Danvers State Hospital was one of many hospitals built in Massachusetts during the industrial revolution.
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 and Civil War veteran Francis Dodge.
Why Was Danvers State Hospital Built?
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 200-acre farm to the state for $39,542.
According to a book by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a physician and mental health advocate who created an institutional model for mental health hospitals in the 19th century, called the Kirkbride Plan, the location and surroundings of such hospitals was essential to their success:
“It is now well established that this class of hospitals should always be located in the country, not within less than two miles of a town of considerable size, and they should be easily accessible at all seasons. They should, if possible, be near turnpikes or other good roads, or on the line of a railroad. While two or three miles from a town might be named as a good distance on the former, the facilities afforded by a railroad might make ten or twelve miles unobjectionable…The building should be in a healthful, pleasant and fertile district of the country…While the hospital itself should be retired and its privacy fully secured, it is desirable that the views from it should exhibit life in its active forms, and on this account stirring objects at a little distance are desirable” (Kirkbride 7).
Kirkbride goes on to say that such hospitals require at least 100 acres of land necessary for farming and gardening as well as for privacy, exercise, labor and occupation for the patients which are “now recognized as among the most valuable means of treatment” (Kirkbride 7).
Fortunately, Hathorne Hill met all of these requirements, as it was the site of a large farm in the countryside on a scenic hill yet it was in close proximity to Salem and Boston and nearby railroads and good roads.
Prominent Boston architect Nathaniel J. Bradlee was chosen for the project and construction plans were soon drawn up.
Construction of the Gothic-style building, made from locally-sourced red Danvers brick, began on May 1, 1874 and took four years to complete at a cost of $1.5 million, during 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, totaled 313,000 square feet in size and 1,100 feet in length and was nicknamed “the castle on the hill” by locals.
It consisted of a main center building, which housed the administration offices, 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 a reservoir gatehouse in 1876, a patient cemetery in 1878, Gray Gables in 1898, Grove Hall in 1902, separate buildings for tuberculosis patients in 1906, a laundry building in 1912, a service building in 1919, a pump house in 1921, a power plant and a vegetable storage barn in 1924, a male nurses home in 1927, repair shops dating between 1904-1932, several cottages dating between 1850-1932, a female nurses home in 1930, Farm Hall in 1931, a hay barn in 1951, the Bonner medical building in 1955, Our Lady of Hill Chapel in 1955, a farm garage in 1955, a water tower in 1960, St. Luke’s Chapel in 1964, a new laundry building in 1964, 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 the first patient was admitted on May 13, 1878, the Danvers Lunatic Hospital, as it was originally called, was a one-of-a-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 early 1880s, overcrowding had already become an issue, with the hospital housing around 626 patients in 1881 and around 788 patients in 1885, as reported in the 1885 Annual Report of the Trustees of the Danvers Lunatic Hospital:
“The number of patients sent here has for a considerable time been too large, and the increase continues to exceed all relief from removals….The crowded condition of the hospital was not provided for in its design or construction.”
Sometime before the turn of the century the hospital changed its name to the Danvers Insane Hospital.
Danvers State Hospital in the 20th Century:
By 1901, the number of patients had dramatically increased to 1,137. The following year, the hospital purchased 100 more acres to expand its farm and, in 1903, opened Middleton Colony, an addition that housed 300 long term female patients, down the street from the hospital in Middleton, Mass.
In 1909, the Danvers Insane Hospital changed its name again to the Danvers State Hospital.
In 1926, an additional 500 beds were added to the hospital and another 648 beds were added the following year, despite reports of overcrowding at the hospital.
In 1927, Dr. Clarence Bonner became the superintendent of the hospital.
By the 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 the 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 “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.
In 1941, The Telegraph newspaper reported that a large fire broke out in one of the barns on the hospital grounds and caused one of the greatest traffic jams in the Newburyport turnpike history when an estimated 10,000 people attempted to reach the hospital because they thought it was on fire and wanted to watch the blaze. The damage from the fire was estimated to be $60,000.
In 1948, the first lobotomy was performed at the hospital and in the 1950s electric shock therapy was introduced.
In 1954, Dr. Clarence Bonner retired as superintendent. The Bonner medical building was built on the property the following year and was named after Bonner in honor of his service to the hospital.
In 1956, Chlorpromazine (Thorazine) was introduced to treat schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.
By the 1960s, state hospitals had become outdated and unnecessary due to better psychiatric medications, a more enlightened approach to treating mental illness and the establishment of a statewide system of community health centers. Conditions at the hospital grew worse and worse as the administration’s pleas for more funding fell on deaf ears.
During the 1970s, the massive building started to decay and crumble from the lack of upkeep, including the steeple which had to be removed entirely. Entire wards were closed down one by one and patients were shipped off to other facilities when the Department of Mental Health began the process of deinstitutionalizing its state hospitals.
In 1984, the Kirkbride building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The following year, a state study determined that the building “although impressive, is neither appropriate for or capable of cost-effective rehabilitation for modern hospital standards,”
The hospital came under scrutiny in 1987 when its administrator, William Bonnes, faced criticism after a patient, Ann Houghton, wandered out of the hospital and was found dead the next day just 200 yards from the hospital after suffering a heart attack, according to news reports.
Bonnes left his position at the hospital in January of 1988 when the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health found evidence of lapses in security at the hospital as a result of that incident and another incident in which a female patient was raped by a male patient in a woman’s restroom.
Why Was Danvers State Hospital Closed?
In 1989, the Kirkbride building was shuttered after the remaining patients were moved to the Bonner medical building.
In the fall of 1990, the Massachusetts Association of Mental Health published a working paper suggesting that three state hospitals, Danvers, Metropolitan, and Northampton, were prime candidates for closure.
In February of 1991, Governor Weld appointed a seventeen-member special commission to study the problem of state-operated hospitals, since it was found that a disproportionate share of the Department of Mental Health budget, about 47%, went to funding its antiquated state hospitals, even though they served just 6% of DMH consumers (Hogarty 7). The commission conducted an inspection of 31 facilities and held 15 hours of public hearings on the matter.
In June of 1991, Governor Weld accepted the commission’s recommendations to close nine mental health facilities and public health hospitals within the next three years. The closures were a part of Weld administration’s goal of privatizing services performed by state agencies.
The facilities slated for closure were: Danvers State Hospital, Northampton State Hospital, Metropolitan State Hospital, Paul A. Dever State School, John T. Berry School, Foxborough campus of Wrentham State School, Cushing Hospital, Lakeville Hospital and Rutland Heights Hospital.
Under the plan, the remaining patients at Danvers State Hospital were to be moved to Tewksbury Hospital, which had about 200 empty beds.
On June 24, 1992, the last patients were transferred to Tewksbury State Hospital and the Danvers State Hospital was officially closed.
The Danvers State Hospital remained abandoned for 13 years as it continued to fall into disrepair.
In 1998, the Danvers State Memorial Committee, a mental health advocacy group composed of former Danvers State Hospital patients, was created to identify the names of the hundreds of former patients buried anonymously in the Danvers State Hospital cemetery.
By 2002, the committee succeeded in identifying the names of over three-quarters of the patients buried in the cemetery and installed new headstones displaying the names of each patient and erected a memorial to the patients whose graves could not be identified.
What Is Danvers State Hospital Now?
In 2005, the hospital was purchased by Avalon Bay Development for $12 million with the plan to turn it into an apartment building.
Construction started the following year during which six of the original eight wards of the Kirkbride building were demolished, as well as the male and female nurses homes, the two hospital chapels, the Bonner medical building, the male and female tuberculosis cottages, the mechanics garage, the laundry building, the Gray Gables, the gymnasium and the kitchen.
The remaining two wards and the center building were gutted, leaving only the building’s facade. The original steeple, which had been removed in the 1970s, was recreated.
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.
Avalon Bay finished construction in 2008 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 Apartment Ratings and the Danvers State Insane Asylum.
In 2014, Avalon Bay sold the building for $108.5 million dollars to the DSF Group which then changed its name to Halstead Danvers and more recently changed its name again to Bradlee Danvers.
The former Danvers State Hospital is located at 1101 Kirkbride Drive, Danvers, MA 01923.
Danvers State Hospital in Movies and Books:
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 Kirkbride 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.
In 2018, Arcadia Publishing published the book Danvers State Hospital as part of its Images of America series.
For more information on historic state hospitals, check out this article on abandoned mental hospitals in Massachusetts.
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