that they were locked out in the courtyard during inclement weather, that they were put to bed wearing only vests, that some patients were locked out of the bathrooms. One patient alleged that staff members would sometimes apply a "wet towel treatment" to patients, twisting a wet towel around a patient's neck until the patient lost consciousness. Others claimed that patients were punched and subsequently locked in a storeroom. One claimed that two nurses had poured alcohol onto the slippers of one patient and the dressing gown of another and then set both on fire.

The allegations were routinely denied by the staff, but both the head nurse and the matron retired as a result of the scandal. And the official inquiry into the matter came after a nurse was convicted for manslaughter after one of the elderly patients he had assaulted died. The hospital closed in 1995, and most of the buildings on the premises are still standing.

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by underclassrising.net

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by underclassrising.net

Six Abandoned Asylums with Genuinely Chilling Backstories

Photo by underclassrising.net