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Taunton State Hospital

Photographing Taunton State Hospital was one of the most difficult and dangerous expeditions in my photography career. Looking back on it now, it seems like it must have been a dream. Something that incredible couldn’t have actually occurred, and yet I have the proof. Much like the asylum itself, it’s hard to fit your mind around the facts, and yet they remain an incontrovertible reality.

I barely knew Ryan, the person who had offered to guide me through Taunton. Years prior, entry to the abandoned section of Taunton State Hospital had been fairly simple – you could essentially walk right in! The five-alarm fire in 2006 that destroyed a large portion of the administrative section of the hospital changed that. The state of Massachusetts built a fifteen foot, climb-proof fence around the perimeter and installed cameras activated by motion sensors. Because some of the other portions of the campus were still active, Department of Mental Health Police regularly patrolled the grounds. They were serious about keeping people out.

When Ryan had agreed to let me accompany him, it had seemed like a grand adventure, but when I arrived at his house at 2 AM so we could be there by 4, it seemed like it had perhaps not been the greatest idea. A group of kids in their late teens arrived from Long Island, none of whom I knew, and I was starting to wonder if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake. The Long Island group was friendly but loud, and seemed like they’d be more of a liability than anything.

Abandoned Taunton State Hospital

When we arrived at the fence, which curved outward at the top to discourage entry, it seemed too high to scale. One gate had slightly better footholds and Ryan and a friend boosted me up. I scrambled frantically for a moment, then was making my way down the other side and into the relative security of a nearby bush before I could even process that it had happened. In a moment the others were over too, and we were running as fast as we could across the grounds for an open door. It was exhilarating but terrifying at the same time.

Ryan took us in through the still-dark wards and a maze of hallways I couldn’t begin to decipher my way through. Soon we were in an attic, heading up a ladder onto the roof. The steep slate didn’t have anywhere near enough traction to feel safe, and it seemed as though the shingles you stood on would crumble beneath your feet. I didn’t want to go onto it but I didn’t want to miss sunrise from the rooftop either, so I continued the pattern of eschewing safety for photographs. We sat at the base of a cupola that had the names of the original builders carved on the wood inside and watched as the sun rose over the charred remains of what had once been the auditorium and cafeteria. There are certain definitive moments whose magic could never be recreated in any medium; that was definitely one of them. It felt like everything I had ever done had happened solely to lead me to that point, but to this day I couldn’t really articulate why.

View from rooftop of a collpased auditorium at Taunton State Hospital

Taunton State Hospital, originally the State Lunatic Hospital at Taunton, was the second such facility in Massachusetts. It was built in 1853 for $151,742.48 to relieve the State Lunatic Hospital at Worchester, which had been built twenty years earlier and was already dangerously overcrowded. Taunton was one of several competing towns vying for the hospital. The 154 acres along the Mill River in Taunton were selected in part because the river acted as a natural barrier separating the asylum from further growth of the town. A prominent New England architect named Elbridge Boyden, who had an extensive track record designing civic structures such as jails, courthouses, post offices, and railroad stations, was selected to design the hospital. It was built in the Georgian style and featured Boyden’s signature use of decorative cast iron in the cornices, capitals, and cupolas, including the one I’d be perched atop a century and a half later.

There would eventually be more than forty buildings that included a bakery, staff dormitories, the chapel, laundry, and theater, the kitchen and dining rooms, parlors, and open-air verandas. The State Lunatic Hospital at Taunton featured such modern amenities as running water, a sewer system, central heat, and a central ventilation system. It was the fifth state hospital to be built on physician Thomas Story Kirkbride’s standardized plan for asylums, in which large wings stretched out from a central administrative structure in a design that was meant to maximize sunlight and fresh air to each ward. The building itself was intended to be curative, and the grounds were to “render it a spot fitted to interest and tranquilize the minds of those who need as well as the soothing influences of external nature as the healing remedies of art.” The dome over the three story administrative building towered 70 feet above the roof and gave a “panoramic view of great beauty, embracing the neighboring town, with its many tokens of busy life, several flourishing villages, the numerous ponds and streams with which the surrounding country abounds, and reaching even to the blue hills of Norfolk Country.” This dome would be one of the first features lost after the hospital’s closure: in 1999 it collapsed under its own weight into the main hospital building, which had at that point been abandoned for nearly a quarter of a century.

When the first patient was admitted on April 7, 1854, the State Lunatic Hospital at Taunton was a progressive facility. While there were ‘strong rooms’ in the basement meant for housing violent patients that were empty but for drains in the floor, those were never used. Most rooms were dormitory style but there were also private rooms. Residents were considered ‘patients’, not ‘inmates’. In many ways it was a time of great optimism. Reformer Dorothea Dix was travelling across the countryside lobbying for construction of asylums to offer a greater standard of care for patients, hoping to keep them from being locked in poorhouses, prisons, and the attics and basements of relatives ill-equipped to deal with their needs. The state hospitals were built with the hope that a better solution for treatment could be found for the mentally ill, and were influenced by the Quakers’ lead of removing the chains from the ill, treating them with conversation and compassion, and allowing them to work in pastoral settings that it was believed would aid in their recovery.

Taunton State Hospital Curved Walkway

Despite these good intentions, a “lunatic hospital” would probably never have been a place that most people would have wanted to go to. In 1869 a man named David Hurley lost his legs in an attempt to jump from a train that was taking him to Taunton and died a half hour later. While many were treated and discharged, there was always the looming possibility that one could be kept for years or even the remainder of one’s life, and the stigma was severe. Causes for commitment among the hospitals were seemingly arbitrary: promiscuity, senility, being deemed wild and unruly, being an unwanted child/senior, being outspoken or unorthodox in one’s religious/political views, anxiety, depression, not getting along with one’s family, homosexuality, being a woman who was viewed as too assertive, not being enough so as a man, hyperactivity, birth defects, Alzheimer’s, Syphilis, not speaking English, poor social skills, and being isolative or antisocial were all reasons for commitment. People were confined to Taunton for reasons such as “loss of friends”, masturbation, and “loss of interest in housework.” Taunton historian William Hanna also observed that “places like Taunton State became a place for confinement for immigrants who were troublesome, particularly the Irish.” In 1870, Dr. Choate, Taunton’s Superintendant, was noted in newspapers as observing, “the excess of insane women over insane men is becoming more marked. [Dr. Choate] does not attribute it to any greater liability to the disease among women, but to the fact that more lunatic men die. More women sink into hopeless insanity. Men are made insane by physical causes, while women succumb to the subtle moral influences, not easily reached by hospital treatment; not threatening to life, but intractable and not very well understood by the profession.”

While it is easy to highlight instances in the past where beliefs and practices are rendered archaic by today’s standards, records indicate that in the 1800s efforts were made to address overcrowding via expansion and improvement of the campus. In the 1890s the two signature elevated breezeways were built connecting the main hospital to the new east and west infirmary buildings. A 1915 Trustees Report mentions baseball games, picnics, book donation programs, lectures, dances, and “other entertainments,” and a sincere attempt to welcome journalists and the general community into the buildings “in order that they might carry away and convey to the public individual opinions formed after inspection which would be likely to do away with the old-time prejudices.” The report also mentions “patients have made 2,054 articles exclusive of surgical dressings – of which many more have been made – for the relief of war sufferers in Europe.”

While some of the causes for commitment would seem at best quaint and at worst terribly misguided by present mores, there were certainly patients worthy of it. 23-year-old W. H. Pray was one such patient, whose commitment for murdering a three-year-old child because “he liked to go to funerals, and because the victim’s elder brother had tormented him” was mentioned in a newspaper item titled “Peculiar Freak of an Insane Man.” Several high profile murderers wound up at Taunton. The most famous was Jane Toppan, a nurse who poisoned at least 31 people with morphine and strychnine and is suspected of having murdered up to 70 more. Toppan’s ambition “to have killed more people — helpless people — than any other man or woman who ever lived” was thwarted by her commitment to Taunton State Hospital, where she remained until she died in 1936 at the age of 81. Lizzie Borden is also reputed to have stayed there, but there is no evidence to substantiate this, although she was incarcerated in the city of Taunton’s jail. The Borden Colony, a farm operated by Taunton State Hospital, was called Borden State Hospital during the period when it treated shell shocked soldiers during World War I, which may have also contributed to this apparent misconception. Other notable patients include a man who set fire to a tent at the Musical Circus Summer Theatre during a performance in 1961, a 16-year-old boy admitted for examination after beating a 10-year-old newsboy to death with a rock that same year, and Thomas Sumner, a captain famous for discovering the ‘line of position’ (also known as the Sumner Line) in oceanic navigation.

A bench sitting beneath a window in a day room at Taunton State Hospital

After the turn of the 20th century, state hospitals increasingly became warehouses for those viewed as inferior, and the theory of Eugenics wormed its way into the medical and scientific community. The core idea behind Eugenics was that minorities, the poor, criminals, and individuals with mental illness or physical/cognitive disabilities were multiplying at a prodigious rate and passing their defective genes on to their children. It was a cause for much concern among the wealthy white upper class, as studies showed that their caste married later and reproduced less, and this desire to staunch what was perceived to be a swelling tide of undesirables would eventually culminate in Hitler’s Final Solution. The theory of Eugenics was quite popular among the American state hospitals, and led to a shift from treatment of patients to the same sort of destruction by neglect that would later claim the hospital itself after its closure. In 1936 Massachusetts Governor James Curley angrily denounced the unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, and neglect at Taunton. “Some wards I visited were horrible places to put animals in, let alone human beings,” he was quoted as saying. “It has been known for one nightgown to be swapped among three persons during the 24 hours.”

While Eugenics fell sharply from favor after World War II, the overcrowding and poor living conditions at many of the state hospitals did not. Desperate measures to alleviate crowding on the wards and treat illnesses with no known cures included insulin shock treatment, wherein an epileptic fit and subsequent coma were induced by a massive dose of insulin, or hydrotherapy, where a patient was restrained in a tub filled with exceedingly hot or cold water for hours, or even days. Better known treatments included Electroconvulsive Shock Therapy and lobotomies, which involved a rod being inserted through the top of the eye socket to sever the nerve pathways in the prefrontal cortex or simply to scramble the front of the brain. By the time drugs like Thorazine and Haldol were introduced – each with their own nightmarish and permanent side effects – the prevailing winds had shifted. After a horrific botched lobotomy on his sister Rosemary that obliterated her ability to function, John F. Kennedy passed the Community Mental Health Centers Act, which pushed for deinstitutionalization and community care.

Combined with drug-based treatments, deinstitutionalization dramatically reduced the populations at state hospitals, but closures were handled clumsily. In 1975, Taunton’s Assistant Superintendant Paul F. Fletcher resigned along with two other doctors, charging that “Hospital care has been deteriorating for two or three years and some parts of the hospital have already reached the snake pit stage.” The main hospital building was closed that same year. Several outbuildings remain active to this day, including the East Infirmary, two youth service units, two adolescent wards operated by the Department of Youth Services, and wards operated by Taunton State Hospital for long-term care and forensic evaluation.

The main hospital building and West Infirmary were abandoned, and despite being added to the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district in 1994, they were allowed to deteriorate with little effort made to maintain them. In 2012 the Governor announced the remaining buildings would close, a move that was met with fierce resistance from groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts. This was a dramatic reversal from the sentiment of one mental health advocate I had met with in the area in 2007, who told me he couldn’t wait until every last state hospital was torn down. As of 2015, it seems like the battle to keep the rest of the facility open has been won – at least for the moment.

A wooden bowling game left behind in one of Taunton's abandoned wards
When I visited Taunton a little over thirty years after the main hospital’s closure, it had been abandoned for my entire life. The fire had already claimed much of the central administration building, but what was left was truly sublime. Fragments of life on the wards proved without a shadow of a doubt that Taunton State Hospital’s past was no fiction and the lives that had passed through its halls were so much more than mere legends. A space thousands of people had once lived and worked in was only occupied by half a dozen that day, people crazy enough to sneak into the building whereas in the past those confined inside had attempted to sneak out. It was chilling – not because of the lurid specters found in ghost stories, but because this magnificent beast of a hospital, the generations of people who had made it what it was, and the very philosophy of care that defined it were shadows now rapidly approaching oblivion. You could feel it in the areas where the floor was sagging back to the earth, in the odd paradox of gaping holes where once people had stood. Taunton’s present was an odd tug-of-war between everything it once had been, and the nothingness it was becoming.

The Long Island group turned out to be much nicer and more adept at photography than I initially gave them credit for. I don’t know what drove them to drive all night to come there. While I wondered about it all day, I never really thought to ask. Maybe I liked not knowing. They all seemed so alive, so content, that perhaps examining the reason would have spoiled it. Our paths crossed at intersecting hallways, and before long they, too, vanished into the void of all things that have passed – another unsolved mystery in a decaying vault full of them.

A collapsed floor inside Taunton
Shortly before the end of the day, there was a flurry of activity. I didn’t really know what happened (someone had seen a police officer just on the other side of a window?), but suddenly we were all running after Ryan, deeper through the guts of the building and into the basement, past old wheelchairs and pipes, until we reached a tunnel so small that you couldn’t even stand up in it. We stayed there for what seemed like forever, while Ryan alternately looked out of a grate above us to see if we were safe and angrily shushed the one noisy Long Island kid who managed to keep up. We didn’t know if they’d seen us, if they were chasing us, if they’d caught anyone. It grew terribly painful to hunch there with a heavy bag of camera equipment but finally Ryan decided it was safe to leave. We navigated our way to a doorway, ran as fast as we could to the fence, and clambered over. It was a tremendous relief to be back in a place where we wouldn’t be arrested just for being there.

It’s easy to only focus on the sadness inherent in the wreckage of a place like Taunton State Hospital. When you know the misery in the history of an asylum, and you see only the ruins of what it once was, you sometimes become blinded by the macabre and morose, by thwarted hopes and unchecked corruption. There was something else that lived there, though – something in the brilliant green ivy that worked its way into cracks the way lovers’ fingers entwine, in the softness of the wind or the stillness of untouched afternoon sunlight, or in the way gravity welcomes the falling rafters back to earth. Taunton State Hospital had such beauty – in the sincerely charitable ambitions that built it, in the graceful forms of the architect’s true design, in the hopes of those who believed it could bring a cure for mental illness, and in those who were confined there who stole friendship and dignity from disgrace and neglect. If you can’t see these things, there’s no purpose to trying to preserve a piece of Taunton. Perhaps it was best stated by Taunton State Hospital’s own Superintendant, Arthur V. Goss, in concluding the 1915 Trustees Report: “In spite of discouragements and failures, of difficulties, perplexities and ever increasing complications are we not each and all conscious of progress, and shall we not turn our faces resolutely forward and with renewed energy take up the mighty task before us?” When I was there I didn’t hear the screams of anguish of those who had been confined there, but the serenity of final release, something that in an abstract and inexplicable way proved beyond a doubt to me that nothing great ever really dies.



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