This next spot I found to be amazing. Of course, it has the awesome autopsy theater, but it also has so much rich history that I find so fascinating, and I hope you will too. It was the first and only federal run mental hospital and it came about thanks to the help of Dorothea Dix. After visiting almshouses and prisons in the country and not liking what she saw, she became an advocate for mental healthcare in the U.S. and later went on to become the Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War. In 1852 she wrote legislation that granted money from the federal government to construct a hospital to care for mentally ill residents along with the mentally ill of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy. The vision was to provide humane and caring treatment to patients which would, in turn, help them recover from their afflictions.
The first year the hospital only had 63 patients, but it would rapidly expand. Things really picked up during the Civil War when parts of the hospital were set aside to care for wounded soldiers. The hospital became a leader in science at the time, being one of the first to use hydrotherapy as a treatment for mental illness. A nursing school also opened at the facility in 1894 and the facility continued to climb their way to the top.
However, abuse was reported early. The hospital accepted veterans, paupers, and pay patients. An 1876 article alleges that veterans and pauper patients were being abused and neglected, while patients who were paying were treated fairly and kept in fit quarters. The hospital would go on to become associated with some infamous things.
Fast forward to 1924 and it was here that the inventor of the transorbital lobotomy, Dr. Walter Freeman, started his career. The grandson of a famed Civil War brain surgeon was at first “disgusted” by the patients at the hospital. “[They inspire] a weird mixture of fear, disgust, and shame,” He wrote. “The slouching figures, the vacant stare or averted eyes, the shabby clothing and footwear, the general untidiness—it all aroused rejection rather than sympathy or interest.” But soon Freeman set out to find out what was causing these ailments, as the treatments at the time were not effective and he believed there was an underlying physical cause.
Freeman performed autopsies at the basement morgue of the hospital. He studied the cadavers of the mentally ill looking for that physical cause. In just one study, he examined the 1,500 cadavers of schizophrenic patients. He had access to many test subjects due to the amount of institutionalization at the time. Freeman sometimes had an audience, he was also a professor at a nearby University and on Saturday mornings his students would come watch him dissect, measure and study corpses, even being called on by Freeman to assist.
He left the hospital during the Great Depression due to his private practice taking off, and he was also worried about how others in the community perceived him as the hospital was suffering financially at the time. He went on to team up with a neurosurgeon to perform their own version of new brain surgery, calling it a lobotomy.
One of their patients, or victims you could say, was Rosemary Kennedy who was also a patient of this hospital. Sister of President John F. Kennedy, Rosemary had a birth injury that caused developmental delay. Some say her Father consented to the procedure without her Mother’s approval, and it reduced her from a mildly disabled woman to the mentality of a child who could not care for herself. She couldn’t speak more than a few words and had to learn to walk all over again. She spent the rest of her life in a facility essentially hidden and abandoned by her family until she passed away.
After assisting with over 200 lobotomies, Freeman wanted to find a better way. He could not perform the lobotomies himself, as he was not a surgeon, so he coined a new technique that he felt he could perform. It was an outpatient procedure that only took 10 minutes. The prefrontal lobotomy was performed using an ice pick, it was inserted into the corner of the eye socket and used to sever connections of the thalamus and prefrontal lobe of the brain.
He would first use an electric shock to induce a seizure in his patient. He would then insert the ice pick, the first one being from his own kitchen, without gloves, mask, or anesthetic. After having the ice pick break on multiple occasions, he had a tool fashioned, called an orbitoclast, to perform the lobotomies.
The procedure became very popular and Freeman went on tour across the country performing them for an audience. In 1951 he lost a patient because he stopped the procedure to pose for a photo, and accidentally inserted the orbitoclast too far into the patient's brain. Doctors of this hospital, however, did not condone this procedure, unless it was an extreme and rare case. Very few transorbital lobotomies were performed here, but Freeman performed over 3,000 in the United States.
Another interesting piece of history that took place at this hospital was MK Ultra and Truth Serum experiments, so everyone put your tin foil hats on, please! During World War II the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, which later became the CIA) appointed Dr. Winfred Overholser, superintendent of the hospital at the time, as the overhead of the committee for the truth serum. They were looking for a chemical that could be given to a subject that would force them to tell the truth. Patients at the hospital were given mescaline, scopolamine, barbiturates, and THC without their knowledge, to see if they could be used as truth serums. These same tests were being done by Nazi physicians in Germany. All of these tests were unsuccessful and no truth serum was ever discovered.
It is also reported that Dr. Overholser was involved with Operation Paperclip, Project Chatter and Project MK Ultra. It’s also said he was a Master Mason of the Scottish Rite, who helped fund these experiments. The facts, though, are that the goal was to find ways to control the minds of others. Other countries were reportedly experimenting with mind control tactics, so the U.S. had to join in. It began in 1953 and was said to be ended in 1973, but some say it still continues today. This hospital was one of the locations the CIA used for their experiments. I couldn’t find any information on what specific experiments were performed here or who was involved. MK Ultra Experiments included using hypnosis and LSD to attempt to control a subject's mind. Sometimes these subjects were not aware of the experiments and did not consent. Subjects ranged from mental patients to military personnel, to volunteers. This hospital would’ve been the perfect place to conduct such experiments as there were plenty of patients.
Owsley Stanley was also a patient here as a teenager, he went on to become the soundman for the Grateful Dead and mass producer of LSD in California and Colorado. It is reported that he was a victim of these experiments, but that’s not a fact.
Some other notable patients of this hospital were Richard Lawrence, John Hinckley Jr., and Charles J. Guiteau, who all attempted presidential assassinations. Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Regan in 1981, stating in a letter he did it to impress actress Jodie Foster who he was obsessed with after seeing her 1976 film Taxi Driver, which just for reference, Jodie was 12 in the movie. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was sent to live at this hospital where he corresponded with Ted Bundy and Charles Manson via mail. Hinckley was released in September 2016 and went to live with his 90-year-old mother, but in 2018 he was told he is now allowed to live on his own. His risk assessment that was supposed to be done within 18 months of his release has still not yet been completed.
In the late 1800s, animals were temporarily housed here while the National Zoo was being built. In 1980 Cuban refugees who were housed here actually took control of a building for 6 hours. No injuries were reported as a result. In 1972 Karlyn Baker of the Washington Post checked herself involuntarily in order to get a look at the care being provided to patients. Her report was not good, she called her stay “depressing and boring”.
In the 1950s a decline in institutionalization began, and in 1996 there were only 850 patients remained, compared to 8,000 at the hospitals fullest. In 2002 all patients were moved out of the western side of the campus. A new hospital was built next to the east end of the campus and opened in 2010 and is still in use today, and the Department of Homeland Security uses some of the west side. The rest of the hospital sits empty and decaying.
The campus spans 300 acres, and I definitely didn’t even make a dent in it on my first trip. Luckily the main event was accessible and I was able to see it, along with some other interesting areas of the building. I definitely want to return and see what else there is to be seen.
Originally posted 02/10/2019
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