Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Echoes Of an Abandoned Era

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We sat in a circle in my basement, sleeping bags spread out. Someone held a flashlight under her chin and told a ghostly story. “She was sent to Mayview after she got in trouble. The police brought her home, but she was never seen again. They say,” the story teller paused dramatically, “she killed herself in her room. But it is said she still walks the halls every night, crying.”

I listened with rapt horror, picturing the brick edifice barely seen beyond the trees and gate with the big sign, “Mayview State Hospital”.  Everyone knew the place was real, and in the ignorance of our age and the times, it was the place where you were made to go if you were crazy or criminal.

Mayview was originally a poorhouse erected along the Monongehela River in downtown Pittsburgh in the mid- 1800s. In 1893 the poorhouse was renamed the Marshalsea Poorhouse, after the famous London debtor’s prison where Charles Dicken’s father is said to have been held. A plummeting economy soon forced the overcrowding of Marshalsea  and sometime in the late 1800s acreage in Bridgeville, PA, near where I grew up, was founded as a new location. The facility was eventually renamed Mayview in an effort to change its poorhouse reputation. Mayview not only housed the poor, but unwed mothers, those with tuberculosis and the mentally retarded and later, through a forensics unit, criminals.

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According to one report in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, old films from the 1930s depict primitive techniques of mental care including cold packing, thermal baths and steam cabinets. All this, of course, long before psychiatric drugs were known or available. It was believed isolation from society was best for these patients. 

Often babies were born in the hospital to unwed mothers or possibly as a result of relations within the walls. The hospital records labeled the babies’ records as “mater amentes” (mother insane) or “illigitimus”.  One commenter of an online article wrote her grandmother was there for 16 years between 1929 and 1945 and believed to have got pregnant while at the facility. The commenter writes, "Rumor has it that a MD at Mayview was the father."

As kids, we’d drive by the brick building with its turrets and try to see inside the gates. In hushed tones we might speculate on some absent student’s demise within the walls or the story of the crazy girl locked in the tower or the leak of a rumored suicide in the corridors of the building. Our ignorance, both because of our youth and because of the lack of known information about mental illness at the time, elaborated and spread the stories and myths hidden within Mayview.

The building finally closed its doors and philosophy in 2008. While it’s easy to say thank goodness for progress, it didn’t shut without controversy. Within the gates were a coal mine that supplied electricity to the facility, pastures and barns for cows that provided milk, gardens and kitchens where vegetables were canned providing over 60% of the patient’s food. It was reported that many people living in the facility and made to work in the garden, barns and laundry found purpose and meaning in the daily tasks, while others, in the burgeoning field of psychiatric care, accused the facility of cruel work programs for the patients.

As recent as 2007, as patients were being released in preparation for the closing of the hospital, stories of tragedy surfaced. Two patients, Anthony Fallert and Ahson J. Abdullah met untimely and violent deaths shortly after being released. Mr. Fallert was said to have jumped off a bridge ending his life, and Mr. Abdullah was struck by a train as he walked the tracks near his home. Tragic cases such as these highlighted the need for transitional care for the patients in light of their release and perpetuated the stories of horror and haunting within Mayview's walls. One person leaving a comment on a post said, “I don’t remember any [deaths] when I was a patient there in 1969, but there was a lobotomy. pretty much the same thing. allot shock treatments too.”
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The buildings have been torn down. Even a milk barn first built in 1917, which historians and preservationists in the area fought to preserve, was destroyed. I imagine the area has been bought and will find a new use. But as I looked through the pictures of the abandon buildings, I feel a haunting of the souls who lived there and wonder at the stories that only a few who lived and worked within the walls will ever, truly know.

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For pictures and more information check out a few of these Youtube videos:

41 comments:

  1. The country is filled with these now abandoned hospitals and because they've all been left empty and fallen into disrepair they're all prime setting for ghost stories and the like. One near me (outside Philly) has actually been converted into a haunted house attraction that runs every late September through early November.

    The real story, of course, is much sadder as these people who trived in environments like this- working on farms on the hospital grounds- are noe homeless and the states don't have anywhere for them to go.

    Thanks for your comment, and for introducing yourself- I followed you and I'll definitely be back around!

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    1. Hi Bev, I think I came upon the hospital near Philly in my research. I read it was associated with hauntings. I was a bit surprised there wasn't much more of the paranormal associated with Mayview, but really, there was just as you suggested, sadness and despair. I'm so glad we've found more effective ways to help those with mental health issues and have removed the stigma. I'm also glad we no longer house the "undesirables" in isolation. It makes me wonder where we'll be 50 years from now. Hopefully progress continues. Thanks for visiting and hanging around!

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  2. The history is fascinating and tells so much about our culture at the time. Thank you for posting this!

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    1. Thanks Lydia for stopping by. Stories like this just fascinate me and ignite my imagination.

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  3. There have been a few films made in abandoned mental hospitals. They make for some scary settings. There is a legacy of misguided treatments and mystery surrounding many of these places. Something needs to be done to better address the problems of the mentally ill. Leaving them homeless on the streets of our cities is not a good idea.

    Lee
    Wrote By Rote

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    1. Right Arlee -- that was some of the debate and controversy over the closing, although alternative settings and treatments were found for most. But to just institutionalize isn't the answer either. I'm hoping 50 years from now we'll know even more about the medications and how the mind is working. Thanks for stopping by.

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  4. These places are said to be haunted, mainly because people claim to see ghosts in these building or surrounding areas.

    www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

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    1. True. Thanks for stopping by, Gina. :)

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  5. How interesting! I find old buildings and homes intriguing. I wonder at the former inhabitants, their stories wanting to be told. I think the idea of having the patients work within the walls, like in the garden, cows, canning, would give a patient a purpose and something to feel proud and worthy of the accomplishments and strides in progress they would make. Just my thoughts...

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    1. Hi Lisa-- reminds me of the post I did a couple weeks ago about the house at the bottom of the lake. Yes, I'm so intrigued by structures or skeletons of structures that once housed lives. I always want to know the story.

      That was part of the thinking about the work. I saw one picture depicting a young man, probably in the 60s or 70s, working the fields with a big smile on his face. Of course it was a posed picture too. Gardening especially can be so satisfying. I hope it was for them.

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  6. So very fascinating. I love these kinds of stories...holds so much history. So great to find your blog! :) yay for CO writers...email sometime :)

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    1. Hi Rebecca-- I love connecting with other local writers. I'll drop you a note. Thanks for stopping by and yes, makes me want to dig more and try to contact the people I quoted who left comments on articles and find out what life was really like inside those walls.

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  7. I imagine there were true to life horror tales that happened there. Sometimes I wonder if we're nearly as ignorant about mental health now though most of the time not quite as cruel.

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    1. Susan- I have had similar thoughts. We work with the medications and current theories and practices, just as they probably did. But I do wonder in fifty years, if people will look back and shudder at our numbing medications with high risks. Hopefully, the knowledge and science of mental illness will keep increasing.

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  8. Reminds me of that British show "Bedlam". They made apartments from an abandoned nut-house.

    Probably not the best idea, but I guess it made for some scarey t.v. :)

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    1. Now this is a show I've never heard of, Mark. Going to see if I can hunt it down now.

      I don't know why things like this fascinate me so, but they do. There's such a voice of sadness in their echoes, and I hate to think they lived and died and no one remembers their lives. This one in particular, because I remember seeing the building when I was young, pokes at me.

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  9. Fascinating bit of history. As someone who suffers from depression, this is truly also frightening. Society has come a ways in understanding mental illness, but it still has a way to go...
    Tina @ Life is Good

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    1. Tina, my family also has a history of depression, and I know for relatives long ago, the stigma was still so heavy. I think perhaps this is also why it speaks to my heart.

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  10. What a fascinating read, Julie. My maternal grandmother was declared mentally ill and spent some time in a mental institution in Chicago. I don't know much about her stay there, as she passed away at the early age of 42. Gosh, exactly my age. I do know that heavy medications were used, and it's been said even shock therapy.

    From a writer's perspective, mental institutions, especially the ones that have been closed down and / or abandoned, can be eerie settings for stories.

    Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed immensely.

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    1. There is definitely a lot of writing fodder embedded in these walls.

      One of the commenters I quoted in the piece said that in 1969 he remembers lobotomies (and equates them to death) and shock therapy. I was born in 1964 and that just doesn't seem that long ago to have had such archaic and cruel practices. I think many practitioners truly believed they were doing the best and most up-to-date practices, but how sad for the victims (and worse, for those who may not have had a choice in the matter).

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  11. It is good for us to review the history of such institutions when we want to believe in the natural goodness of humanity.

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    1. I'm not sure all the practices were embedded in evil, just ignorance. I wonder, a 100 years from now, if there will be practices we thought were the best of our times that will reflect poorly on us. Interesting to think about.

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  12. Thanks Julie for posting this, made for an interesting read.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Rachna. The story is still sticking in my head, rumbling around.

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  13. I remember reading the book "Frances" when I was a teenager. It was about Frances Farmer and how her parents sent her away to live in one of these. A few months ago, I watched the movie (never as good as the book, I'm afraid). It's so sad what happened (happens - how can we be sure things have changed?) in mental institutions. Your post is historical and moving, Julie.

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    1. Hi M.J., thanks for stopping by. I was surprised that the facility didn't close until 2008. I'm hoping the practices changed, of course, as our knowledge increased, but it's interesting that it's historical context in Pittsburgh was that recent.

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  14. Oh my goodness! How haunting! I LOVE learning about this type of stuff. A perfect setting for a book...

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    1. I think so too Morgan. There are stories in them thar walls.

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  15. Thanks for this interesting post. I enjoyed reading it.

    Nas

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  16. I had an aunt who spent time in an asylum, she had shock therapy, but eventually took her own life after her mother fought her in court for her children. It's a sad story and one I wrote about many years ago. She was a favorite aunt, who took the time to notice me - I still have the necklace and bracelet she gave me. Someday, I hope to dust that short story off and write about her life and the sorrow, that turned to tragedy.
    I think at these horrid places humanity was forgotten, experimentation valued over lives, and murder and abuse went unchecked by those in power. It's a sad, sad commentary for medical care - and sadly, not the only criminal and horrendous things that occurred in the past.
    But a well told story, thank you Julie!

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    1. Reading the information on Mayview reminded me a little of reading the book on Henrietta Lacks.On one hand, there is this horror of her treatment and that the medical community just took her cells, profited from them and her family never saw the income while she was all but forgotten. On the other, it pretty much reflects the philosophy and the ethical thought of the time.

      Likewise, no excusing the ethics and morality of what probably occurred in these asylums. They probably suffered the same abuse issues that showed up in the Standford Prison Study back in 1971 of guards and prisoners. The other thought is that the study of psychology is relatively young, especially in its focus on mental health as a disease.

      Either way, though, it's so sad that your aunt never got the treatment she deserved and needed, and I'm sorry this is a tragedy in your family and on your heart. It's very sad and seems so unnecessary.

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  17. Fascinating! I had an uncle placed in an institution two years before it shut down. He actually made a lot of progress, but for others there - he told some horror stories.

    I also know they shut down places with good reputations and necessary. A lot of mentally ill are in prison - just where they SHOULDN'T be. (Personal experience here). if only a good answer came along, eh?

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    1. I think, if I read the information right in my research, there was an entire forensic unit added to the hospital for those the courts decided needed health care.

      And for anyone reading the comments, maybe we should clarify that you know this from personal experience because of a job you held within a prison, not because you were mentally ill and IN prison. Just a little distinction ;).

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  18. Wow. What a history. Thank you for sharing this, Julie!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by Carrie. It was fascinating to research the actual place my memory was based on.

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  19. As a medical student I spent a year working at a Mental Hospital in Mexico City. Even with modern age and the advancement of the field, mental illness both fascinates and horrifies people all over the world. I guess that is why we feel so drawn to these abandoned buildings and their stories. I don't always blame the doctors for what treatment the patients received; there was abuse in a lot of these places and the perpetrators should've been punished, but many doctors were doing the best they could with what was known at the time. Haunting places indeed are mental hospitals, places where we confront our fear of becoming crazy ourselves...

    Great article, Julie! Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hi Georgina-- thanks for your thoughts. I agree, I think (hope) many times doctors were doing what was best and known at the time. I think what always gets me about these kinds of places-- or the abandoned homes at the bottom of lakes (from my post, When The Lake Recedes) is that there were lives, laughter, tears, fears, working-- and now, they're just gone. And there are stories in all those lives, echoes, we don't know and may never know. For some reason, that kind of thing just sticks with me.

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    2. The same happens to me. I guess that's why I'm a writer (and of all genres, writing horror), because old places talk to me about the lives that once thrived or died within. I love old places, but abandoned ones have a special magic for me.

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  20. Thanks for sharing this interesting bit of history but I sure am glad that it was destroyed.

    Nas

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