Image Description: Deteriorating white sign surrounded by trees. The sign reads Dixmont State Hospital Cemetery. The letters N, S, A, and M have fallen off the sign.
By: L. Harris
I’ve always been deeply interested in asylum demolitions and the politics that inevitably surround them. This curiosity is not academic or theoretical. It comes from my own experiences with institutionalization, as well as my mother’s. She was incarcerated dozens of times over the course of her life in asylums old and new, a slow murder which resulted in her death 25 years ago at age 46. For most of my life I have been fighting for a world in which no other family has to suffer at the hands of a violent, punitive mental health system.
In these times where more and more people are calling to replace police response to psychiatric crisis with mental health workers, where a new 988 mental health crisis number will replace 911, it feels more important than ever to keep this history alive, so we don’t continue to exchange one punitive and unjust system for another.
I want us to remember these asylums and what happened within their walls, whether they remain standing or whether they are torn down. But more than that, I want them not to be rebuilt, in any form or fashion. As an abolitionist, I dream of a world where we don’t wall off madness, for any length of time, in any sort of place.
Here is the partial story of one demolished asylum.
On July 19, 1859, there was an elaborate ceremony to mark the laying of the foundation stone of Dixmont Hospital in Pittsburgh, on the unceded, ancestral lands of the Adena, the Hopewell, the Monongahela, and the Osage, later followed by the Shawnee, the Mingo, the Lenape (or The Delaware) and others.
The foundation stone included a time capsule in the form of a glass jar containing various objects and a letter from famed reformer Dorothea Dix herself, as well as her 1843 study “Memorial,” documenting the deplorable conditions of incarcerated people in Pennsylvania.
The state hospital closed in 1984. In the late 1980s, authorities wanted to replace it with a county jail. The local community didn’t like that, and the plans were abandoned in 1989. And so the massive Kirkbride facility sat and sat, continuing to crumble and decay.
Tragically typical of the asylum era, on the property there are over 1,300 unmarked graves of those who lived and died in the hospital between 1863-1967. I found some touching stories of family members who searched for the graves of their ancestors there. Candace Buchanan published a moving blog post about her research into the life of her great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Mary (Garber) Staggers, born around 1843, who was declared a “lunatic,” later in life, and died at the state hospital on 15 April 1904. “You are no longer just a question mark,” she wrote, poignantly, to her long-departed relative.
The Stroyne family, who acquired the land on which Dixmont sat for $757,000 in 1999, quickly went about stripping the hospital of “memorabilia” and selling it on Ebay. “I sold a morgue table for a couple hundred dollars to a guy who turned it into a bar,” one of the owners, Tim Stroyne, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
According to the same article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Psychics, B-horror movie filmmakers, ghost-busters were attracted to the place and its network of underground tunnels. The local radio station brought a busload of people to the hospital grounds at midnight on Halloween 2002.
Then, in 2005, a local developer began to demolish the hospital to prepare for a Walmart Supercenter to be built atop the site. At demolition, it was discovered that the glass jar in the time capsule had broken, leaving its contents mostly destroyed.
The land would not cooperate with the developer’s plans. It groaned and resisted the incursion of a Walmart. The initial excavation efforts created chaos, destabilizing the earth below enough to cause landslides that shut down Route 65 and the incapacitated the Pittsburgh Line railroad tracks on the Ohio River side. Luckily, the landslide occurred at night, or many people might have been harmed. Some corners of the Internet surmise that the landslide was supernaturally-caused.
By 2007, Walmart decided not to buy the land after all; prospects in a nearby town looked more promising. The area has been nicknamed “Fall-Mart” by the locals.
Demolition proceeded anyway, due to the poisonous load of asbestos and lead paint accumulated in the bones of the building, as well as the persistent parties and ghost-hunting. The Dixmont hospital site, as well as the cemetery itself, is slowly being reclaimed by blackberry bushes and other things that grow and stretch, blooming towards the sun; and by the creatures of the forest, now making the re-wilded land their new home.
L. Harris, a White, androgynous person with brown and green short hair and wearing a white shirt, with a field of sunflowers behind them.
L. Harris (they/them) is a mad, disabled, non-binary writer and facilitator living on unceded Manahoac lands, in so-called Northern Virginia. Twitter: @leahida