Saturday, July 22, 2006

Dixmont State Hospital

This past Wednesday I went to the Heinz History Center for the opening of Kay Guerrero's "The Dixmont State Hospital: A Historical Documentary". I got word of the event earlier in the day (thanks Mark) , and I wasn't going to miss it.

In the early 90's I occasionally heard about an abandoned insane asylum west of Pittsburgh along route 65. I didn't own a car at the time, so I had to wait patiently until I met someone who was willing to drive out to the site and break all manner of trespassing laws to explore it. Finally I got my chance... with JR, who worked for the Pittsburgh Film Office as a location scout. Not only did I have the opportunity I was looking for, but I had a sheen of legitimacy conferred upon me indirectly by my friend's position. So we went.

The quickly deteriorating complex was situated on many acres of wooded land. The roof of the main building was in the middle of a process of complete collapse, the windows were broken, and plant growth was wending its way into every nook and cranny. As the sun went down, an eerie pall seemed to settle over us, and we sought shelter in the crumbling halls themselves. The once florid wallpaper was peeling in layers all around us, and we stepped cautiously so as not to descend to the lower floors unintentionally. We spent a couple of hours poking about, and realized that we would have to come back again to fully satiate our curiosity.

A few months later I helped JR and his friend film a student short on the grounds of Dixmont. We had full permission from the owner of the site to be there, and having signed waivers of liability, we felt free to roam throughout... including the many outbuildings. We stooped through the tunnel system, through which supplies were originally brought from the river and the nearby rail tracks. That was a dark creepy place with crevices hiding the worst that our imaginations could conjure. Following a dirt road we found a simple but significant cemetary on a wooded hillside. The cracked identical stones were marked only with an "M" or an "F", and a number. These numbers ranged through the hundreds to four full digits. Our educated guess was later confirmed... these were the patients that died in the hospital that went unclaimed by loved ones. Nearby there were several more ornate headstones commemorating the dead pets of the superintendants. Those included names.

The film itself wasn't very good, but we had some amazing locations. We even shot a pivotal scene in the basement morgue of a newer building. The meat locker drawers were forever destined to remain half ajar... or so we thought. One night as the director and JR were taking down the lights, one of the drawers slammed shut, seemingly of its own accord. The shoot was thus concluded on an abbreviated schedule.

I will always remember the few days and nights I spent on those grounds. Doors would slam shut during windless evenings. There was a warm, fetid breeze coming OUT of the entrance of one building. The expectation of seeing the spirits of the tormented souls trapped in the asylum in years past was never that far from our minds.

One regret I have had over the years since my time at Dixmont is that I never had my own camera to document the place in that condition. I have no idea how to get a copy of the film we made. In the first years of this century the entire remains were torn down, to be replaced by a shiny new Walmart. The stories untold seemed to be lost from me forever, save for what I could dig up on the Internet. And then Wednesday I found out there was a documentary...

To be fair to the director, the sense of mystery I have built around the now vanished Dixmont built unreasonable expectations in my mind. There is no way to satiate my vast desire to learn about the place. The narrator of the documentary conveyed a wealth of factual information that traced the hospital's history. It integrated the context of the developing field of psychology and the treatment of mental disorders. There were still photos taken of its interior and exterior... and the patients on the immaculately kept grounds. Still I felt at a loss to truly understand the totality of what occured there. No straight forward presentation of factoids can encapsulate the well-intentioned horrors that generations of patients experienced. No recitation of New Testament quotations can frame the depths of Dixmont. I am glad that Guerrero built a superstructure on which to hang a rudimentary understanding of the institution... it's a good start... but a definintive documentary is still waiting to be made.


Blogger John Morris said...

So like it's closed right? I mean they can't take me away to there or anything?

5:34 PM  
Anonymous DeeA2Z said...

Your very atmospheric telling of your Dixmont experience sounds to me like the first few pages of a chilling novel. The images brought forth from this visit beg for expansion. Perhaps you'll never be able to tell the whole story, or even the true story, but you've already crafted the beginning and ending of a tale I'm certain you'd have no trouble constructing with or without researching the history of that institution.

There were numerous institutions all under the "State Hospital" umbrella which doled out psychiatric medication and some therapy to people who were mentally impaired or damaged in addition to warehousing those who were phyically impaired or damaged, and those who today would fall into the category of "mentally challenged". There was a sad and steady stream of individuals who passed through such institution halls destined to become a mere "M" or "F" with a corresponding number.

I find the pet cemetary with "named" markers inexorably sad compared with the human souls laid to "rest" in adjoining plots.

This is a story you need to tell, whether it's truth or fiction. There will be no shortage of readers between those with actual memories of such places, be they previous staff, family members of patients or past patients, and those who have "heard" of such institutions, "toured" them, or read of them. I'm fairly certain you'd have no problem finding such individuals to interview.

You couldn't invent a better ending; a "big box" store, considered by many to be a blight of modern merchandising sitting on what was the location of real and imagined horrors suffered by countless people placed there "for their own good" and the "safety" of society. I'll bet there's a story to be found just in the title searches of the property. Someone owned the property before it was taken over by the state, and somewhere there's a list of "Superintendants" with story lines to go with it.

Lots of story lines to be developed about Dixmont, true and horrific or fictionalized, creepy and horrific. I'd love to see what you could do with it.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Plenty of places remain in operation to which you may be whisked away. Stay ever vigilant, my friend.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


I'm glad you enjoyed my post, and feel flattered that you would want me to write a book. However, the logistic obstacles are so formidable that I believe I'd need a long sabbatical to do the job the way it deserves to be done. I wanted to make sure I tempered my criticism of Guerrero's documentary because I do realize the immensity of the task she took on. I definitely respect her efforts.

10:35 PM  
Anonymous DeeA2Z said...

Which is why I will most likely not write a book. I like to think about writing a book, but am so very undisciplined! (Maybe that's why I respond to blogs)

6:47 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

At least you are engaging regularly in reading and writing of some form. I'll speculate that the majority of Americans don't do either.

10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently began a genealogy of my father's side of the family. He never spoke of father or mother or any history in re:to family. It's taken a great deal of time but found out through census that my great grandfather was a resident there for sometime prior to being sent to an Almshouse in Greene County. Since finding actual name of Dixmont I have studied and gathered a great deal of info. Being a nurse as well as pt. with history of depression myself it shows to me changes that have taken place over the years which are much more humane in nature in comparison to all I have read about Dixmont Hospital. Since all this info has become available I must admit it leaves a hole in my heart for the Great-grandfather I never met. Thanks for your info.

Great-grand daughter.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

To great-grand daughter,

While it must be painful to learn what your ancestor went through, I think at some level that information must bring you closer to him. I'm glad that you had the chance to read my post, and that you commented on it. Thank you for doing so.

6:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always been told the reason they use numbers instead of names was to protect the families of the patients.

Mental illness wasn't something you talked about years ago, places like Dixmont were used to hide away a family member who had problems.

The hospital employees obiously knew the names of those who died, but used numbers (which tied them to their records) so no one else could read the names of who was buried there.

I remember reading a few yrs ago when this whole Wal Mart plan started that they weren't allowed to disturb the cemetery. I wonder what will become of it. A company as wealthy as Wal Mart should at least keep it maintained out of respect...hopefully it won't just be left to grow over and fade away.

8:17 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Your theory very well may be true. If it is- I would have to say that the policy was foundeed on some very dubious priorities. I guess there was a lot of stigma directed toward those with mental illness. If the old records are still available somewhere, it would be nice to see a plaque erected with the corresponding names of the deceased. Walmart should have to pay for it, too. Actually, it's not even quite certain that construction can take place on the site, due to a recent landslide that blocked a major highway.

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there are some geneology sites where they do post info on the numbered graves. I don't know if Dixmont is included. It takes a lot of research to connect names to the graves, especially considering the fact that most records were just left behind in the buildings when they closed.

1:47 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

It won't be too long before anyone that ever actually spent time at these facilities have passed away.

I wonder if any county agencies would have received copies of that information.

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in the year 2000 I was working with a private company on a Culture Resource Management project for the proposed Wal-Mart. A part of what we were doing there was an archaeological excavation in the court yard in front of the Kirkbride BLDG. The court yard was used as a "tent city" for injured Union Soldiers during the later stages of the Civil War. I know there exists a grainy photo of this event, showing the Kirkbride BLDG and construction of the West wing. This is actually the first use of Dixmont Hospital. While there another part of what we were doing was a Architecture History of the original Kirkbride BLDG. We had to go inside the BLDG to photo document the place. While inside we heard several slams, crashes and bangs. But the BLDG was in a natural state of collapse. On a Monday, when we returned to work after the weekend. We discovered a black lab dog that was butchered with satanic type pentagrams spray painted on nearby walls. I assumed at the time that this was the work of teenagers, but later learned that people of Satan actually look for places like Dixmont to worship satan. CRAZY! The dog was removed and the satanic vandalism was washed within hours.But everyday during the project we had to kick off teenagers on site. Interesting because we had HazMat gear on because it was one of the most asbestos contaminated places in Pennsylvania. I am able to handle the eerie BLDG, the posibility of the spirits of the Civil War Soldiers and tormented souls of the insane. But the Asbestos contamination was what worried me the most. I didn't have any ghost experiences, but I had a HazMat mask and therefore not impaired by asbestos. I still think it's haunted and needed to be demolished. I think it should have been demolished because of the Asbestos contamination alone. Although it would have been interesting for ghost hunters. A place like Dixmont is no doubt haunted. But, I dont think people understand the dangers of Asbestos, especially airborne particle. Airborne particles of Asbestos are very dangerous to the lungs. Asbestos was used as installation. They understood the dangers of asbestos back in history, but they assumed it was OK because it was installation and therefore inside the walls. At Dixmont the Asbestos was literally raining on you because of the BLDG's state of decay. When I was there I was protected with a mask and I was recieving HazMat pay while I was on the project. I would never ever go inside that BLDG again after what I know about the Absbestos contamination. Just thought I share that.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks for sharing your experiences. What you've written about asbestos should serve as a significant warning to anybody interesting in exploring old, abandoned and deteriorating buildings. It's something most folks don't even consider.

10:31 PM  

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