Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Tales From a Great Indoorsman

This week, J.S. Bankston draws inspiration from Marty McFriend.


Every two weeks I churn out a local history column for a small freebie paper here. I am not paid for this–I just do it to keep my clips current in hopes that one day I’ll find someone willing again to pay me for my work. (Lately my columns have become such behemoths that they’ve had to be published in two successive issues.)

I’m always fishing around for new ideas of things to write about, and actually
NotJackKerouac helped me come up with my next column idea, in a round-about way. I was checking out some of the site’s links, and was reading Le Monde De Martin, when I learned about Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, and how it’s been threatened by the wrecking ball, though the main building may be converted into condominiums. This got me thinking about the creepy old main building at our own Austin State Hospital, formerly known as the "State Lunatic Asylum."

I have a few connections to the place. A great-uncle worked there in the 1920s and the patients, like so many monkeys at the zoo, threw their feces at him. (Of course, had he been any true uncle of mine he would’ve thrown his own feces back at them.)

One of my college roomies, a rich neo-Nazi, said his mother used to work there, and she claimed there were wards full of people with horrific deformities–cyclopes and such-like.

And my last ever room-mate was this freak from New Jersey. I’d roll in from work around 5:30 or 6am to find him passed out on top of his bedspread, lamp on, glasses on, boxers bunched around his ankles, with a tube sock on his semi-tumescent penis. A few months after we went our separate ways, he wound up in the State Hospital, though sadly I cannot take credit for driving him there. I will say when I ran into him again in public a few years later I made a distinct point of not shaking his hand.

So anyway I talked to several women from the Hospital on the phone about coming down for a tour some time in the next few weeks, and they sounded thrilled at the idea of free, positive publicity. But Wendy, the lady in charge of community relations, was about to go on vacation, and so my tour got pushed up.

A friend drove me to the hospital. As we went through the gate and up the drive I assured him, "One day, not too long from now, you’ll be taking me on this drive for good!"

My appointment was at 9:30am, which is normally about three hours into my sleep cycle. I arrived at 9am, and took my time walking around the main building, taking pictures of the exterior.

The structure was built of stone, in a sort of frontier Italianate style, with three stories and a full above-ground basement, and two cupolas. The main block was constructed between 1857 and 1860, and other wings were added later in the 19th century. (If you ever diagrammed sentences in school, you’ll have a general idea of what the floor plan was like.) It is the third-oldest public building in Texas, and it’s falling to pieces.

Some of the windows were broken, with rotting frames, and were patched with weathered pieces of plywood. There were a couple rusty fire escapes hanging off the walls that led to locked cages on the ground level. The walls and windows are grey and seem to have embedded in them the black sludge of decades of very bad juju.

Wendy was a little late, so I waited up on the front portico, which was a fairly new addition, having been built only in 1903. Parts of it were rotting and parts that had clearly become hazardous had been recently repaired, but only in the most bare-bones manner. I was soon to see that the people who worked in the building had effected such improvements as they could, but they had little money for such things, and it was not uncommon to see a gleaming, freshly painted section, and then turn a corner and see lead-based paint chipping off the ceiling or part of a plaster wall crumbling down into a pile on the floor.

The first and second floors have offices, but the hallways are lined with memorabilia: photos of staff, patients, and buildings now burned down or demolished, old lab equipment, three cases of autopsy instruments, including old bone saws and a razor strop. I saw an old straight jacket in just my size! It’s a damn shame I can’t wear white after Labor Day, though.

I was shown a musty basement (also filled with offices), but the old lab in the back wing had been condemned due to all the formaldehyde in the air. The old morgue was also inaccessible, but I saw a tantalizing glimpse through a little window.

There was a detour to a nearby hospital building that was a jewel of 1950s modernism. Here was the only place I saw patients. I wasn’t allowed to photograph them, as it was a violation of their rights.

I was taken to the third floor of the main building. If you saw the film "Secondhand Lions," this was where they filmed the hospital scenes with Robert Duvall. (Other films, including "Courage Under Fire," have had scenes filmed in the building.)

The third floor is closed to the public and is considered a safety hazard. Some of the ceilings have collapsed and others are barely being held into place with make-shift lumber supports. The third floor is supposedly haunted, but Wendy didn’t specify other than to say that staffers have seen things there that they had no rational explanations for.

It was also on the third floor that I took my "money shot": a photo of a long, abandoned corridor, lit only by a large window at the far end–the very picture we all imagine of the desolate, forbidding, spooky pathways of the disturbed human mind.

Then I was taken to the attic. In the concrete stairwell was graffiti dating back a century: "M.H. 1907," "Henry Krause state carpenter May 14–1917 quit 1918 I came to work here July 1–190_," and "James L. Newton Nov. 15. 1916. Steaple (sic) Jack Painter Amear (sic) Thousand Mile Jack. Lost In Texas Some Where."

There was no way in hell I was going to set foot out in that attic proper. That place scared the piss out of me. At best, the floor would’ve given way underneath me. At worst, a miscellany of creatures from Lovecraft’s bestiary would've leaped on me from the shadows.

Wendy pointed out that the TSH’s Administrator is named, appropriately enough, Dr. Carl Schock. I told her about the urban legend that’s been knocking around in Texas news circles for years: that JFK wasn’t killed in Dallas, but was only seriously injured. After major plastic surgery, he was put in a private wing of the State Hospital, and staffers are told only that he is a member of a wealthy and prominent family. And of course, no one listens to him when he claims he’s President of the United States, because many people in mental hospitals suffer from delusions of grandeur.

Wendy howled at that and said she’d never heard that one before. Of course, if I should suddenly stop blogging and disappear without a trace, you’ll know the Feds didn’t think my story so funny.

One of the last things I looked at were panoramic photos of the staff, taken in the 1930s and 1940s in front of the m
ain building. The men all wear white jackets and bow ties, the nurses have crisp uniforms.

Everything is clean, proper, and orderly. (Although in one photo you can see off in the distance patients standing outside on the sleeping porches—Wendy told me that despite the soundproofing used in the walls–layers of dirt—just like at the Dakota apartments in New York–residents of the nearby chi-chi neighborhood of Hyde Park often heard patients howling and screaming throughout the night.)

But one photo keeps drawing me back. The glare from the picture frame prevented my photo from being as sharp as I would’ve liked it to have been.

The staff is arrayed there in front of the building, some even on the front steps and portico. But there under the porch, in the shadows by the basement windows, is an older man wearing a fedora and dark work clothes. A patient? A groundskeeper? A prototype to Freddy Krueger, the "son of a hundred maniacs"? And what’s that he has in his hand?

My friend James saw my photograph of the photograph and got spooked too. He said he’s always looked at old pictures very closely, ever since he saw the end of "The Shining," where Jack Nicholson appears in a group photo taken at a New Year’s party at the Overlook Hotel back in the 1920s.


At 10:01 AM, Blogger Satisfied '75 said...

YOU'VE GOT TO POST THAT PHOTO!!! I'm thoroughly intrigued.

At 10:09 AM, Blogger TripleJ said...

For fans of Bankston, I have posted the photo.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous JJones said...

Reminds me very much of an old abandonded hospital near my home town. It was just a concrete shell of it's former self. No windows and hardly any interior walls left standing or ceiling remaining. It looked very much like those bombed out buildings in London during WWII.

Very creepy and said to be haunted. The most persistant story was of the ghost of a former patient that wanders the grounds at night.

And of course we would take freshman up there, tell them the story and then pretend to leave them there to watch for the ghost.

Good times!

At 11:58 AM, Blogger jsbankston said...

When I was in school in Huntsville, Texas, we'd take freshmen on the cemetery tour, first to the old Victorian cemetery near downtown, then the prison cemtery, then finally we'd drive them out to the country to "Demon Road," a remote area lined with spooky little cemeteries and (supposedly) the farms of Satan worshippers.

At 12:29 PM, Blogger tj1972 said...

Another great story, Bankston.

So glad I wasn't a freshman at either of your schools!

At 1:07 PM, Blogger sasefina said...

Wow, that's fucking creepy. The man looks like he's holding something he would like to bludgeon people with.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Okay, anal fact-checking police here. I looked up that photo from "The Shining" and it was labeled "July 4th Ball," which only makes sense, since the hotel wasn't open in the winter and so wouldn't have had a New Year's Eve party. Mea culpa.

I've tried to do close-ups of that old man, and whatever he's holding seems to be 1 1/2 to 2 feet long. A plane maybe? The infamous "blunt object"? There's several other photos like that from other years, with the nurses all standing in "right-face," and one with, as I said, patients out on the sleeping porches in the distance.

To one side of that building were two huge French Renaissance Revival dorms, one for men and one for women, but they were torn down decades ago. Blacks were in segregated buildings. And some of the basement rooms looked like dungeons.

I'm still waiting for content from my visit to really start seeping into my dream life.

I bought a definitive history of the hospital and read about all the ways patients committed suicide, especially jumping through the windows or banging their heads against the walls.

The grounds used to laid out with Japanese gardens and ponds, but too many of the patients were hiding and doing the nasty, so the Superintendant ordered bushes cut down and the ponds drained, so the patients started doing it in the culverts.

And despite the taboo in the old days against the mentally ill, apparently the locals used to come picnic on the grounds. In the last decade it was decided the hospital had more land than it needed, so a new fence was put up and some of the excess land was used for fancy condos and a gourmet grocery store. And a new pond was put in.

I've yet to get lucky in any of the culverts, though.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

He also seems to have a suitcase or toolbox or something beside him and an empty chair in front.

At 6:05 PM, Blogger Satisfied '75 said...

an apparition no doubt. a spektor. wraith. phantasma proper.

At 6:32 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Possibly a "free-floating, full-torso, vaporous apparition."

At 7:44 PM, Blogger tj1972 said...

"Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together ... mass hysteria."

Starting to find this picture of Bjork to be oddly disturbing. Perhaps it's just the proximity to Bankston's story, but there's something eerie about her stare. I can see this little girl wondering the hallways of the haunted insane asylum.

At 7:59 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Well, if you really wanna draw those two strands together, you should see the home-made video footage of a Bjork stalker from a few years back. He became more and more crazed, then really flipped out when he heard she had become involved with a black guy. I think he mailed her a bomb (which was intercepted), then in his final video he shaved his head and blew his brains out. It was very, very creepy.

At 9:11 PM, Anonymous JJones said...

"I make it a rule never to get involved with possessed people."

And I agree with tj1972, the pic of Bjork is now a bit creepy. Just imagine her at the end of the long hallway in The Shining.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Martin McFriend said...

"At worst, a miscellany of creatures from Lovecraft’s bestiary would've leaped on me from the shadows."

Nice work, Bankston. Btw, it's clear who the man in the picture is. Obviously, none other than Roland Deschain of Gilead, brought forth from a door in End-World.

At 6:57 PM, Blogger Satisfied '75 said...

"Hail Gunlinger, Hail Father..."

Nice call Marty.

PS - Agreed, said photo of Bjork must be destroyed ASAP.


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