Sunday, September 9, 2012

Northern Ohio Lunatic Asylum

Hawthornden State Hospital
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog entry about my first visit to a state run psychiatric facility. It was a harrowing experience that continues to influence my work as a psychologist in complex ways.

Recently someone left a comment on my original blog post. Shuko raised some interesting questions that I want to answer in more detail. That will have to wait for a future blog post since I've managed to get distracted (imagine that!). While you are waiting, check out Shuko's blog here. She has a great way of exploring the history around us in both images and words.

I visited Western Reserve Psychiatric Hospital every two weeks when I was a 23 year old case manager. The hospital has gone by several different names including Hawthornden State Hospital, Western Reserve Psychiatric Habilitation Center, and currently operates under the name Northcoast Behavioral Healthcare.

That's a whole lot of names. What surprises me is that there isn't a lot of information available on the internet about this hospital. It's especially surprising that the hospital hasn't been subject to any significant historical research. It seems that one of the precursors to Northcoast Behavioral Health Care found its way into a national magazine. The article was called Bedlam, 1946 and discussed the Northern Ohio Lunatic Asylum. We'll explore the Bedlam of Cleveland in a minute.

Here is an aerial view of Northcoast Behavioral Health (aka Hawthronden, aka Western Reserve Psychiatric Center) as it looks now.

Google Maps
Let's go back in time. The Ohio Department of Mental Health makes a single reference to the Hawthornden State Hospital. They write:
Hawthornden State Hospital, later known as Western Reserve Psychiatric Habilitation Center, operated as a farm for Cleveland State Hospital from 1922 until 1938. It was established as a separate facility in 1941. 
That's not a lot of information. The blurb however gives me an important clue. The property got its start as a farm for the Cleveland State Hospital. This means our first stop in exploring the history is a field trip.

Fenn College field trip, Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library 
It just so happens that in researching the Cleveland State Hospital, the first image I came across was an abnormal psychology class taking a field trip in 1946. Look at those eager young faces peering into a model of the brain and marveling at it's structure--and perhaps wondering what separated them from the patients in the asylum. Do you think as part of their field trip that they got to meet actual patients? I wonder what these young students thought about as they encountered those who were removed from society and kept for treatment in an asylum.

I also wonder if any of them were aware of the abuses that were going on at the hospital they were visiting. This class visited the same year that Life magazine published the article Bedlam, 1946. Look at the pictures in the article. The broken and abused people being "cared" for by the hospital in 1946 are far removed from the fresh faced college students pictured above.

I need to digress for a moment.

Looking at these students reminds me of a movie that I had watched around the same time I was making my visits to the Western Reserve Psychiatric Hospital. I had several friends at the time who would invite me over to watch hidden gems on VHS. Hombre Mirando al Sudeste (Man Facing Southeast) is one of those hidden gems.

This particular scene has lingered with me for almost twenty years. In this scene Rantes gently runs his fingers along the sulci and gyri of the brain and wonders the whereabouts of self within the brain. He plucks apart the brain and washes it down the drain. Where are the person's memories, hopes, and desires?

"Where is that afternoon where he first fell in love?"

Do you think those students on a field trip to the state hospital were thinking those thoughts too? Do you think any of these young people stopped to wonder the nature of the experience of the people living within the walls of this institution? Have you stopped to wonder?

If you happen to speak Spanish and want to watch the whole move click here

Now back to the Cleveland State Hospital.

Cleveland Hospital for the Insane
The facility was originally known as the Northern Ohio Lunatic Asylum and first opened on March 5, 1855. The original parcel of on land for the facility was donated by the family of future president James A. Garfield. The first hospital building was destroyed by fire in 1872. The state dedicated funds to rebuild a much larger hospital which opened in January 1875. The asylum, as were others in this time, was built with the purpose of providing people with mental illness a quiet place outside of the bustling city. The hope was that patients could be cared for in a moral environment that encouraged healthy living.

As with nearly all the asylums there was a significant drift from moral and healthy living. Overcrowding became rampant and conditions deteriorated in the 1920s and 30s due to that overcrowding as well as insufficient support from the state. In the mid 1940s an investigation of conditions at the facility found patients had been reported dead after being beaten with objects such as belts, key rings, and metal plated shoes.

The hospital continued it's decline and significant cutbacks happened in the early 1960s. The state began to phase out the hospital in 1972. The property was reinvented as the Cleveland Developmental Center in 1975 for people with developmental disabilities. That also was closed and the hospital properties were demolished in the late 70s eventually making way for a development of single family and cluster homes called the Mill Creek Development. (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for general descriptions about this history of the asylum.

I've put together a short YouTube clip with images chronicling the Northern Ohio Lunatic Asylum. Of particular interest are the images from the Civilian Public Service. The a group of conscientious objectors served our country in World War II by working at the insane asylum. The concerns they raised (and kept raising) helped bring attention to the horrors of the insitiution and brought about some meaningful change.

 I'll end this post today with a quote from the the article Bedlam 1946:
"An attendant and I were sitting on the porch watching the patients. Somebody came along sweeping and the attendant yelled at a patient to get up off the bench so that the worker-patient could sweep. But the patient did not move. The attendant jumped up with an inch-wide restraining strap and began to beat the patient in the face and on top of the head. 'Get the hell up...!' It was a few minutes -- a few horrible ones for the patient -- before the attendant discovered that he was strapped around the middle to the bench and could not get up."
It's stories like these that drive me to keep thinking and writing about asylums. So many people lost and thrown away. Each of their stories are worth finding, worth telling, and work knowing.
May 6, 1946, Life magazine published "Bedlam 1946


  1. How incredibly serendipitous to stumble across this so soon after its writing. Not only am I fascinated in the 'invisible lives' of people shut away in such establishments, as well as the architecture and ethos behind their construction but have, just tonight, discovered my great-grandfather's 'black sheep' brother's widow was resident in the 'mental health' care system and resided at Hawthornden, possibly from its inception as accommodation. Thank you, albeit tinged with sadness at the many lives left forgotten and open to abuse in such systems, which still exist today.

    Damien Garford.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, reading, and taking the time to make a comment. I've recently started to read about about the tourism trade at asylums and penitentiaries in North America. It seems that at the start of these institutions, people were not as shut away as we thought.

  2. Have you ever been down the tunnels?

    1. I was down there today. Creepy stuff...

    2. My husband worked on the childrens side. He said they would take the kids through the tunnels to get their meds.

  3. Thank you so, so much for the Youtube video of the Cleveland State Hospital for the Insane. My sister-in-law's grandmother died there in 1967, after being an inpatient for several years, and although she remembers visiting her grandmother, my sister-in-law was not able to remember where. Her grandmother's death record lists Cleveland State Hospital as her place of death, and now thanks to your video, she can revisit that time, and her grandmother, again. You are on my gratitude list for the day.

  4. I'm researching family history and--last weekend--decided to look up siblings of a great-grandfather of mine. Unless uncannily sharing the [married] name, approximate birth year, and birth country of a particular great-great-aunt of mine...I discovered a 1940 Census entry for her here, confused at first when I saw the long list of other, non-family residents of the residence, before I shockingly first saw her classification as "inmate" and then saw that it was an insane asylum.

    How sad. :(

  5. I'm relating to your blog in a couple of ways. I'm a psychologist, trained in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where "Hombre mirando al Sudeste" is from. Been living in the states for many years -- Cleveland, to be precise. I did part of my internship as a trainee at the very hospital the movie was shot at. Eerie place, reminds you of Goffman's total institutions. I'm curious as to how you came across the movie?

    1. What a very small world, Gabriela!

      The hospital certainly looks eerie in the movie! I imagine it was an experiencing doing your internship there.

      I came across the movie years ago. Shortly after I graduated college a good friend of mine, who had excellent taste in movies, rented it on VHS and invited me over. It's the kind of movie that's stuck with me for all these years.

  6. I have been researching my lineage and this afternoon found, according to the 1910 US census, that my great-great-grandmother was listed as a patient at Cleveland State Hospital at that time. I'm intrigued and reading any info I can find on this sad place.

    I see Calvary cemetery is across the street, perhaps I'll take a look there tomorrow.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I know many of the state hospitals and asylums were rather notorious for not having a proper or thoughtful burial for the dead. Here in Massachusetts many graves are marked by numbers on stone or iron markers. Those numbers have long since lost meaning.

      I hope you find some more information out about your great-great grandmother!

    2. I learned that my mother was sent to Hawthorne in 1958 at the age of 18 (6 yrs before I was born). She has schizophrenia. Aside from her stay at Hawthorne this went untreated for the majority of her life. Given the treatment options at the time, I can’t really blame her for not seeking out medical care. Schizophrenics are not trusting people to begin with and often don’t believe anything is wrong with them. How sad that her family got her through the doors but that this was the treatment of the time.

      Ultimately the state of Ohio committed her in 1999 after a period of homelessness (often the situation of our mentally ill). I studied Psychology to piece together the cause and meaning of my mother’s bizarre behavior over the years. I currently work at a health care facility (Cancer Treatment Centers of America) that has a holistic approach to care. I pray that as a country we continue to expand our holistic treatment options for the mentally ill and treat mind, body, and spirit. I pray that counseling of family to best support and deal with mental illness becomes the norm instead of the stigma that is still prevalent. Finally I pray that this care becomes available no matter social status, class, or economic conditions.

      Thank you for doing this research and snapping another little piece in the puzzle.

  7. Looking for info on Sophia Legan or Sophia Majewski// anyone???????

  8. My Grandmother spent over 30 years institutionalized at Hawthornden, probably starting in the late 1930's till her death there in 1968. (She had dementia) I remember all the visits we made and how my brothers & I were never allowed to go inside the buildings. (Mom said that there were people inside with no clothes on, and a lot of people were making strange noises or crying.) We would have picnics on the grounds there. My Chez grandmother spoke only a few words of English, so my brothers & I mostly climbed the trees and played in the reeds around the marshes. I only have one photograph of her, from a visit there around 1954. It looks to be out back of the Women's Cottage, where my Dad and Aunt are on either side of my Grandmother, and my brother & I are in front. She's smiling at me (I'm only about 15 mos old in this photo), and I wonder what she was thinking about. She lost a baby girl at 9 mos old, and her memory seemed to be frozen in that moment. She never acknowledged my aunt (who was born 2 years later) as her daughter.

    Thank you for this post - as sad as it makes me feel, it helps fill in some long-standing blanks about her life. I am so grateful that there are many more options for dealing with a mental illness today than existed back in her time.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I'm glad you found my blog, and that it helped fill in some blanks about your grandmother's life. I think the stories of people who lived and died in these large institutions are rapidly disappearing, and that it's important that they are remembered.

    I was man-handled by security and repeatedly drugged because I asked if I could sit in the common room before being put into a bed, in 'my' room, after already waiting in a hospital bed for a day or two. I calmly explained that I would prefer to have about 15 minutes of adjustment before being transferred to another hospital bed, and they took it as disobedience. Any time I walked too slow for the nurses liking, they called security and had them drag me into a room and drug me again. They don't even tell you what they drug you with. It feels like being in a waking coma.