Asylum

Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane

In 1928, the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane changed its name to the Central State Hospital

They say there are secret cemeteries beneath the sprawling grounds of the Central State Hospital. They say bodies and pieces of bodies were dumped in trenches after being taken apart in the laboratory. It takes three people to perform an autopsy: someone to do the cutting, another to weigh the organs, and a third to record the results. Blood and other fluids drained through the tiled floor and ran beneath one hundred acres of landscaped gardens before spilling into the White River.

Copper has anti-bacterial properties. Northern light is the best for viewing bacteria through a microscope. There’s much to learn at the little museum in the old pathology building at the defunct hospital. Tumors, trauma, and congenital defects. Degenerative disease and inflammation. Next to a yellowing brain in a jar, a card says, “Patient never displayed peculiar behavior until he was wounded in the head during the Spanish-American war. He became childish but was able to work as a farmer until the age of seventy when he turned violent and institutional supervision became necessary.” Bottles of sulfate of ammonia, benzoic acid, smelling salts, and ‘chemicals’ line the dark wood shelves. Hanging from the walls are dozens of sepia portraits of stern men with beakers and skeletons in the background.

“The patients lived in dark inhuman conditions and spent most of their time in restraints, often manacled to the basement walls. ‘Retraining practices’ were barbaric. Inmates who never stopped screaming were ‘warehoused’ and you can still hear their screams in the tunnels and basements today. This facility is haunted.”

After decades of dithering about what to do with the mentally ill, Indiana opened the Central State Hospital for the Insane in 1848. Forty years later, it nixed ‘for the insane’ from its title and became known simply as ‘Central State’ or more often, ‘the asylum’. The 160-acre facility included massive dormitories, a pathological laboratory, a ‘sick hospital’ for the treatment of physical ailments, a farm and cannery where patients engaged in occupational therapy, an amusement hall with an auditorium, billiards, and bowling alley, a bakery, a church, a firehouse, and sprawling gardens with marble fountains and statuary.

 

At the Indiana Medical History Museum.

Autopsy laboratory

Determined to uncover the physical cause of insanity, the doctors at Central State Hospital diligently dissected the bodies of their patients as well as any other corpses they could find, extracting spinal fluid and feeding brains through a steel machine that looked like a deli meat slicer. Bodies were scarce during an age when most people believed autopsies were a sacrilegious desecration and newspapers published hysterical headlines about ‘grave-robbing physicians’. To obtain more corpses, Central State Hospital offered free funerals following the autopsy, and the bodies were stored in a shack behind the laboratory called the ‘dead house’.

Although the intentions of the doctors were noble and even progressive for its time, the hospital was plagued by rumors of cruel treatment of the patients who were still alive. In 1870, the Governor of Indiana received a letter from a doctor who visited the facility. “The basement dungeons are dark, humid and foul,” he wrote. “They are unfit for life of any kind, filled with maniacs who raved and howled like tortured beasts for want of light and air and food and ordinary human associations and habiliments.” Lobotomies were commonplace and patients suffering from depression were thrown into ice cold baths.

“Under a grove of trees, a patient stoned another patient to death. Each night you can hear the cries and groans of the dying man coming from this area.”

By 1930, the hospital held over five thousand patients, many of whom were kept in the five mile network of tunnels that ran beneath the buildings. Some of the patients disappeared down there. There’s the story of Alvin, a patient who went missing. Shortly after the police recovered his body, a nurse discovered that a female patient was sneaking into the tunnels at night to talk with her friend, a ghost named Al. Another hospital worker heard shrieks coming from a dirt-floor room where chains and hand restraints were swinging from the walls. A nurse reported seeing a ghost dressed in a bathrobe running down the hall of the woman’s dormitory. They say you can still sometimes see robed figures running across the midnight grass, attempting to escape.

 

Abandoned power station at the Central State Hospital for the Insane.

The abandoned power station at the Central State Hospital

Twice a night, maintenance workers followed the concrete stairs down into the basement of the power station to shovel out the ashes and tend to the boiler. They always went in pairs. No man would go down there alone because strange things happened. Lights flickered and cold breezes blew. The coal’s conveyor belt turned itself on and off. They often heard the shrieks of a woman or saw large shadows flitting among the cement posts. One night an employee fell asleep in the basement and a pair of ice cold hands began to choke him around the neck. He broke the grasp and flipped on the lights but nobody was there. Deep red marks ringed his neck and did not disappear for several months. In 1994, the hospital closed its doors.

“I didn’t believe in ghosts until I went to Central State one night. Just outside the power station I heard loud crying and horrible moaning, and I saw bright white lights with crying faces. I’ll never be the same after that night.”

Today the grand old power station is a shambles inside. A basketball hoop sits tipped on its side, surrounded by exploded sofas, fan blades, makeshift tables, and a smashed toilet. Towers of rusted paint cans line the walls. You can still see the old gauges measuring the boiler pressure with elegant hand-painted labels that say ‘Turbine No. 3′ and ‘Sick Hospital’. A crumpled tin sign bolted to a post says ‘No Parking Any Time’.

 

The old dining hall at the Central State Hospital for the Insane.

The old dining hall

Central State Hospital was based on the Kirkbride Plan, a mid-19th century ‘building-as-cure’ philosophy developed by Thomas Story Kirkbride, who believed that ornamental Victorian buildings surrounded by landscaped gardens and extensive farmland provided “a special apparatus for the care of lunacy.” Kirkbride’s sprawling facilities soon became too expensive to maintain, and his approach was abandoned in favor of new advances in medicine, such as lobotomies and electroshock therapy. Several Kirkbride asylums still stand today, although most are shuttered and vandalized.

Today the cutting edge of psychiatry sits across town at the Eli Lilly headquarters where they manufacture anti-depressants and other mood stabilizing pills. Who knows what kind of ghosts and rumors will circulate around pharmaceutical companies one hundred years from now. Will today’s culture of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors and benzodiazepines someday be considered primitive and cruel?

“This is the darkest place in the world. No matter how many lights are used, the area remains dark and heavy. This is the natural result of the hundreds of deaths here, combined with so much psychic pain and suffering.”

Perhaps the Central State Hospital is haunted. One thing is certain: the elegantly tiled floors, vaulted ceilings, stone scrollwork, and cast iron parapets will give you chills. In March 2003, Indianapolis purchased the hospital from the state for $400,000. Ten years later, the grand old buildings continue to sit empty, collecting busted liquor bottles and cigarette butts from drunken teenagers and homeless people taking shelter for the night. And they say if you listen carefully, you can still hear the footsteps of a ghost pacing the floors of the administration building, going about his business of running the hospital.

Sources, further reading, and special thanks: More Photos from the Bureau; Kipp Normand; Central State Hospital; the ghosts of Central State Hospital; Haunted Houses; Haunted Indiana 3 by Mark Meriman; the Kirkbride Plan; and the several citizens of Indianapolis who told me the place is haunted.