Monday, August 3, 2015

HGB Podcast, Ep. 60 - Danvers State Hospital

Moment in Oddity - The Woman in Black

During the Civil War, captured Confederate soldiers were imprisoned on an island off of Boston named George’s Island. One of these soldiers was Andrew Lanier. When his wife found out that he had been taken prisoner, she found out where and she traveled from their home in Georgia north to Hull, Massachusetts. A Confederate sympathizer lived in Hull and he invited her into his home, which was positioned perfectly right off of George’s Island. It was so close, that she could watch through a spyglass what was going on over in the fort and prison. She decided to rescue her husband. She cut her hair off, dressed like a man and carried an axe and a pistol. She rowed through stormy waters across to the fort. She squeezed through the slits of the dungeon and the captured Confederate soldiers dug a tunnel using her axe. They were nearly finished when a guard heard the digging and all the soldiers were pulled from the tunnel, except Mrs. Lanier who remained hidden. She sprang from the tunnel and pulled her pistol. One of the guards knocked the pistol from her hand and when it fell to the ground, it went off sending a fatal bullet into her husband. Mrs. Lanier was sentenced to hang. She asked that she be hung in female clothing, but none could be found. There were only black robes and so she was dressed in a black robe. She was hung and buried on the island. From that time, soldiers would tell tales of seeing a mysterious dark shape on the island and sometimes they even saw a young lady in black. With all our stories of ladies in white, we find a story about a lady in black a little odd…or at least unusual.

This Day in History - Firestone Tire Founded

On this day, August 3rd, in 1900, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company was founded by Harvey Firestone. Firestone opened the company in Akron, Ohio since several other tire companies were already based there. The company started with 12 employees and initially supplied pneumatic tires to wagons and buggies. With the advent of the automobile, Firestone saw a new opportunity and in 1906, Henry Ford gave Firestone a contract for the company to provide all the tires for his Model T. Firestone became the first tire company to start mass producing tires. The company expanded into Canada in 1918 and by 1926, it had a rubber plantation in West Africa. During World War II, Firestone manufactured artillery shells, rubberized military products and aluminum kegs. Firestone continued to make missiles for the military throughout the 50s and 60s. By the 80s, the company was faltering and going bankrupt. It was bought by Japan’s Bridgestone in 1988 and the Firestone Company thrives today having branched into many divisions and areas including building products and car care. But it all started with one man and 12 employees.

Danvers State Hospital

Danvers State Hospital sits on land that once was inhabited by Native Americans. Through the years the area was settled by Europeans and became known as the town of Salem. Later, the town of Salem would be broken into smaller towns and the city of Danvers was established. A state hospital was built here that became home to not only the terminally or drastically ill, but also the mentally ill. As is the case with so many hospitals and sanatoriums that we have researched, this was not necessarily a good home for people. Years of abuse and deaths have led what used to be Danvers State Hospital to be considered one of the most haunted places in Massachusetts. Reports of hauntings continue today despite the fact that it has now been converted into apartments. Come with us as we explore the history and hauntings of Danvers State Hospital.

The state of Massachusetts was home for many indigenous people. As we discussed in our haunted Plymouth podcast, the Wampanoag and Pokanoket tribes were in Massachusetts long before the pilgrims and explorers came. There were also the Naumkeag and other Pequot speaking tribes that specifically lived in what would become the city of Danvers. The city of Salem was incorporated in 1629, which we will cover more in depth in our next podcast on the Salem Witch Trials, and between the towns of Salem and Boston, an old Naumkeag trail existed. The English colonists formed this trail into a road known as Ipswich Road in 1630. The city of Salem expanded and this settlement was named Salem Village in 1636. Salem Village would have a strong connection to the Salem Witch Trials. One such connection is the homestead of Rebecca Nurse. You may remember that we mentioned her in a previous This Day in History as a woman who was hung with four other women on Gallows Hill. The people of Salem Village petitioned the King for a charter, but in typical King fashion, he was a jerk and refused.

The villagers decided to rename their town Danvers after an early settler named Danvers Osborn in 1752 and by 1757, the residents decided to ignore the fact the crown would give them no charter and Danvers was incorporated on June 9th. The town grew slowly, but it was not until 1847 that the railroad would arrive, bringing with it more opportunity. A town hall was built in 1855 that is still used today and the southern portion of the city broke off and incorporated as the city of Peabody. In 1884 a railway was built in the street to accommodate horse drawn trolleys of which the town had 69. As technology progressed, the railway was converted to electricity.

Francis Dodge owned a farm up on a hill in Danvers. The hill was known as Hathorne Hill and was a 257 foot high glacial drumlin. The hill was named for Jonathan Hathorne who was a Salem trial judge and also an ancestor to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who changed his name to distance himself from his ancestor. Hathorne had lived in a home on the property. Massachusetts had a growing population of mentally ill people and they needed more room to house them. They decided they needed another psychiatric facility and Hathorne Hill seemed like the perfect place. After much persuading, which we assume came through the use of a lot of money, Francis Dodge was convinced to sell his farmland. Construction began on the hospital and consisted of two main center buildings. The main building housed the administration and had four wings that branched off from it. The wings were separated into male and female wings and the most extremely affected patients were placed in the outermost wards. The other building was connected to the main building and housed the laundries, kitchens, a chapel and dormitories for employees. Red brick was used in the construction of the walls and gray slate was used for the roofs.

The Danvers State Hospital officially opened in 1878 and cost $1.5 million to build. The main building came to be known as the Kirkbride and in subsequent years, other buildings were added. Solariums were added to the wards and a gymnasium was built. As buildings were added, so were tunnels. As we have come to find, tunnels were a typical feature of these hospitals to make it easier to transport people and things. One of the tunnels ran from a steam and power generating plant to help the hospital be self-sufficient. Water came from the nearby Middleton Pond. The tunnels spoked out from the main building and so they were called the Wagon Wheel.

The hospital was originally designed to house 500 patients. The attic was opened up to make room for 100 more people. This would still not prove to be enough space and some patients were relegated to the basement. By the 1930s, over 2,000 people called Danvers State Hospital home, so one can imagine that overcrowding was extreme. And overcrowding leads to less care because there is not only not enough space, but enough staff. Nine people would have to manage 2,000 people on one shift. When the hospital was first opened, mechanical restraints were used on patients. Dr. Charles Page became superintendent in the 1890s and he decided that the restraints were inhumane and he banned them being used. But don’t let that act fool you into thinking that this hospital for the mentally ill would be better than the others. The same practices we consider barbaric today that were used at other insane asylums were used at Danvers State. These included straitjackets, hot and ice cold baths, shock therapy and lobotomies. Later, drugs were used to keep the patients in almost catatonic states.

By the 1960s, deinstitutionalization was spreading and Danvers State was under scrutiny for some of its practices. Portions of the hospital were shut down. Massive budget cuts started as well and the patient population decreased drastically. By 1985, most of the hospital was closed or abandoned. In 1989, the Kirkbride Administration Building closed and the remaining patients were moved to the medical building across the campus. In 1992, the entire campus closed for good. The property underwent renovations in 2007 to turn it into apartments, but a fire broke out and damaged much of the construction. The Kirkbride was demolished after that.The outer shell is all that is left along with the cemetery and tunnels. As of June 2014 it has been in the hands of another company and apartments are to continue being built.

The entire hospital found itself gaining several nicknames in the 115 years that it was open. Some referred to it as the Palace on the Hill, while others called it the Castle on the Hill. The name that interests us the most is the Haunted Castle. And there are many stories of hauntings at Danvers State Hospital. These hauntings are not only attributed to the harsh treatment that patients endured, but because of the close proximity of the Salem Witch Trials and the stories of curses surrounding those events. Several patients were buried on the property. During the years that this was an abandoned property, homeless people used it and curious people came to do urban exploring or some came to investigate stories of hauntings. While trespassers were arrested, there were tours offered to a maximum of groups of 20 twice a month. The movie “Session 9” was filmed on the property as well. All of these could in some ways attribute to the stories of hauntings, whether imagined or real.

Jeralyn Levasseur’s father, Gerald Richards, was a hospital administrator and so she lived on the property in a home that was lent to them. The second story hallway played host to disembodied footsteps often and the lights would flicker on and off. Doors would open and close on their own. One day, Jeralyn’s brother and sister decided to play in the attic. Their fun came to an abrupt end when they noticed a woman scowling at them from a corner of the attic. They did not know the woman and they could tell that she was not solid. They were terrified and huddled in an opposite corner until their mother called for them to come down from the attic. Later, Jeralyn would experience this same apparition. She was sleeping in her room when she was awakened by the pulling down of her bed sheets. When she opened her eyes, she saw an angry older woman scowling at her. Although the woman was scowling, Jeralyn did not feel threatened and the apparition disappeared.

Finding out about the hauntings at Danvers is tough as staff early on kept such stories quiet and later, the police would tamp down tales of paranormal experiences. When it was decided that the property would be developed into housing, one can imagine that haunted historical information would be hidden. But many paranormal investigators visited the property over the years and they collected evidence of supernatural activity. Dark shadows were witnessed and caught on film. Phantom footsteps were heared and captured on EVPs. One investigator had visited the property many times as a teen to hang out and drink alcohol. He claimed that there was a dark energy to the building and he imagined that the energy from the emotions of the former residents was trapped in the brick walls.

A couple of Wiccans visited the property in the past and they claimed to feel an intense foreboding. Psychics claim to feel pain and confusion from unseen entities. And there are those that claim that the energy could cause something referred to as a personal haunt. This is a phenomenon we have not covered before. Parapsychologists claim that people can sometimes have their own fears and doubts manifested by darker energies in a place. Basically, the agony caused to others in the past could cause your own pain to erupt and possibly who will either have intense negative feelings of foreboding or see something that may not actually be there. A kind of figment of your imagination.

With a history for not only the buildings of Danvers State Hospital, but also a history for the land, it is not surprising that at least superstition has a stronghold on the property. Do the souls of former patients roam the area? Is the ground cursed? Is the area of the former Danvers State Hospital haunted? That is for you to decide!

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