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.
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.”
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.
For pictures and more information check out a few of these Youtube videos:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od7AWdE2P9M (about the milk barn)