Hathorne Hill in Danvers, Massachusetts harbors a beautiful Kirkbride building with its gothic-style spires and red brick construction. The judge that presided over the Salem Witch Trials, John Hathorne, once lived here a few hundred years ago. Perhaps that dark history cursed the building that currently sits on Hathorne Hill.
The facility that once housed Danvers State Hospital is now home to a residential community featuring fully renovated apartments. However, the building’s dark past make it one of the creepiest monuments to insane asylums in the world.
The idea was that the facility would be self-sustaining, meaning that everything it needed was on site. The overall design, as seen from the air, looked like a bat in mid-flight. The design supposedly helped draw breezes through the entire facility.
Although the building looked beautiful on the outside, inside was a different matter.
The Early Years Of Danvers State Hospital
Danvers State Hospital was originally called the State Lunatic Asylum at Danvers (a cheerful name, for sure). It was part of the countrywide concept – at least in the late 1800s – that people with psychological problems needed to be cured inside specially made facilities. Construction on Danvers State Hospital started in 1874 and the first patients moved in sometime in 1878. At its peak, the facility had 40 buildings and maxed out at 450 patients. The goal of the facility was to completely cure patients of their ills.
Danvers was a success at first. By 1900, Danvers State Hospital employed 125 people and had treated more than 9,500 patients since opening. Its good reputation proved to be Danvers’ undoing. Over the next 20 years, the population of the hospital swelled to more than 2,000 patients despite its official capacity of 450.
Administrators begged the state for money to build more rooms and hire more staff, to no avail.
Shocking Living Conditions
Then the horrific abuses started.
Patients walked through hallways naked. They lived in their own filth from a lack of basic hygiene. People weren’t being cured. Their symptoms got worse.
Shock therapy and straight jackets became the norm. The thinking was that jolts of electricity could either alter a patient’s brain or make the patient afraid of shock therapy and scare them into submission. When they misbehaved, they were put in straight jackets and forgotten.
When shock therapy failed, the lobotomies started. In 1939, the medical community was looking for a permanent fix to the crisis facing mental health facilities. The population of the hospital swelled to 2,360. A total of 278 people died at the hospital that year.
Medical science saw lobotomies as a cure for anyone’s insanity, and as a way to stop the deaths.
Neurology experts often called Danvers State Hospital the “birthplace of the prefrontal lobotomy.” The moniker came from its widespread use, but also from the procedures refinement at the hospital.
Visitors to Danvers State Hospital in the early 1940s reported lobotomy patients wandering aimlessly through the halls of the hospital. At least the patients didn’t complain, because many of them just stared blankly at walls. Patients walked around in a drugged, hellish daze. No one would let them leave and held them against their will.
That is, if patients could express their thoughts after having a portion of their brain ripped out during surgery.
Decline And Repurposing Of Danvers State Hospital
The lack of funding continued. Buildings fell into disrepair, which made conditions worse. Finally, the state intervened.
Portions of Danvers State Hospital were shut down in 1969. Most of it closed in 1985 before a permanent shutdown in 1992, after which the site became a popular destination for thrill-seeking kids looking for a good scare.
In 2005, a development company bought the rundown property and tore down a large portion of the buildings. The renovations turned the once-macabre lunatic asylum into Avalon Danvers Apartments. Construction faced delays in 2007 when a mysterious fire broke out and burned a majority of the new construction and some trailers. Perhaps the tormented spirits of the dead put a curse on the place.
The Hell House on the Hill (one of several unkind yet accurate nicknames for Danvers State Hospital) looks brand-new today. However, its reputation remains. Horror novelist H.P. Lovecraft used Danvers as the inspiration for his Arkham Sanitarium. If the name Arkham sounds familiar, DC Comics latched onto the name and created Arkham Asylum as the backdrop for where Batman’s ultra-psychotic villains come from.
The only remnants of the horrific practices that went on in Danvers State Hospital are the gravestones in two nearby cemeteries, which contain 770 bodies. Some headstones only have numbers as opposed to names. Even in death, administrators at Danvers State Hospital did not dignify their patients.
The end of an era
The fire could have been smoldering for hours, but when it at last roared to life it launched towers of flame from the summit of the drumlin that dominates the suburban North Shore landscape here into the gloom of a nascent April morning.
Truckers plying Interstate 95 and Route 1, which skirt the hill, called in the first reports. By then the inferno could be seen from 20 miles around as it consumed buildings intended for luxury rental housing.
When fire crews arrived there was little they could do but douse the flames and keep them from units completed and occupied. The April 7 blaze would be likened to a lumberyard fire, intense and rapacious. But in the light of day, only the uncompleted construction was found destroyed and no injuries were reported.
The fire was a spectacle by any measure. But this fire occurred on Hathorne Hill in Danvers, former home of the legendarily wretched Danvers State Hospital, considered by some one of the most haunted sites in America.
When it comes to spectral locales, few would dispute that the brooding Gothic-style compound, once the site of unimaginable horrors for the mentally ill warehoused within, stands among the state’s eeriest.
From the howls of inmates past to the embers of April’s inferno, the now-demolished hospital continues to cough up memories of woe and tales of the accursed.
Today, developers are hoping to give it new life as condos with soul and cachet. But authors, paranormalists and embracers of Halloween mythology see a site that will always carry with it an aura of the ghoulish and the grim.
The hill’s nefarious reputation reaches back more than three centuries to its namesake and original owner, John Hathorne, great-grandfather to author Nathaniel Hawthorne and one of the notorious judge-inquisitors during the Salem witch trials.
Its link to the witch hysteria is fortified by the fact that two of the chief accusers during that sorry time lived on land below the slopes of the hill, and today lie buried in unmarked graves in a tiny family cemetery still maintained by their descendants, just across Route 62 from the hill’s northern slope.
But Hathorne Hill’s most sinister legacy is founded on a boggling irony. In the mid-18th century, a fervor for compassionate care of the mentally ill led the commonwealth to build the Danvers State Lunatic Asylum. By the 20th century, factors that had little to do with care, much less compassion, combined to make Danvers State Hospital a place of loathing and fear, its magnificent Gothic (some would say magnificently grotesque) architecture a looming presence that dominated the surrounding towns like a crown of thorns upon the hill.
It is believed to be the model for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanitorium, a place where the doomed protagonists of his horror stories were consigned after going mad from touching unspeakable evil.
Long after the facility was closed and practically abandoned by the state, it became the setting of the 2001 independent horror film “Session 9.” The hospital, with its gloomy exteriors and dark, ominous interiors, was another character in the tale of a group of workmen who uncover terrible secrets while removing asbestos from the aged structures.
According to artist-historian Michael Ramseur in his book “The Eye of Danvers,” neither pulp fiction nor cinematic horror could hold a shuddering candle to the real tragedies of Danvers State Hospital and its forlorn patients.
Ramseur became obsessed with the imposing relic while a social worker here. In his book he explains how the hospital came into existence with the best of intentions, based on a plan for treating the mentally ill formulated by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane.
Kirkbride condemned the use of restraints to control mentally ill patients. Instead he believed serene, isolated settings in areas of rural beauty, fresh air and work would return afflicted patients to a state of mental balance.
Around the country so-called Kirkbride institutions rose, architecturally striking facilities, since Kirkbride maintained that places where patients were sheltered should also be beautiful.
Massachusetts’ response was the Danvers State Lunatic Asylum, designed by Boston architect Nathaniel Bradley. Built from 1874 to 1878 in Danvers red brick, granite and copper, it was state-of-the-art and considered a masterwork of peaks, spires and gables. Completed at the then-astounding cost of $1.5 million, it was, at the time, the most expensive building constructed by the commonwealth.
The asylum was intended to house 450 patients, Ramseur said, but if the attics were opened they could accommodate 600 – a figure that would be surpassed, to the detriment of patients and staff.
Patients were put to work maintaining gardens and growing their food on the facility’s farmland on the slopes of the hill, another precept of Kirkbride’s philosophy: vigorous work would help restore mental balance.
Ridicule & criticism
But Ramseur says Kirkbride’s vision was rapidly undermined by a combination of economics and resentment. Residents of Danvers derisively labeled the facility the “castle,” or “the lunatic palace.”
“People would say, ‘Why are we spending so much money to coddle these lunatics?’ ” Ramseur said.
Politicians responded to the grumbling, and Ramseur cites one politician’s dismissal of the folly of what the public deemed luxury housing for the insane: “Even many a royal palace is neither so large nor so pretentious architecturally as the hospital at Danvers.”
Discontent translated into budget cuts and diminished staff. But as resources declined, the patient census soared. Many people were consigned to the hospital under a broad definition of mental aberrations that included alcoholism, retardation, substance abuse, eccentricity and an unwillingness to conform to community norms.
“Young boys were committed to Danvers because they lifted a girl’s skirt for a peek,” says Ramseur. By the early 20th century, he said, Danvers State had become the “snake pit that we all envisage.”
Therapy and control
New techniques for treatment and control came into play and in some cases were used ruthlessly. Ramseur says a persistent claim that Danvers pioneered the lobotomy is likely apocryphal, but notes that hundreds of the procedures were performed there. The psychosurgery house once stood where the fire occurred in April.
Hydrotherapy was employed not so much as therapy but for controlling the population. Persons would be locked into tubs of frigid water with only their heads sticking out, Ramseur said.
Innovations such as electroshock were used too, not because they were understood, but because it was “the latest big thing, the latest promise of a ‘cure,’ ” Ramseur explains. Minimal staff coped as best they could before the advent of tranquilizing drugs. Ramseur cites a shift in the mid-1940s in which nine staff were left in charge of 13 wards and 2,300 patients. Even so, the hospital saw exceptional care provided by dedicated staffers who Ramseur describes as saintly.
Stigma & preservation
Cloaked in stigma, the facility continued to deteriorate, and patients, some hidden and abandoned by their families, lived out their lives and died there, never leaving the grounds. Two cemeteries on the slopes contain the bodies of perhaps 800 patients.
State mental hospitals were considered failures by the late 20th century, and the hospital was closed in 1992. It would remain essentially abandoned for more than 10 years before it was sold by the state to AvalonBay Development in 2005.
Between those years, the buildings would be invaded by vandals, documented surreptitiously by urban explorers and paranormal investigators and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Members of the Danvers Preservation Commission maintained a running battle for two years with the initial developer and then AvalonBay to preserve as much of the facility as possible.
Eventually AvalonBay agreed to preserve the administration building and two wings, maintain the patient cemeteries and construct a memorial. Demolition of the rest of the facility and “outlying historically significant buildings,” according to Danvers Town Archivist Richard Trask, was swift and irrecoverable.
Trask laments what he calls a Disneyfied preservation effort by AvalonBay, saying: “Fifty years from now, people are going to wonder how we allowed something so magnificent to be destroyed.” But Danvers was eager to get a piece of prime property on its tax rolls. A reported $2 million was also offered by the developer to the town in mitigation and preservation funds for other projects.
Some see a success
Trask’s colleague on the commission, John Archer, a preservationist and businessman, is not so melancholy, and says AvalonBay has done a good job with the small portion of the old facility it has preserved. He considers the result a success story.
“You saw ‘Session 9?’ ” he asks. “That movie was completely accurate.” The film portrayed workers finding patient records and uncovering dark secrets in the gloom of melancholy buildings.
“It was like the day they closed it, after the last shift, everyone put on their coats and just left everything as it was: equipment, documents, everything. Nobody came to get anything,” he said.
When patient records and other artifacts began turning up on Internet sites, such as eBay, the state belatedly moved to secure abandoned records and launched an investigation.
Archer doesn’t fault AvalonBay’s business decisions. “They’re a private company; they have to answer to the bottom line.”
For Ramseur and the patients who suffered at the asylum, the bottom line is far starker. As Ramseur writes of the site, scene of so many anguished cries and true-life terrors for the benighted patients:
“I turned from the window to the rest of the castle, brick after time-stained brick . . . turret after turret, window after window . . . with torn and grimy curtains hanging from gaping holes – all eloquent symbols for the passage of time and the stigmatized history of Danvers State Hospital. I had looked into the eye of Danvers, and it had winked to let me know all the folly of wishing to comprehend that degree of bedlam.”
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