Danvers State Hospital was a psychiatric hospital built in 1874 on Hathorne Hill, where the Salem Witch Trials judge John Hathorne once lived. The hill is a 257-feet-high glacial drumlin located in Danvers, which was originally known as Salem village until its official name change in 1752.
During the 1800s, the hill was the home of the Dodge farm, owned by local farmer Francis Dodge. In the 1870s, when the commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to build an additional psychiatric hospital to house the state’s growing mentally ill population, it decided on the rural Hathorne hill as the location and persuaded Dodge to sell his land.
The Gothic-style building, made from local bricks and granite, cost $1.5 million to construct, at a time when much of the country was still recovering from the financial strain of the Civil War. The design, based on the Kirkbride plan created by physician and mental health advocate Thomas Story Kirkbride, totaled 700,000 square feet in size and was nicknamed “the castle on the hill” by locals. It consisted of a main center building with four wings radiating off both sides of the structure that allowed each ward adequate ventilation and views of the surrounding land. It was Kirkbride’s belief that this design would help cure more patients and eliminate “the darkest, most cheerless and worst ventilated parts” of the hospital.
Over the course of many years, over 40 buildings and structures were built on the property, including separate buildings for tuberculosis patients, two nursing homes, housing for staff, the Bonner medical building, machine shops, pump house, a cemetery, several cottages as well as an elaborate labyrinth of underground tunnels connecting all of the buildings.
The hospital was designed to house 450 patients suffering from various mental illnesses. When it first opened in May of 1878, under the name the State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers, it was a one-of-kind facility. The hospital administration refused to use physical restraints on the patients and emphasized curing patients rather than merely hiding them away from the public, according to the book “Weird U.S.”:
“When it opened in , Danvers State Hospital was considered a leader in humane treatment. The patients’ regimen involved exercise and the creation of elaborate gardens. The patient-run farm produced large harvests that kept the institution’s kitchen busy. But some difficult patient populations brought problems with them. A large and unwanted influx of criminals stirred things up, though the 1886 construction of a hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, helped stem this tide. Another difficult group to treat were those suffering from intemperance and dipsomania – the nineteenth-century terms for substance abuse, or ‘the ancient enemy,’ as administrators called it. In addition, mentally retarded patients mixed in with the general psychiatric population – it was not until around 1980 that they were moved to their own unit.”
By the 1920s and 1930s, the hospital started to suffer from severe overcrowding and a lack of funding. The number of patients grew to over 2,000 while the size of staff remained relatively the same. As a result, the quality of care began to deteriorate as the overwhelmed staff struggled to control the massive number of patients. Patients were soon subjected to lobotomies, shock therapy and “special garments,” presumably straitjackets, as a means of control.
The annual reports written by the hospital trustees highlighted the hospital’s growing problems, such as this report from 1939:
“During the last year the problem of overcrowding became more apparent than in past years, Beginning in August, there was a marked increase in the admission rate of elderly psychotic persons, and for the first time, this group outnumbered the younger group….This hospital, for the last several years, has received nearly (1,000) new admissions per annum, which is altogether too large a load considering space, personnel, and the close attention that the newly-admitted patient requires. We are constantly looking forward to the improvement and recovery of the newly-admitted patient by means of all modern methods of treatment, but overcrowding makes this very difficult indeed…There is a need of a large number of nurses, both male and female, to give proper ward supervision to our patients….The generating equipment located in the power house has long reached its peak of efficiency and letters have been sent to the Department of Mental Health reporting the fact that our generating equipment is aged and may fail at any time in its function…The problem of destruction by disturbed patients has received careful attention. By means of better segregation of patients, better supervision on the part of nurses and attendants, the use of special garments and the use of bed care for denudative patients, a considerable reduction in destruction has been obtained. Occupational therapy and sedative forms of hydrotherapy have also contributed to this program… ”
The report also states the daily population of the hospital in 1939 was 2,360, an increase from the previous year, and the number of patients who died in the hospital that year totaled 278.
Conditions at the hospital grew worse and worse as the administration’s pleas for more funding fell on deaf ears. The massive building started to decay and crumble from the lack of upkeep and entire wards were closed down one by one as patients were shipped off to other facilities. The Kirkbride building was shuttered in 1989 after the remaining patients were moved to the Bonner Medical Building. Finally, the state closed Danvers State Hospital down in 1992.
The hospital, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, remained abandoned for 13 years as it continued to fall into disrepair. In 2005, the hospital was purchased by Avalon Bay Development for $12 million with the plan to turn it into an apartment building. Against the wishes of the local preservation community, six of the original eight wards of the Kirkbride building were demolished during the construction. The remaining two wards and the center building were gutted, leaving only the building’s facade.
Construction was seriously delayed in 2007 after a mysterious fire broke out on the property and burned down most of the newly constructed building and some of the construction trailers on site.
In 2008, Avalon Bay finished construction and residents began to move in shortly after. Since then, the building’s management has been hit with a flood of complaints from tenants about the poor construction quality of the building, according to the websites www.apartmentratings.com and www.danversstateinsaneasylum.com.
Due to its ghostly appearance and horrific history, the hospital has been featured in various films, books and video games over the years, including the 1958 horror film “Home Before Dark,” which features interior and exterior shots of the Kirkbridge building, and the 2001 horror movie “Session 9,” which was filmed on location at the hospital in 2000. The hospital was also featured in the video game “Painkiller” in 2004 and served as the setting for the book “Project 17,” a fictional story about a group of teenagers who break into the old hospital. The Kirkbride building was also believed to be the inspiration for the Arkham Sanitarium in H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Thing on the Doorstep.” In addition, several former patients and staff members have also published memoirs about their time at the hospital including “Nobody’s Child,” published in 1987 by former patient Marie Balter, who returned to the hospital in 1988 to work as the Chief Hospital Spokeswoman, and “Danvers State: Memoirs of a Nurse in the Asylum,” published in 2004 by Angelina Szot.
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The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Annual Report of the Trustees of the Danvers State Hospital for the year ending November 20, 1939: http://www.search-document.com/pdf/1/6/danvers-state-hospital.html
Boston Globe: Despite Slow Economy, Danvers State Project Forges Ahead; John Laidler; June 2010
Salem News; Change Atop Hathorne Hill; Matthew K. Roy; January 5 2007: http://www.salemnews.com/local/x1150831093/Change-atop-Hathorne-Hill-First-building-at-old-Danvers-State-property-ready-for-renters
Opacity: Danvers State Hospital: http://www.opacity.us/site22_danvers_state_hospital.htm
Apartment Ratings; Avalon Danvers: http://www.apartmentratings.com/rate/MA-Danvers-Avalon-Danvers.html
Danvers Library: Danvers State Hospital: http://www.danverslibrary.org/archives/pildsh2.html
Kirkbride Buildings: Danvers State Hospital: http://www.kirkbridebuildings.com/buildings/danvers/
Danvers State Insane Asylum: http://www.danversstateinsaneasylum.com
New York Times; Ex-Patient Is State Hospital Official; November 27 1988: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/11/27/us/ex-patient-is-state-hospital-official.html
“History of Essex County, Massachusetts”;Volume 1; Edited by Duane Hamilton Hurd; 1888
First Annual Report of the Trustees of State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers; 1879
“Danvers: From 1850 to 1899”; Richard B. Trask; 2002
“American Biography: a New Cyclopedia, Volume 5”; American Historical Company; 1919
“Weird U.S.: Your Travel Guide to America’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets”; Mark Moran, Mark Sceurman; 2005