(Watch for Part 3, coming up in early June, 2014!)
In Part One, I talked about growing up not far from the legendary Danvers State Hospital, the castle-like institution that loomed over U.S. Route One about twenty miles north of Boston. As kids we didn’t know much, if anything, about how idealistic new methods for treating the mentally ill devised in the late 19th century eventually yielded an abusive hellhole by the middle of the 20th underneath those baleful Victorian spires. What we did know was that it had a very creepy vibe and woe to them who should ever end up being admitted there. I was recently reminded by my sister Pam that my mother would warn us kids that she would “end up in the nuthouse” if we didn’t stop misbehaving, something that we would not want to have on our conscience. But that never erased Danvers State’s morbid fascination, and its strangely alluring infamy spread far and wide in later decades.
So was it coincidence or confluence when, fast-forwarding to 2001, I found myself living off of Trapelo Road in Waltham? Of course my wife and I bought the house for all the right reasons. Our son was born the previous fall and it was an affordable starter home only ten miles west of Boston. It also backed up to a huge tract of conservation land, accessible through a convenient hole in the chain link fence that acted as its border. I was well aware that the sprawling Metropolitan State Hospital, closed less than a decade before, lay in glorious ruin nearby. The conservation area’s trails and fire roads were a great place to mountain bike and a perfect backdoor portal to the grounds as a security trailer had been placed at the old official entrance. I was soon up there with my camera.
Met State was a magnet for urban explorers braver than me (willing to go inside buildings and/or after dark) who came away with great photos and videos to be seen online. My favorite was the brilliant short film simply called “Met State”, made by Waltham-based Bryan Papciak, a tour de force of stop-motion effects and optical printing. (See it at vimeo.com/13646263). For me, it was more a place to criss-cross on my bike before dipping back down onto the wooded trails. But off the main section was an area that always freaked me out. It was a group of about ten long, uniform brick buildings (almost like an older-style housing project) that were connected and arranged around a grassy rectangle. I will have to dig up the video I once took (for part 3?), cycling around it with one hand on the bar and the other holding a camcorder. It took several minutes to circle these barracks that were called the CTG Unit. Despite its immense size it was reportedly so overcrowded with patients that some were housed in the hallways. It was overwhelming to try and think about the sum total of mental distress that these buildings once contained.
The northeast corner of Waltham was historically rural and eventually the farms gave way to several mostly state-run institutions. Met State was not alone there as a receptacle of human misery. Adjacent to it was the snake pit known as the Gaebler Children’s Center, closed since 1992 and the top floors of which could be seen from our back deck during leafless seasons. It was demolished a few years ago, its new role as a link in a regional greenbelt conflicting with the oft-ignored “No Trespassing” signs.
Just across the town line in Belmont is the more upscale McLean Hospital, immortalized (though not named) in former patient James Taylor’s hit “Fire and Rain” as well as by the book and film “Girl, Interrupted.” Most prominent among this cluster of institutions (the “sadlands” as my wife called it) was the historic Fernald School and its sweeping 200-acre campus. Fernald was our first public institution for the mentally retarded and opened in 1848 back when its patients could still be called “idiots, morons and simpletons.” It was still open but in a much diminished capacity. I believe less than a dozen patients (considered the most severely disabled residents in the whole state) remain to this day as the state, the city and citizen’s groups wrestle with the ultimate fate of this valuable real estate.
Recently closed to public access, the campus is still easily entered over ground and I poked along the perimeter a few months ago on a suitably gray day. It may be the last time I set foot there before its likely transformation into something like the “apartment community” built by the Avalon Company at Met State, where the gloomy inner courtyard of the CTG Unit is now the family-friendly “Great Lawn.”
The grounds of Fernald were shady and reassuringly pleasant as was the recuperative ideal of the 19th century.
Still, many of the patients here were children and, judging from a documentary produced several years back by Boston’s PBS station, it’s amazing how easy it was—for the better part of a century—to have a vulnerable family member or ward of state committed here for an indefinite stay. Once admitted, they were often treated by medical researchers as “cheap and available test subjects”, some even being fed radioactive isotopes. Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 direct-cinema classic, “Titicut Follies”, shows similar travesties taking place at the Bay State’s most infamous such facility, Bridgewater State Hospital. A place that housed many of the most dangerous criminals (the Boston Strangler was housed there for a spell) it was also a dumping ground for unfortunate forgotten men caught up in unusual and suspect circumstances. One example, from the BSH Wikipedia entry, tells of a lowly street vendor in his late 20’s who first was sent there for painting a horse to look like a zebra to draw attention to his fruit stall. After being picked up a second time for drunkenness, he was sent back to Bridgwater and died there of old age. In “Titicut Follies”, Wiseman follows the story of one sane-looking man, likely put there on a vagrancy rap (and coerced into taking strong anti-psychotic drugs), desperate to get out and periodically confronting doctors in the exercise yard in the film’s only YouTube clip.
When this man gets before an unsympathetic panel, we see exactly how these unconscionable policies play out as his opposition to hospital policy is quickly written off as denial and justified fears of incarceration in a place that resembles a medieval dungeon is termed paranoid schizophrenia. God only knows what happened to him.
But I’m getting far afield into a subject I’m no expert on. Please see the full “Titicut Follies” if you ever get a chance (an expose labeled by a court as an invasion of patient privacy, it was long banned and only received a home video release in 2007) A little more readily available is Martin Scorcese’s recent pulp-fiction fantasia “Shutter Island” which features a haunted WWII vet turned Fed agent (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigating a missing patient/inmate at the titular asylum. I was a bit skeptical, if only because as a former location scout I scoffed at the computer-generated Alcatraz-on-steroids that is supposed to sit at the outer reaches of Boston Harbor. Granted, some real harbor locales were used as well, esp. the old Fort Andrews on Peddock’s Island. Although a bit too lurid for its own good (apparently to hold the attention of sensory-overloaded 21st century viewers) Scorcese does touch upon the insidious, Catch-22 methods of so long used by such institutions.
I wonder why these places always seem to be looming just over my shoulder. In my hometown of Salem, Mass. there were once shaded walks that led from the various institutions on the base of Salem Neck out to its point. For the last century it’s been the location of Willows Park, long loved by area residents for its eateries, arcades, kiddie rides and breezy outlooks to Beverly Harbor and the Atlantic. The name of the park suggests the former utility of the giant trees for shading convalescing patients on a stroll from the nearby facility. The first was the charmingly named Pest House for smallpox sufferers in the 1700s (way before the park and its famous chop suey sandwiches). Various almshouses also stood there over the long stretch of the 19th century. My father remembers the poor farm that was in the area when he was a kid. Later, only one building remained, one of the lesser-known works of architect Charles Bullfinch, designer of the Mass. State House and the U.S. Capitol expansion. It was known in its final incarnation as the Chronic Care and Rehabilitation Hospital. My father’s grandmother was a patient there in her last years and the place closed in 1970 and stood there at least until the mid-80s as the date stamp on the back of this photo I took was 1983.
When it came time to break ground for the inevitable condo development a few years later, a local resident protested to builders and city officials that they would disturb the pauper’s cemetery on the edge of the property. As recently described by this longtime Salem resident in an online town forum, the sad neglect of this graveyard meant it was known mostly to local kids who explored the vacated shoreline of the cove there. Met with denial by the authorities, the resident who posted this comment claims he was later vindicated when the excavator started digging up human bones!
But my childhood visit to see my great-grandmother was not the last time I set foot inside that building on the Pest House site. In 1977, an older friend in a clique I ran with at the time headed an obscure youth-services program out of a first floor office. The rest of the building was empty. As one of the few events this friend ever managed to pull together, she screened a movie against a sheet affixed to the back of the building. We sat probably a stone’s throw away from the cemetery that remained undetected in the pale beyond just behind us. The film was “Night Watch” a 1967 chiller starring Elizabeth Taylor as a woman who has seen a terrible crime that no one wants to hear about. The guy who wrote that post must know the feeling.