Wednesday, October 21, 2020

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Medfield State Hospital


    The town of Medfield is home to 12,904 people (as of 2018), and sits 17-miles southwest of Boston. It contains several beautiful hiking areas, shops and restaurants mixing a touch of city with the layout of a mid-sized town. Medfield is also home to what might be the creepiest place on all of Massachusetts. For a century a campus existed in town but this was no college. A hospital existed in town but it was not purely medical. It was the Medfield State Hospital. It was a spot that became inspiration for film and television and this is its story.

The Medfield State Hospital grounds in 2019.

    Facilities to help treat the mentally ill have been around in America for centuries. The first such operation opened in 1752 in Philadelphia. It was part of the Pennsylvania Hospital. The basement of the hospital provided beds with shackles attached to the wall to house a small number of the mentally ill. In Massachusetts the first facility helped give the future ones their name. In 1818 McLean Hospital opened. It was first called the 'Asylum for the Insane' and was a division of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The hospital was renamed McLean Asylum for the Insane in 1825. Most of the similar hospitals in the future would be often referred to as 'insane asylums' or 'mental hospitals' even if it wasn't directly in their name.

    The Medfield Insane Asylum became the third such facility in Massachusetts when work began on it in early 1891. The initial plans were to have 25 buildings, 18 of them housing 1,000 patients, in a self-contained cottage style campus. It was to be the first asylum strictly for the long-term care of high-need chronic patients. The money appropriated for the project, $500,000 ($14.3 million in 2020), was not seen to be enough. The Massachusetts State Inspector feared the buildings would be built on the cheap and could be fire traps. In February 1893 the asylum in Dover, New Hampshire burned to the ground killing 44 of 48 patients which only exacerbated fears. The project was temporarily put on hold to further iron out the plans. 

The Chapel in 2011 vs. 1903 (Asylum

    The buildings of the Medfield asylum were of red brick with walls 12-inches thick. In addition to the dormitories for the patients there was an administration building, laundry, kitchen, dining room, and more making the 425-acre property more like a small village than a mental hospital. After a long legal wrangling over the trustees of the property and securing that the buildings would indeed be safe for the patients the Medfield Insane Asylum opened in May 1896. There were initially about 600 patients at the asylum including 178 immediately transferred there from the Danvers asylum upon Medfield's grand opening. In the beginning Medfield would be used to help ease the overcrowding in other nearby facilities.

    By the time the property had its first name change to the Medfield State Asylum in 1905 there were a total of 1,554 patients living there. The staff of the asylum initially lived on the property as well, often sleeping in the attics of the buildings which housed patients. In 1914 the property underwent a second name change to the Medfield State Hospital. The property's Superintendent Edward French said at the time that a name change was necessary as any intelligent patient there might feel hopeless living in an asylum. Name changes aside there was a problem that needed correction and that was lack of restraints on some violent patients. In 1912 alone several nurses on staff were injured via attacks from violent patients not properly restrained.

Vines engulfing one of the former dormitories. 

    Not all of the people living at the Medfield hospital were dangerous though. In fact many would only be there for a respite and be released and even find jobs in the private sector. Despite that positive news the small town of Medfield was continuously at odds with the facility. A suspicious fire that burned the laundry building in June 1924 got the town's attention as though the fire was controlled it theoretically could have put the town in danger.

    Patient on staff crime, vice versa, and patient on patient incidents were frequent. The first incident to make the news was the September 1916 beating death of patient Camillo Strazullo by attendant Wesley Linton. Linton would be found guilty and spend 3 years in prison in Dedham. As incidents increased over the rest of the decade staff encouraged swift prosecution for violence against patients. At the end of the 1910's the property expanded to a total of 609 acres of land abutting the Charles River. On the west end of the property a cemetery was built to accommodate the remains of the many inmates who died during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. That cemetery still exists today. Eventually the campus swelled to 58 buildings including a chapel.

    The incidents of violence inside the Medfield State Hospital were exacerbated during the 1930's and 1940's when the facility's population was at its highest. It became a problem of overcrowding as the number of patients topped 2,300. Incidents of murder increased as did the escaping of patients. This included 3 men stealing a car in November 1935 and making it to Dedham before being apprehended. Otherwise it became routine for patients to wander off and into town as the hospital was basically an open campus with no outer walls and no guards.

    Shock therapy came into use in 1938 initially killing 2 test patients. World War II strained the staffing at the hospital leading to the more competent patients helping out to care for the less inclined people and the property itself. Major changes for the Medfield State Hospital began in the 1950's.

    The reintroduction of lithium as a psychiatric medication in 1949 led to a revolution in terms of medications and treatments of those suffering from mental illness. Lithium, used for mania, got the ball rolling but it was chlorpromazine (brand name thorazine) which came along in 1949 that changed the game. It was popularized in the early 1950's. Other new drugs like imipramine, one of the first antidepressants, came along shortly thereafter. These medications then allowed more patients living at asylums to be sent home. Those that did stay in the facilities were far calmer and the campus at Medfield began to resemble a college rather than a busy subway station.

    Medfield garnered praise for its rehabilitation program under the leadership of Dr. Harold Lee during the later 50's and early 60's. Change continued as Congress in the early 60's passed a law stating that asylum patients needed to be kept under as little restraint as possible. Changes in policies coupled with more patients being allowed to lead relatively normal lives outside of the walls of an asylum eventually led to the closure of some such facilities.

    During the 1970's some asylums began seeing a little use as correctional facilities. Some feared Medfield might follow suit. However it was a far worse fate that began being discussed. The choice was being bandied about of either closing Medfield or the Westborough hospital. The population dropped at Medfield and some of the buildings on the campus closed. Calls for reform of policies at Medfield had begun in 1966 and came to a head in 1984 from the Massachusetts Mental Health Department. The population continued dropping until it was at 200 in 1989. It was at this point the property finally became fenced in. A major reason was due to an influx of patients from the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to Medfield which worried the town's residents.

    During the 1990's the campus was deteriorating. The property's wells were taken out of service and the town supplied it with water. Also mothballs were used in some of the buildings to try to stem the deterioration. The writing was on the wall though. Slowly parcels of land were donated to the state for conservation. Talks of closing Medfield State Hospital had been ongoing for years, long before word officially came down in 2002. April 13, 2003 saw the hospital close and the remaining patients transferred to Westborough. For the first time in 107 years the campus and its red brick buildings stood silent.

Remember us, for we too have lived, loved, and laughed.  

    The former Medfield State Hospital sat in limbo for 11 years though it was used for scenes in the 2009 movie The Box and the 2010 movie Shutter Island. The town officially bought it in December 2014. A total of 127 acres was purchased for $3.1 million. As of March 2020 plans were being brought forward as to how to repurpose the former hospital property.

    Though it might end up as subsidized housing, retail space, or something else in the not too distant future, currently it is possible to walk the grounds among the creepy yet beautiful old buildings of Medfield State Hospital. There have been numerous accounts of paranormal activity on the grounds and the property as a whole lends itself to something out of a horror movie. While it is still standing it is recommended to take a walk on the grounds. It can be at midday with your dog to minimize the eeriness but those who love the Halloween season need to see this spot with their own eyes.


Coming November 5, 2020 the debut episode of the In My Footsteps Podcast wherever you get your podcasts!  

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