Moment in Oddity - Cirque du Sewer
Many of us have enjoyed one of the various Cirque shows which incorporate acrobatics and sometimes death defying feats! Well let me introduce you to Cirque du Sewer. This troupe is comprised of 2 humans, some cats and rats. You heard me correctly. Melissa Arleth and her assistant Vitaliy have trained her furred feline and rambunctious rodent rescues to perform various tricks and feats of bravery. Their act includes obstacle courses, walking on tightropes and jumping through flaming hoops while their humans perform their own stunts and comedy bits. Melissa stated that her improv skills have improved when her fur-kids decline to perform. She commented that sometimes she thinks, "Look at my amazing cats!" while other times she thinks, "my cat is a jerk". But this was said with a laugh. Besides touring the country, Cirque du Sewer has also performed on America's Got Talent, Nickelodeon's Unleashed and The Gong Show. We love that all of Melissa's cats and rats are rescues, but organizing them into a circus show, certainly is odd.
This Month in History - Dolly Parton Born
In the month of January, on the 19th, in 1946, Dolly Parton was born. Dolly Parton is most well-known as a country singer, but she has proven through the decades to be a woman of multi-talents and she is considered a national treasure in much the same way that Betty White was because she is just a sweet woman, a good person. Parton was born in Tennessee along the banks of the Little Pigeon River in a one-room cabin to a family she described as dirt-poor. She started singing in church when she was six and received her first real guitar when she was eight. She began performing as a child and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry when she was just thirteen. She moved to Nashville in 1964, the day after she graduated high school. Dolly made her album debut in 1967 with "Hello, I'm Dolly." Today, she has sold more than 100 million records worldwide with 25 singles reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Country Music Chart. She has written over 3,000 songs and won 11 Grammy Awards. Dolly jumped into acting as well and received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for the movie "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Last year, 2022, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her greatest achievement is her philanthropy, which has been focused on East Tennessee where she grew up. What is your favorite Dolly Parton song? Mine is "Here You Come Again."
Western State Hospital (Suggested by: Cara Danelle)
Imagine a luxury hotel in an old insane asylum. That is precisely what has happened with the Western Lunatic Asylum or as it was later known, the Western State Hospital. The main administration building is now the Blackburn Inn and Conference Center. This is a good setting for the hotel as this was an asylum meant to be a beautiful, tranquil and moral place for treatment of the mentally ill. This was Virginia's early attempt to provide enlightened care to suffering people. Later this was a medium security prison. Today, it stands as a possibly haunted hotel and complex of condominiums. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of the Western State Hospital.
The western part of Virginia was really growing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and with that came a need for a place to care for the mentally ill. A commission was formed by the state government that was tasked with finding a location for a new asylum. The town of Staunton was chosen. This town had been settled in 1732 and was named for the wife of colonial governor Sir William, Gooch, Lady Rebecca Staunton. We mentioned the Northwest Territory in our last episode on River Raisin Battlefield and Staunton actually served as its capital from 1738 to 1770. The town was officially incorporated in 1801. The Virginia Central Railroad made Staunton a transportation hub in 1854 and it was a supply base during the Civil War. President Woodrow Wilson was born here in 1856. Staunton, Virginia managed to escape much of the destruction that the state of Virginia suffered during the Civil War. Many 18-century structures still exist, including the Western State Hospital. The antebellum asylum is thought to be one of America's outstanding and best preserved early institutional properties.
The hospital was first known as Western Lunatic Asylum of Virginia. The Main Administration Building is known as Building 12 and construction was completed in 1828. Baltimore architect William F. Small designed the building and the builders included George W. Wall, John Hannon and William Good. The building is made of brick done in a Flemish bond, which means you have a long brick and then a smaller square brick side by side. Stretcher bond just does long bricks and the English bond has a row of long bricks and then a row of small square bricks. The center of the building rises three stories and has an octagonal cupola on top surrounded by a sheaf-of-wheat balustrade. This is a long building and the most distinctive features are Greek Ionic porticoes that flank the building and one at the center entrance. The interior was built to be beautiful and elaborate as well with round-arch openings, molded keystones and fanlights with geometric tracery. The doors to patient rooms had small hinged openings, so that patients could be observed. Staff apartments were up on the third floor. In 1844, heating went from just stoves and fireplaces to a hot air heating system for the wings.
In the 1830s, architect Thomas R. Blackburn was hired for an expansive renovation. Blackburn was a protege of Thomas Jefferson and so he added many Jefferson-esque design elements. These included a hand-crafted spiral staircase leading to the cupola and rooftop veranda, spacious room wings and beautiful gardens. More buildings like the large wards known as Building 7 and Building 31 were added until the complex reached its present form in 1851 with the addition of a Chapel known as Building 13. This made Western State Hospital the second largest asylum in America. The large wards were designed by Baltimore architect Robert Cary Long, Jr. Building 31 was built by William B. Phillips in 1842. An octagonal cupola graces the roof of the buildings as well. The second floor housed the patient dining room. Alterations were made in 1848. Building 7 is the largest building on the property and was built in 1840 by Lushbaugh and Grove. This one is four stories tall and also has an octagonal cupola and the building forms a U shape.
The Chapel started off as a dining hall and was built in 1843 and was designed by Thomas Blackburn. The actual chapel was up on the third floor and wasn't in use until 1851 and could accommodate 350 people. The ceiling was arched and frescoes covered the walls with Gothic stained-glass windows that represented different scenes from Biblical history. Female patients made needle work that they sold to fund the interior of the chapel and that raised $900. An 1851 Annual Report stated, "We were honored not long since on a Sabbath afternoon with a visit from the President of the United States, Secretary of the Interior and W.W. Corcoran, Esq. of Washington city. It was the first occasion on which Mr. Fillmore and Mr. Corcoran had ever witnessed a congregation of insane persons assembled for the purpose of divine worship; and such was the character of the scene, that they could but be astounded at the order and decorum which prevailed, as well as be deeply affected by the solemn reverence exhibited for the place, the day and the occasion." Mr. Corcoran bought an organ for the chapel. The organ remains to this day. Ward 3 is also known as Building 6 and was built in 1842 as designed by Robert Cary Long Jr. Craig, Hudson and Graham built it. A modern porch sheltered the main entrance. These were the five main buildings that made up the complex and still exist today mainly unaltered.
Dr. Francis T. Stribling was the superintendent close to when the asylum opened and he believed that the beauty of buildings and the property around them could have a therapeutic effect on the patients. Francis Taliaferro Stribling was born on January 20, 1810 in Virginia. He became the first graduate of the University of Virginia Medical School. Dr. Stribling was only twenty-six years old in 1836 when he became head of Western State hospital. He was the second superintendent and would remain in that position for 38 years. Asylums had opened all across the country and mostly ran as jails. Dr. Stribling had a very different vision. Not only did he believe in natural treatment, but he also believed that insanity was curable. This flew in the face of the establishment. His treatment was referred to as Moral Medicine. This meant that patients would only be restrained when absolutely necessary, they would be fed a nutritious diet and encouraged to exercise. They were encouraged also to attend religious services and practice an occupation. Violent patients were separated from those who could be cured and were not admitted to Western State Hospital. This caused some bitter disputes with other doctors. Stribling helped revise Virginia law as to the care of the mentally ill. And he was a good friend and advisor to Dorothea Dix, who was an advocate for the mentally ill and had a hand in the founding of 30 hospitals for treatment for the mentally ill. Stribling also helped found the American Psychiatric Association.
A poem he wrote in 1838 goes, "When does a man so urgently require the aid of a rational fellow being, To guide his footsteps, as when he wanders thus in mental darkness? Or when does he so much need the knowledge and guidance of others, As when his mind is a wild chaos, Agitated by passions that he cannot quell, And haunted by forms of terror, Which the perverted energy of his nature, Is perpetually calling into being, but cannot disperse." Dr. Robert Hansen, superintendent of Western State Hospital, wrote in 1967, "In an age of the common man, Dr. Stribling possessed an uncommon and profound knowledge of human nature, and the importance of human relationships. He believed that the drives, interests, and needs of the insane were the same as those of others, and that satisfaction of them through human relationships, would help restore their reason." Dr. Stribling was a remarkable man, but you probably have never heard of him. Dr. Stribling died in 1874.
During Dr. Striblings's tenor at the hospital, the grounds resembled a resort with terraced gardens and mountain views from the rooftops. The facility grew to over 22 buildings offering patients the opportunity to take part in farming and animal care. After the passing of Dr. Stribling, things changed at the hospital and the once utopian model disintegrated. As happened at every other asylum, this one became overcrowded and people were basically warehoused and ankle and wrist restraints, physical coercion, and
straitjackets were used. Electroshock therapy and lobotomies were employed. The Eugenical
Sterilization Act was passed in 1924 in Virginia and patients at Western State were forcibly
sterilized. This practice ended in the 1970s when the act was repealed. It's not surprising that the hospital embraced this because Eugenicist Joseph DeJarnette was director of the hospital from 1906 to 1943. He founded the nearby DeJarnette Sanitarium as a private place for the mentally ill. This eventually came under state control in 1975 and was turned into a children's hospital.
The Western State Hospital moved in 1976 to a new location and the property was converted into a medium security men's penitentiary called the Staunton Correctional Center. This prison closed in 2003 and the site sat vacant. The state of Virginia gave the property to the Staunton Industrial Authority in 2005 who planned to build condominiums on the property and they started selling those in 2008. Today, those are known as The Villages at Staunton. This is from the website: "The Villages at Staunton consists of a remarkable collection of buildings situated on 80 sprawling acres in Virginia’s renown Shenandoah Valley. Ranging from Federal Greek Revival structures, built by the same masons who constructed the University of Virginia, to twentieth century Colonial Revival buildings designed to complement the historic setting, this assemblage of buildings is situated on park-like grounds with gently sloping hills and a creek bordered by manicured lawns and weeping willows. The location is immediately adjacent to downtown Staunton, another extraordinary display of historic architecture and charm."
This is a master plan community with a goal to add commercial interests. Along those lines, in 2018 a portion of the complex debuted as The Blackburn Inn and Conference Center, which was then inducted into Historic Hotels of America. The Western State Hospital Complex had already been added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 25, 1969. The Blackburn Inn is a boutique hotel and one look at the rooms makes it hard to believe this was once a hospital and a jail. There is also a restaurant there called Second Draft Bistro with a rotating list of craft beers, ciders and wines. It really is a gorgeous property and it gets even better because it is reputedly haunted.
The main spirits here are thought to be the patients, or should we say, the victims of Dr. DeJarnette. The man tortured many people and their disembodied screams are said to echo through the hallways occasionally. There are disembodied footsteps and doors open and close on their own. The abandoned building he had named for himself, the DeJarnette Sanitarium, is said to be haunted by DeJarnette himself and also has disembodied moans and screams. No one is allowed to visit now, but before it was boarded up, many people reported weird experiences. It is said that shadow people guard the building. A story is told about a little five-year-old boy who was abandoned here and he lost the ability to talk and walk and was confined to a wheelchair. A member of Fife Paranormal had worked there on security and he heard the unmistakable sound of a wheelchair behind him and when he turned around, there was nothing. He continued walking - this is outside - and he again heard the sound of a wheelchair on gravel. He also once saw someone standing out in the weeds where there had once been burials and he went down to confront the person and get them off the property and he saw the weeds move fast towards him and then they stopped moving and there was no one there. Then he looked down the main path and saw a six-foot shadow that slid into the weeds in an inhuman way. He had also heard people say they saw objects levitating inside.
Melissa Battle wrote this comment on a video about the DeJarnette Sanitarium, "I recently stayed at the hotel behind this building and you can definitely feel evil. It's a crushing feeling in your chest, nausea and a general heaviness in the air that "surrounds" you as you drive along the road behind the building. The feelings drove me to more research. As I read out loud to my husband about the history of the place, our TV continued to turn off. Once I stopped reading, everything worked fine. I also took some pictures of handprints on a second story window within the stairwell, which can only be reached by ladder from both sides. These appeared to be in the dust on the inside of the window near the top and small in size like a 5-6 year old child's."
One of the spirits thought to be at Western State Hospital could be Sarah, who was an Irish immigrant who was brought to the asylum after killing her abusive husband. After she got to the hospital, she killed two guards. She was lobotomized after that and locked in a room where she was simply fed until she died. There are rumors that two construction workers disappeared while on the job doing renovations. They were never seen again and their bank accounts were never touched. Did the hospital take them? Did ghosts? Even stranger is the story about an intern from James Madison University. He was part of a group of four interns that were assisting in sorting records at the hospital. One day, he was found dead facing the corner with a file in his lap. A man named Shelby worked on the security detail during the 1980s and he claimed to feel cold spots and to see shadows. The place just felt strange to him.
There are possibly ghosts left in the wake of this next horrible event. On the morning of February 24, 1883, seven male patients were given some liquid medication and shortly thereafter they all lost consciousness. Four died almost immediately, two died in the next three days, and two recovered. Investigators figured out that poison had been used and a chemistry professor figured out it was extract of the monkshood plant. There were several suspects, but no one was ever charged, so no justice came.
Ieney B from New York wrote on TripAdvisor, "The second night was when we may have encountered a ghost if you believe in that. The two girls sleeping closest to the bathroom woke around 4am to the sound of the shower running. One of my friends got up and turned it off... but it was kind of odd. I mean it is an old building... so believe what you want." And that is one of the things guests have reported happening, the shower turning on by itself. There have been reports of lights flickering and turning off and on by themselves. And locked windows have opened on their own. A Krity Romo on Reddit claimed that she only made it an hour in her room and had to leave because she felt such a heavy presence.
Dave Simms wrote the fiction book "Fear the Reaper" about the Western State Hospital and he told the Newsleader that "Nearby businesses told [him] they often hear constant low moans of 'home' alleged to belong to patients haunting the asylum campus. A friend of [his] lived in the loft apartments built in the portion of Western State Hospital that was renovated and then used as a prison until 2003. [He] recalled how the door to his friend's apartment, which housed windows still dressed with original prison bars, would open without the wind's aid. Not even a heavy duty lock kept the door shut at times."
Asylums don't have a great reputation, but Western State Hospital really seems to have been a place dedicated to curing the mentally ill. Treating people as humans goes a long way, but as we know, most of the time this didn't happen and eventually the hospital too devolved. And this may have left behind unrest. Is the Western State Hospital haunted? That is for you to decide!
Ghosts of Staunton Walking Tour: https://visitstaunton.com/things-to-do/haunted-staunton/