Sam Queen (my best friend and co-author of Haunted Asylums, Prisons, and Sanitoriums) and I have a history of stumbling upon what we like to think of as "our little adventures." Truth be told, I couldn't pinpoint the first one we had, although I think a best guess might be a former children's hospital in Dunwoody, Georgia by the name of Brook Run and which was set to be demolished. However, the best abandoned hospital that Sam and I ever stumbled upon would never have crossed our radar but for my paying close attention to the guide running the ferry from Salem to Boston, MA in October 2010. As the ferry cut through the water, we glided past some spooky-looking ruins on an island to our left, and the guide mentioned that they were used for part of the filming of Shutter Island. Our curiosity was piqued, and we knew we had to go investigate the ruins. We boarded the ferry back to Salem to retrieve our car and set off on an impromptu adventure.
Our destination did not find us at the ruins on the island. Instead, we wound up somewhere out in the suburbs, in a little town called Medfield. There was a security trailer at the gate leading to Medfield State Hospital, but we went ahead and parked and asked the two security officers if we could take a walk around the property. With blessing in hand, we set off along the path to the right.
Within sight was a modern-seeming hospital building. It seemed interesting enough, but nothing in comparison to what we were about to discover.
We kept trudging along up the hill. What we saw when we got to the top knocked our socks off: old, red brick buildings—boarded up, but intact. There were around fifty of them, snaking around the roads, a city amongst themselves. They appeared to be late 1800s, possibly early 1900s. They were beautifully haunting, and all in various states of degradation. Of them, the most haunting were the ones with cages around the porches. We knew from experience that the cages were most likely only necessary for forensic buildings—in other words, for housing those who had been adjudicated criminally insane.
As soon as we reached the top of the hill, I recognized the courtyard and the buildings from the scene in Shutter Island when Leonardo DiCaprio's character first arrives on the island; in the film, it is daytime, at a location that is referred to as "Ashecliffe Hospital." It was a chilling piece of film history, to say the least. I am thinking of the scene where the female patient in handcuffs is on the lawn, and touches her finger to her mouth, giving Teddy the "hush" signal. In the film, the property is idyllic and peaceful, with something sinister lurking beneath. Having seen the property, I believe that description is still applicable, perhaps minus the idyllic part. Some imagination may be required for that.
As Sam and I made our way through the streets, the eerie quiet had me on edge. There were no sounds other than that of our own footsteps—no insects, birds, or any other life forms. It is unsettling to hear the sound of nothing; it makes you think that someone is watching you. I did not want to walk too close to the buildings. When I did try to get close to one, I could feel the cold radiating from the old bricks, and from the darkness inside. I instinctively backed away. I got the sense that something was communicating with me, telling me not to push it. I listened, and kept my distance.
Towards the center of the complex stands the church. Abandoned (or even empty) churches always give me the heebie jeebies. I remember as a child having lock-ins at our church. A small group of us would dare each other to enter the pitch dark sanctuary and go have a seat alone in one of the middle pews. To this day, that still seems to be one of the scariest things I have ever done. It's almost as if you can feel the demons walking around in the dark, or waging war right there on holy ground.
Something was in the church. As we drew closer, we could hear something scratching against the other side of the door. Something was in the church and it was trying to get out. Could it have been an animal? No; to generate that type of racket, it would need to be an animal the size of a German Shepherd or larger. We walked all around the church, and we did not find an opening that would have been large enough even for a squirrel to squeeze into. The place was locked up tight.
History and Background
The Medfield Insane Asylum opened in 1896, and was the first hospital in Massachusetts that utilized the cottage plan. It was a nine-hundred-acre campus of about fifty-eight buildings, which were a mix of architectural styles (such as Queen Anne, Greek Revival, and Beaux Arts). The campus was self-sustaining, and the patients worked at jobs on the farm, in the laundry and kitchen, as tailors, and in the shoe shop.
Part of the philosophy of building an insane asylum using the cottage plan was to make the patients feel more like they were at home. The first floor of the buildings (or homes) would be utilized as work areas, and bedrooms would be found on the second floor. In the beginning, staff would live in the buildings right along with the patients. Medfield held about 2,200 patients at a time, and between five hundred and nine hundred staff members; it was completely emptied of patients in April of 2003.
Jason Mihaiko, a licensed psychologist, has completed some background research on Medfield, and has shared it on his blog. Mr. Mihaiko located a Trustee's Report that contains information about the first six hundred patients ever admitted to the hospital. The reasons for patients to be committed for life to an insane asylum would be unfathomable to us today! Reasons for commitment included, "epilepsy, influenza, masturbation, menopause, disappointment, and domestic affliction." The death rate was around four every week.
But not all memories of Medfield are unhappy ones. Harry (Wally) Gardiner shared some of his experiences of growing up in Medfield while his father served as a psychiatrist in the late 1940s. Mr. Gardiner recounts his memories of being watched over by trusted patients. One of the best stories is about how patient Miller had conversations with his dog, Sandy, and how Harry, as a small child, couldn't understand why his dog wouldn't speak directly to him! (Read "Childhood Memories of Medfield State Hospital" for more details.)
The Medfield State Hospital Cemetery is located off Route 27 heading northbound, just before you reach the Sherborn line. In 2005, a memorial plaque was placed at the site by the Medfield State Hospital Cemetery Restoration Committee. It reads: "Remember us, for we too have lived, loved, and laughed."
Sam and I walked the premises for just under two hours, imagining what the campus must have looked like when it was self-supporting and truly functioning like a small city.
The sun was setting on us. It was time to go home.