The sight of the ornate, Gothic structure sitting on top of Hathorne Hill in Danvers makes a strong impression. Even without knowing anything about the building, this imposing edifice spurs you to learn more about its history… and it’s quite a history.
The Danvers State Hospital, also known as the State Lunatic Hospital, was built with compassionate and enlightened treatment in mind. Although those ideals may have been realized at first, both patients and the building itself suffered at various points over the years. Patients endured periods of overcrowding and abuse, while the hospital building was abandoned for over a decade and was so creepy that it was literally featured in a horror movie.
Danvers State Hospital was built in accordance with Dr. Thomas Kirkbride’s recommendations. Kirkbride, a psychiatrist, was an early advocate for treating mental patients with respect. He thought that placing hospitals in appealing settings with plenty of light and air circulation would promote healing.
Kirkbride's facilities were laid out as shown in the plan below:
A woman named Dorothea Dix relentlessly lobbied to change the treatment of poor people who suffered from mental illness in Massachusetts, later taking on treatment standards in other states, and eventually around the world. Her work led to the construction of numerous asylums that followed Kirkbride’s design, which focused on patient comfort and privacy – although still within an institutional setting.
Located about 21 miles north of Boston, a plot of land in Danvers was selected as the site for a new state hospital in Massachusetts. There was plenty of space to create a self-contained facility here, and the setting seemed peaceful. This topographical map of the grounds gives you an idea of the hospital's scale.
Many people don’t realize that the Salem Witch Trials largely took place in Salem Village, some of which is now in modern-day Danvers. One of the main and most enthusiastic magistrates in the persecution was a man named John Hathorne, who lived on Hathorne Hill in Salem Village, the very same hill where Danvers State Hospital was built.
Construction began in 1874, and although it ran massively over-budget, the completed hospital was ready to receive patients four years later. It was considered cutting-edge for its time.
Ghost stories quickly became associated with the hospital – when it was stormy, a ghost could supposedly be heard walking across the attic, and there were claims of patient abuse as early as the 1890s.
Designed by architect Nathaniel J. Bradlee, the building was meant to house 450 patients. However, by the 1920s, more than 2,300 patients were crammed into Danvers State Hospital while staff levels remained about the same. These two factors led to a sharp decline in patient care.
Pre-frontal lobotomies, over-medication, and physical restraints replaced the original goal of a humane, caring approach to mental health care.
The hospital closed its doors in 1992 and lay vacant for several years.
The horror movie,
Session 9, released in 2001, was filmed at Danvers State Hospital.
The plot centers around a crew tasked with cleaning up asbestos at an abandoned mental asylum, and featured the likes of David Caruso and Josh Lucas.
Spooky spots must be inspirational, because H.P. Lovecraft is believed to have based Arkham Sanatorium on Danvers State Hospital.
Even if you’ve never read Lovecraft's books, that name is probably familiar, as Arkham Asylum is where Batman's mentally unstable enemies were locked up. Dennis O'Neil, an author for DC Comics in the 1960s through 1990s, was inspired by Lovecraft's work and first introduced Arkham Asylum into the Batman storyline in 1974.
So, to recap, Danvers State Hospital inspired Lovecraft, whose fictional asylum inspired the writers of Batman!
Session 9, Danvers State Hospital lay abandoned, save for movie fans and urban explorers who busted in to have a look around. Not such a great idea – 150 such individuals were arrested for trespassing.
You might expect the hospital’s story to end there… but not so fast.
In 1997, a dog walker spied a cemetery on the grounds without traditional headstones. Instead, there were just numbered graves.
The 770 patients who died at Danvers State Hospital were buried in numbered lots. The hospital wasn't the only facility of its kind to replace traditional headstones with dehumanizing numbers; similar practices have come to light in institutions in New York, Georgia, Alabama, just to name just a few.
The discovery in Danvers sparked a public outcry and volunteers worked to identify the remains - successfully in some cases. In 2002, a memorial service was held for those patients and in 2015, a second ceremony was organized by local citizen advisory boards for the Department of Mental Health.
One of the conditions attached to the sale of the property was that the cemeteries be properly tended.
In 2005, Danvers State Hospital was bought by AvalonBay, a company that wanted to convert the building into apartments and condos.
Since it was a Kirkbride Building, the hospital had been placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1984. Despite that protection and a lawsuit aimed at saving the structure, AvalonBay received a demolition permit and knocked down many of the original buildings in 2007.
The brick shell of the administration building and the adjacent wards still stand, but the rest is now gone. Shortly after the first residents moved in, a fire destroyed four of the new apartment buildings erected on the site.
The property has since been sold again, transferring to DSF Group from Boston for a record-breaking $108 million.
The complex is now called Halstead Danvers/Bradlee Danvers and it’s being promoted to prospective buyers as a high-tech, luxury apartment complex that offers everything from virtual golfing to an on-site juice bar.
It’s hard to reconcile the hospital’s history with what you see today. Though Danvers State Hospital ultimately faltered on its path toward improving mental health care conditions, forward-thinking professionals like Dr. Kirkbride and champions for patient-centered treatment like Dorothea Dix should be recognized for their contributions to the positive evolution of standards for psychiatric care.
As with many locations that have experienced a tumultuous, often disturbing history, tales of hauntings and ghost sightings do beg the question: has Danvers State Hospital truly left this eerie plot of land, or do the restless spirits of its dark past still haunt the area, despite recent efforts to bring new life to the property?
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