Ethan Ireland, 2020, Legends&Lore
The Bradlee Danvers apartment complex sits high on a hill overlooking the town of Danvers, Massachusetts. Like a scar that’s healed, it reminds us of a darker time. It even shares the same facade, carefully preserved by the demolition crew in 2006 when Danvers State Hospital was finally dismantled after it’s 128 year existence and even bears the name of the original designing architect, Nathaniel Jeremiah Bradlee.
During construction of the new apartment buildings and adjacent complex, a fire broke out and burned down 4 apartment buildings yet only damaged a spire on the exterior shell of the original building. (1) Reviews of the complex detail of mirrors falling off walls, poorly constructed countertops and thin walls. It seems the complex is catching its own share of bad luck, well after its infamous predecessor.
Danvers State Hospital was famous for many things such as its design, treatment of patients and legends surrounding the site. When it opened in 1878, it was considered a cutting edge facility for the treatment of mental health. A century later, it was criticized (like so many others like it) for it’s overcrowding and maltreatment of patients. “Session 9” (Directed by Brad Anderson) is a psychological thriller that uses the abandoned hospital to tell its tale of the darkness that lies within one’s state of mind. During filming, the hospital was used strictly “as is.” Not even the name was changed and it creates its own gothic and foreboding atmosphere. If you want to see exactly what it looked like, watch the movie.
“Danvers is not a movie location. It really is [a mental hospital]. It was a place we never got comfortable in. It wasn’t like it was day three, and you were throwing water balloons because it was so much fun to be there. It was always scary, and you could really feel the pain of the people that were at Danvers. It’s a rough environment. But, I mean, it’s on the film. You can see. They didn’t have to dress any sets or anything, all that stuff was already there. The federal government walked away from it about thirty years ago, and it was a terrifying location.”-David Caruso. (2)
“Session 9” is a psychological thriller from 2001. The film centers around a crew of workmen who are hired by the city to rid the building of Asbestos. They are each promised a $10k bonus by the city if they can finish the job within a week. (SPOLERS AHEAD! IF YOU DONT WANT SPOILERS, SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.) The film depicts the group slowly going insane, as one member of the group listens to audio reels of a patient housed at Danvers who had dissociative identity disorder. During the tapes, the personalities within “Mary” are questioned about events that happened “that night in Lowell.” It adds an interesting subplot to an already interesting horror/psychological thriller. The team individually goes mad with various unexplained events taking place until the final twist ending, revealing the boss on the job to have gone insane and imagined various events within his own mind as he carried out various murders.
The film gives us an interior view of Danvers State at the end of its life. You can see various areas such as the kitchens, the additions, the gymnasium (which was renovated for use not long before the patients and facilities were moved to a new location in Tewksbury, Mass), and even the tunnels. It also shows some of the neglect and decay that the Kirkbride Building experienced in its final decades. The state had long ceased use on most of the Kirkbride Building well before the facility was shut down, due to the overwhelming maintenance costs and rapid decline of the building. (3)
The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and efforts to save the historic building proved futile when Avalon Properties was given a permit for demolition. Lawsuits were filed, but they couldn’t stave off the wrecking ball.
The building began construction in 1874 using materials from local sources. The foundation was made mostly of granite from Cape Ann and bricks from Danvers were sold for the construction in mass quantities. The total cost of the project was around $1.1 million, which was well over budget of about $600k. (4) It was constructed in the Kirkbride Design, named for Philadelphia Architect Thomas Story Kirkbride who conceived of a design to promote natural light and air circulation throughout the building in order to promote a tranquil setting for patients. (5) In its first few years, the hospital was heralded as “foremost in its facilities for convenience in practical operations.” (4)
The initial goal was to provide a peaceful and tranquil setting to treat mental illness in a humane manner. Hospital staff refused to use restraints in the beginning. They preferred to attempt to create a therapeutic and stress free environment for patients. The building was designed to hold 450 patients, but by the mid 1880s the population had already become overloaded with 800 patients and conditions immediately started to decline for staff and patients alike. So it seems, the facility was built, and immediately pushed well past capacity.
By 1901, the population surged past 1,100 persons and by the 1930s, the population was well past 2,000 persons. Due to severe underfunding, the amount of staff remained roughly the same as its intended designed capacity would allow. (6) Expansion had taken place over time. Sun porches were added on the front. Facilities were added on the grounds for staff. A generator plant was added to power the complex. A separate building was added for use as a tuberculosis ward. Most impressive was the addition of underground tunnels, connecting in a labyrinth to all complexes on the hill. Some of these tunnels still exist today, though they don’t connect to anything anymore. All of these additions did little to curb the circumstances inside the facility, and quality of life was low.
Due to the severe overcrowding, measures were being taken to control the massive amount of patients and some were less than ethical. The hospital trustees report from 1939 states:
“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… ” (6)
The 1939 report details of several treatments being given to help reduce “destruction”. “Special garments,” are likely some sort of restraint. They could be referring to straight jackets or some sort of cuffs. “Bed care” meaning some patients were likely left in bed for exorbitantly long periods of time (possibly days). “Occupational therapy and sedative forms of hydrotherapy”, I’ll leave that to you as the reader to interpret.
In 1948, the first lobotomy at Danvers was performed, and in 1950 electroshock therapy was implemented. In 1956, Thorazine was being administered as a treatment for schizophrenia. (6) Between funding cuts, better treatment options and state run community health programs…the hospital’s fate was sealed well before it shut its doors in 1992. Lack of funding meant lack of upkeep, so by the early 70s the front tower had to be removed because of damage. It was simply never rebuilt until Avalon Bay Properties reconstructed a replica in its place in the late 2000s for the apartment complex. By the late 70s and early 80s, most of the Kirkbride Building had been abandoned. Certain facilities in the newer additions were in use however, the original hospital lay derelict. Not just derelict, but uninhabitable. Holes in the roof allowed water to run into the aging building. Lead paint was peeling off the walls. Electricity had been cut off to much of the older structure for safety reasons.
Many of the patients were relocated to a newer building on the campus and only a few parts of the Kirkbride were in use by 1992. The last few patients were moved to Tewksbury and security was placed to prevent thrill seekers from breaking into the ominous, ghostly building. And thus, Danvers State Hospital shut its doors for good. (3,6)
Danvers is unique in some regards. Though “abandoned”, it never spent a long time as abandoned really. Sure the Kirkbride Building had been abandoned in the 70s, but certain facilities such as the gymnasium and the kitchen were still in use. It should be noted that these facilities were newer additions at the back of the administration building, or the center of the bat so to speak. Kirkbride Buildings aren’t unique to Danvers, many institutions across the country (including a few others in Massachusetts) used this design as it was considered an optimal treatment environment in its time. The unintended consequence was that the building was shaped sort of like a bat in its final form. In many of the hospitals, these buildings were simply called “the Kirkbride.”
It’s said that the more violent patients were kept at the far end of the bat wings, furthest away from the admin building.(3) The males were on one side and the females were on the other. You can also see in the photo above what is original and what is an addition, based on the roof line.
Tracking down ghost stories tends to be a difficult task. There’s legends abound of course. The more common legend is that the lobotomy started here. FALSE. To be clear, the trans-orbital lobotomy was done at Danvers State, but it wasn’t the first. Neurologist António Egas Moniz is credited with inventing the lobotomy in 1935. (7) The first lobotomy was actually performed in Lisbon, Portugal. (8)
Only one paranormal team has been allowed to investigate over the years (The Rhode Island Paranormal Research Group) but they haven’t released or spoken of anything that took place that night. Many ghost hunters have snuck into the abandoned building but didn’t get much in the way of evidence. Ghostly footsteps and the occasional shadow are the only things that have been reported, except for one. Jeralyn Levasseur lived at Danvers State as a child and recounted an incident where her bedsheets were ripped off the bed and the presence of a scowling old woman manifested itself at the foot of her bed. (9)
Whether the actual property is presently haunted is up for speculation. It should be noted that history dates to before the conception of Danvers Hospital. The hospital was built on “Hathorne Hill”, named for the one and only Judge John Hathorne of the Salem Witch Trials who resided there during said trials. Is it possible that the land was cursed due to its connection with an even darker event in history? Is it possible that there are spirits still wandering the now apartments where their institutionalized home used to be? You decide.
(1)”Fire at Danvers State Hospital had ‘tremendous start’”, Matthew K. Roy, 2007, Salem News
(2)https://web.archive.org/web/20191219032405/http://www.aboutfilm.com/features/session9/interview.htm-David Caruso interview for “Session 9”
(3)Danvers State Hospital: 1992 Real Estate Sales Video-MikeDijital, YouTube, 2015
(4) “Danvers State Hospital”, Richard Trask, 1981
(5) Yanni, Carla (2007). The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States.
(6)”History of Danvers State Hospital”, Rebecca Brooks, 2012, historyofmassachusetts.org
(7) “Lobotomy: Definition, Procedure & History”, Tanya Lewis, 2014, livescience.com
(8)”The strange and curious history of lobotomy”, Hugh Levinson, 2011, BBC News
(9) “Danvers State Hospital Hauntings”, Jacob Rice, 2015, ghostlyactivities.com