Every two weeks I churn out a local history column for a small freebie paper here. I am not paid for this–I just do it to keep my clips current in hopes that one day I’ll find someone willing again to pay me for my work. (Lately my columns have become such behemoths that they’ve had to be published in two successive issues.)
I’m always fishing around for new ideas of things to write about, and actually NotJackKerouac helped me come up with my next column idea, in a round-about way. I was checking out some of the site’s links, and was reading Le Monde De Martin, when I learned about Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, and how it’s been threatened by the wrecking ball, though the main building may be converted into condominiums. This got me thinking about the creepy old main building at our own Austin State Hospital, formerly known as the “State Lunatic Asylum.”
I have a few connections to the place. A great-uncle worked there in the 1920s and the patients, like so many monkeys at the zoo, threw their feces at him. (Of course, had he been any true uncle of mine he would’ve thrown his own feces back at them.)
One of my college roomies, a rich neo-Nazi, said his mother used to work there, and she claimed there were wards full of people with horrific deformities–cyclopes and such-like.
And my last ever room-mate was this freak from New Jersey. I’d roll in from work around 5:30 or 6am to find him passed out on top of his bedspread, lamp on, glasses on, boxers bunched around his ankles, with a tube sock on his semi-tumescent penis. A few months after we went our separate ways, he wound up in the State Hospital, though sadly I cannot take credit for driving him there. I will say when I ran into him again in public a few years later I made a distinct point of not shaking his hand.
So anyway I talked to several women from the Hospital on the phone about coming down for a tour some time in the next few weeks, and they sounded thrilled at the idea of free, positive publicity. But Wendy, the lady in charge of community relations, was about to go on vacation, and so my tour got pushed up.
A friend drove me to the hospital. As we went through the gate and up the drive I assured him, “One day, not too long from now, you’ll be taking me on this drive for good!”
My appointment was at 9:30am, which is normally about three hours into my sleep cycle. I arrived at 9am, and took my time walking around the main building, taking pictures of the exterior.
The structure was built of stone, in a sort of frontier Italianate style, with three stories and a full above-ground basement, and two cupolas. The main block was constructed between 1857 and 1860, and other wings were added later in the 19th century. (If you ever diagrammed sentences in school, you’ll have a general idea of what the floor plan was like.) It is the third-oldest public building in Texas, and it’s falling to pieces.
Some of the windows were broken, with rotting frames, and were patched with weathered pieces of plywood. There were a couple rusty fire escapes hanging off the walls that led to locked cages on the ground level. The walls and windows are grey and seem to have embedded in them the black sludge of decades of very bad juju.
Wendy was a little late, so I waited up on the front portico, which was a fairly new addition, having been built only in 1903. Parts of it were rotting and parts that had clearly become hazardous had been recently repaired, but only in the most bare-bones manner. I was soon to see that the people who worked in the building had effected such improvements as they could, but they had little money for such things, and it was not uncommon to see a gleaming, freshly painted section, and then turn a corner and see lead-based paint chipping off the ceiling or part of a plaster wall crumbling down into a pile on the floor.
The first and second floors have offices, but the hallways are lined with memorabilia: photos of staff, patients, and buildings now burned down or demolished, old lab equipment, three cases of autopsy instruments, including old bone saws and a razor strop. I saw an old straight jacket in just my size! It’s a damn shame I can’t wear white after Labor Day, though.
I was shown a musty basement (also filled with offices), but the old lab in the back wing had been condemned due to all the formaldehyde in the air. The old morgue was also inaccessible, but I saw a tantalizing glimpse through a little window.
There was a detour to a nearby hospital building that was a jewel of 1950s modernism. Here was the only place I saw patients. I wasn’t allowed to photograph them, as it was a violation of their rights.
I was taken to the third floor of the main building. If you saw the film “Secondhand Lions,” this was where they filmed the hospital scenes with Robert Duvall. (Other films, including “Courage Under Fire,” have had scenes filmed in the building.)
The third floor is closed to the public and is considered a safety hazard. Some of the ceilings have collapsed and others are barely being held into place with make-shift lumber supports. The third floor is supposedly haunted, but Wendy didn’t specify other than to say that staffers have seen things there that they had no rational explanations for.
It was also on the third floor that I took my “money shot:” a photo of a long, abandoned corridor, lit only by a large window at the far end–the very picture we all imagine of the desolate, forbidding, spooky pathways of the disturbed human mind.
Then I was taken to the attic. In the concrete stairwell was graffiti dating back a century: “M.H. 1907,” “Henry Krause state carpenter May 14–1917 quit 1918 I came to work here July 1–190_,” and “James L. Newton Nov. 15. 1916. Steaple (sic) Jack Painter Amear (sic) Thousand Mile Jack. Lost In Texas Some Where.”
There was no way in hell I was going to set foot out in that attic proper. That place scared the piss out of me. At best, the floor would’ve given way underneath me. At worst, a miscellany of creatures from Lovecraft’s bestiary would’ve leaped on me from the shadows.
Wendy pointed out that the TSH’s Administrator is named, appropriately enough, Dr. Carl Schock. I told her about the urban legend that’s been knocking around in Texas news circles for years: that JFK wasn’t killed in Dallas, but was only seriously injured. After major plastic surgery, he was put in a private wing of the State Hospital, and staffers are told only that he is a member of a wealthy and prominent family. And of course, no one listens to him when he claims he’s President of the United States, because many people in mental hospitals suffer from delusions of grandeur.
Wendy howled at that and said she’d never heard that one before. Of course, if I should suddenly stop blogging and disappear without a trace, you’ll know the Feds didn’t think my story so funny.
One of the last things I looked at were panoramic photos of the staff, taken in the 1930s and 1940s in front of the main building. The men all wear white jackets and bow ties, the nurses have crisp uniforms.
Everything is clean, proper, and orderly. (Although in one photo you can see off in the distance patients standing outside on the sleeping porches—Wendy told me that despite the soundproofing used in the walls–layers of dirt—just like at the Dakota apartments in New York–residents of the nearby chi-chi neighborhood of Hyde Park often heard patients howling and screaming throughout the night.)
But one photo keeps drawing me back. The glare from the picture frame prevented my photo from being as sharp as I would’ve liked it to have been.
The staff is arrayed there in front of the building, some even on the front steps and portico. But there under the porch, in the shadows by the basement windows, is an older man wearing a fedora and dark work clothes. A patient? A groundskeeper? A prototype to Freddy Krueger, the “son of a hundred maniacs”? And what’s that he has in his hand?
My friend James saw my photograph of the photograph and got spooked too. He said he’s always looked at old pictures very closely, ever since he saw the end of “The Shining,” where Jack Nicholson appears in a group photo taken at a July 4th party at the Overlook Hotel back in the 1920s.