The Decline of Danvers State Hospital


When I first started writing about asylums and mental health, I was a young teacher working in one of the last remaining residential treatment facilities in Massachusetts. I had no formal training in mental health — I had only my teaching certificate and a desperate need for a job — but I compensated by reading everything I could about treatment models and the evolution of mental healthcare. I also did specific research on the history of the program I was working in. Our school was but a small part of a larger behavioral health network that dated back to the early 1870’s. That network had historical ties to Northampton State Hospital to the north, often shuttling patients back and forth for treatment. Northampton was my introduction to Thomas Kirkbride and his asylums.

By the time I started my research into Kirkbrides, Danvers State Hospital was already well on its way to being demolished, but that didn’t stop me from driving the nearly two hours out to the North Shore of Massachusetts to see the remains of the Castle on the Hill. Nathaniel Bradlee’s hospital was and remains one of the best-known examples of Gothic asylum architecture and has become a fixture in modern pop culture.

Danvers State Hospital

Writing about Danvers was a rather daunting task. Despite having written about and lectured on the history of asylums for more than a decade I had never tackled the individual history of one particular institution. Though I knew that a great number of people held expansive collections of images and ephemera from Danvers, I wondered first how many would be willing to share their collections publicly, and then would others be willing to share their memories with me?

In writing about such a well-known asylum, I wanted, first and foremost, to strike a balance between the image of the snake pit that was most prevalent towards the end, and the years of history that preceded the breakdown of the state hospital system. When Danvers was first opened it was considered a model in the humanistic treatment of the insane, one to be studied by other hospitals. Most of the wards were open wards, meaning patients were rarely locked in, and the hospital’s main intent was to support patients in getting well and returning to their lives outside the hospital’s walls. Patients were provided private rooms with views of the manicured grounds, were well fed on fresh produce and meat that came from the hospital’s own farm and were given opportunities to work and contribute to the daily workings of the asylum.

Great emphasis was placed on occupational therapy, which in the late 19th and early 20th century consisted of both outdoor and indoor recreation. Baseball games, picnics, and organized exercise were common on the grounds while dances, moving picture shows, and concerts were held indoors. Both men and women worked with their hands weaving baskets, sewing, and making brooms and brushes. Though these tasks may seem rudimentary and demeaning today, they gave patients the opportunity to feel useful and connected in a place that might otherwise foster a great deal of isolation.Danvers State Hospital

Danvers also emphasized connection with families and community. Early on, the hospital employed a social worker who was responsible for following patients after they returned to the community, ensuring that they had gainful employment as well as a place to live that was conducive to continued progress in their treatment. Patients and their families regarded a stay at Danvers as a positive, healing experience.

In collecting images for the book, I wanted to showcase first the physical beauty of Danvers State Insane Asylum, and thankfully there exists a rather large archive of early images including glass etchings and original architectural drawings. The sprawling Kirkbride measured in at 313,000 square feet and was nearly 2,000 feet in length. The interior was equally opulent with tin ceilings, decorative plaster walls, and chandeliers. Dahlias, the Victorian symbol for madness, were carved into the mantelpieces and adorned the exterior metal work. Interestingly, the asylum’s first annual report was quick to point out that all the interior walls were rounded at the corners so that patients wouldn’t bump into sharp edges.

Danvers State Hospital

Interior images of the hospital were much harder to find. There are a few in existence, mostly in private collections, the others held by the archives at the Peabody Library (not pictured in the book). They are images of nurses caring for patients who are comfortably situated on clean, bright hospital wards, a far cry from what Danvers would eventually become.

For nearly a century, Danvers was a model asylum that hosted visitors from all over the world, including townspeople, family members, and friends. The formal gardens alone attracted roughly 12,000 visitors annually and those visitors often brought gifts for the patients such as books, magazines, and flowers for the wards. Danvers played host to visiting doctors and specialists, set up community outreach clinics, and established a nursing school.

Danvers State Hospital

These were the halcyon days of the asylum. In spite of brief mentions of overcrowding in early annual reports, Danvers was able to treat patients in relative comfort and, in most cases, discharge them as recovered. The great shift in mental health treatment came with the invention of psychopharmaceuticals, the early “hypnotics.” Though drugs like chloral hydrate, morphine, and opium had been in use for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the advent of modern antipsychotics such as chlorpromazine (Thorazine) “revolutionized” the care of the “mentally ill.”

With the help of this new breed of drug, hospitals were able to admit and manage a greater number of patients. The population at Danvers peaked at nearly 3,000 in the late 1960’s and into the early 1970’s. Patients were regularly treated using not only psychotropic medications but also electroshock therapy, hydrotherapy, and psychosurgery (also known as the prefrontal lobotomy). Asylum populations began to shift dramatically and hospitals moved away from the centralized model, choosing instead to unitize, working with the various regions to provide as much community support as possible.

Eventually reports began to surface of abuse and neglect within the hospital’s walls. Suspicious deaths, patient escapes, and violent assaults were all recorded (though not in as great a number as some might expect). By the late 1980’s the hospital’s main operations were moved from the Kirkbride to the more modern Bonner Building across the way. By the time the remaining hospital buildings were closed down for good in 1992, the buildings had begun to decay and by and large the public was happy that the state hospital was no more. The doors to Bradlee’s architectural masterpiece were locked and the Castle on the Hill was abandoned. The remaining and lasting impression of Danvers State Hospital was that it was a snake pit where the mentally ill went to languish and often die.

Soon after its closure, Danvers State Hospital would become the haunted house on the hill where kids dared one another to sneak in. It fell victim to vandals and arsonists, graffiti artists and scrappers. For many, it was an eyesore that couldn’t be demolished soon enough. For others, it was one of the few remaining bastions of an era of hope and enlightenment. Prior to the creation of the state hospital system, those deemed mentally ill were cared for at home, isolated from their community and feared by those around them. As families began to work outside the home and were not able to care for the mentally ill any longer, the responsibility fell to the states to find reasonable accommodations. The first institutions to care for the mentally ill were poorhouses and prisons. As wave after wave of immigrants reached the shores of the United States, the poorhouses overflowed and the number of insane poor skyrocketed. Many who caused problems in the poorhouses were transferred to jails or prisons but that was still nothing more than a temporary solution.

The first public asylum in the United States was built in Worcester in 1833 after noted social reformer Dorothea Dix discovered the mad chained in unheated prison cells alongside alcoholics and murderers. She was appalled by the conditions in which these individuals were kept and lobbied the state of Massachusetts for more humane treatment of the mentally ill. The American asylum system was born. In spite of its eventual decline, the system of care for the mentally ill in the United States began with the best of intentions: to care for the weakest among us in a thoughtful and humane way. Eventually, changes in legislation, the advent of the modern healthcare system, and a shift in human rights would bring the entire system to its knees in favor of community treatment.

As a photographer and historian, Danvers captured something in me that I often have a difficult time explaining. The architecture — and the knowledge that it played a part in the overall treatment model — sets the Kirkbride asylum apart from any other historical structure. As a writer and educator, I find that Danvers is an ideal vehicle for keeping conversation flowing about the treatment of mental illness as the specter of the asylum touches such a varied group of individuals, from former staff and patients to urban explorers and ghost hunters. Danvers lives on in a very real way, and not just because the façade still stands. It bears a lasting legacy that I hope is captured in the book.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


  1. First, having lived in Virginia, not Massachusetts, I have to question the following…

    “The first public asylum in the United States was built in Worcester in 1833 after noted social reformer Dorothea Dix discovered the mad chained in unheated prison cells alongside alcoholics and murderers.”

    In colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, there was, before any of the other public asylums arose, the first public asylum.

    Eastern State Hospital has the honor of being the first public facility in the United States constructed solely for the care and treatment of the mentally ill. In the summer of 1770, Colonial legislators met in Williamsburg, the capital of the Virginia colony, and passed a bill authorizing the construction of a hospital for this purpose. The building was erected on an eight-acre site near the College of William and Mary, and the first patients were admitted on October 12, 1773.

    In 1841, the name of the public hospital was changed from The Public Hospital For Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds to Eastern Lunatic Asylum, carrying with it the connotations of a sanctuary for the mentally ill.

    I suppose we could be mincing words in a debate over the difference between “hospital” and “asylum”, a term perhaps more amenable to “moral management”, but that is that.

    Auschwitz lives on as a museum, too. Unfortunately, America has been less friendly with its human refuse disposal bins. Yes, I know it wasn’t ALL so dismal, but sometimes the dim interior light becomes a weak mimic of the sun. Kirkbride facilities were notorious for their “backwards”, a term we owe to the arrangement of the buildings, Also, as with other asylums, for their concrete grave stumps showing only numbers on them representing human lives. I’d call that a lot of shame to stomach, even if you’re dealing with the dawn of such facilities, and the beneficence they were supposed to be bestowing.

    Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia, my old alumnus, (5th public asylum in the country), undergoing it’s third incarnation (move and rebuilding), was not that long ago visited by a french film crew, and they were calling it a model hospital for it’s ankle bracelet monitoring devices and other restrictive treatment innovations, Quite some progress, huh?

    • Excuse me, I meant Western State Hospital was my old Alma Mata, of which I was Alumni. It also BTW predated Worcester when it comes to the admission of patients, going back to 1828.

      My guess is that the easiest explanation for this kind of fault of omission goes back to the 1860s, a time when Eastern State Asylum found itself occupied by the Union Army.

  2. I find this article breathtakingly naive.

    There are no ‘good old days’. Manicured gardens, gothic architecture, some unlocked wards, social workers and occupational therapy have provided the backdrop to untold torture and abuse.
    It is not just the modernish drugs and bio-medical model that have caused psychiatric abuse.

    • Sorry, but I think Katherine’s article is great. And “out” there was a period of the “good ol days” at Danvers. We’re going back to the days of Doretha Dix and Thomas Kirkbride. When Danvers was first built, it wasn’t instantly the “snake pit” that’s burned in everyone’s memory today. George Kline, Charles Page and other superintendents were some most honorable and respected men in the medical field at the time.

      “In Massachusetts Dr. C.W. Page, for many years superintendent of the Danvers State Hospital gave much careful attention to the matter the developed a public sentiment which has found expression within the past two years an act passed by the State Legislature forbidding patient restraint” This is from the Institutional Care of the Insane in the US and Canada 1916.

      As the times and society changed so did the State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers (the original name) later changed to Danvers State Hospital.

      • Alright. You should see some of the bozos who are among “the most honorable and respected men in the medical field” today. It would make one blush with shame.

        Francis Stribling of Western Virginia State Lunatic Asylum was friendly with Dorothea Dix, too. She, after all, is said to have been the inspiration behind the building of some like 40 such institutions. I, on the other hand, don’t care much for either of them.

        There weren’t THAT many institutions throughout the 18th century yet, but with the 19th century, chiefly on account of the moral reform movement, the numbers of patients were multiplied many times over. Just look at the great size of those Kirkbride monstrosities. Early in the 20th century, and riding on the tail-end of moral management, you have the mental hygiene/health movement. a movement that is still with us today in it’s efforts to medicalize every aspect of everyday life. Back up a few centuries. Maybe it was NOT such a good idea to lock up so many people?

        Ending restraints is a big problem for reformism. Two hundred since that began, with the demand to end restraints, and they still haven’t managed to do so. Why is that? I think it has something to do with the matter of not being serious about the matter in the first place. When you’ve got a captive population, if you haven’t got shackles, you’ve still got solitary confinement. Take off the restraints, and you’ve still got a prison inmate. Okay. When do we get around to talking about liberating all of the prisoner/patient/consumers. Seriously!

        I’m not against discussing history, I just want to stress that there is another side to it. Another side that you might miss altogether if you set your sights on doing so.

        • “I’m not against discussing history, I just want to stress that there is another side to it. Another side that you might miss altogether if you set your sights on doing so.”

          Yeah, Dorothea Dix was useless and did absolutely nothing to help the illness and was a total whore from what I read.

          • Oh, she did a lot to help the “disease” alright. She campaigned for more and more asylums. She thereby got more and more people locked up who could, by a slight stretch of the imagination coupled with a twist of phrase, be considered “afflicted”. and labeled “lunatic”. As for the “whoring”, I have absolutely no idea where her private life was at.

          • By way of explanation…

            “Patient Critiques of the Asylum

            Despite numerous positive reports on asylum conditions, many citizens suspected that the new institutions hid terrible abuses behind their walls. First hand accounts published by disgruntled former patients fueled rumors of inhumane practices. Usually committed against their wishes, many patients did not believe they were insane and resented their treatment by relatives and physicians”…

            “Records left by patients describing their asylum experiences vary from letters expressing appreciation for the restoration of their sanity to bitter lawsuits against hospital and family. The complaints often centered around wrongful confinement: to commit a relative in the mid-nineteenth century families needed only to obtain a certificate from one physician (in some states, two) testifying that the individual was insane. Patient advocates, such as Haskell, whose family got their dentist to sign his certificate of insanity, descried the ease with which families could dispose of unwanted kin and take their property.”

            from Madness In America: Cultural And Medical Perceptions Of Mental Illness Before 1914. Lynn Gamwell and Nancy Tomes (1995), pg. 62

    • I’ve spent years studying the history of public mental health systems in the US, and there were no “good old days.” The folks like Dix who argued for creating bucolic refuges instead of the admittedly vile county poorhouses that often locked up people deemed mad in the 19th century sold the public a bill of goods. These mid-late 19th century “asylums” were horrid places of often life-long confinement in inhumane conditions.

  3. Thank-you, Katherine, so very much for this article, and the years of work and dedication which it represents.
    Now, of course you know I have to pick a few nits. I’m an MiA regular, so maybe my sensitive and hyper-critical nature is genetic. Heck, maybe it’ll be in the DSM-6. Early in the article, you use the term “mentally ill”, and “insane”, but without the quotation marks. Later, you use “mentally ill” WITH quotation marks. Personally, I think you should only use “so-called “mentally ill””, with quotation marks around “mentally ill”.
    My point is, that for all the change in knowledge, understanding, and culture, we still don’t really know what we’re talking about here. We can’t agree on what words to use to describe “it”. Whatever “it” is. But as the early years of Danvers show, we actually did a MUCH better job helping hurting and scared and confused persons 100 years ago, than we do now! Psychiatry and psych drugs have been steps backwards, not the “progress” the psychs would claim.
    And it’s interesting to note your description of handcraft occupations as “demeaning”. That’s bunk, and it’s not flattering that you think that way. Would it be better that persons sit in drug-induced stupors all day?
    We’ve seen that so-called “sheltered workshops” for so-called “retarded” persons have been phased out, as “reformers”, and “progressives” THINK they know better than common sense. So-called “community treatment” of the so-called “mentally ill” has been an abysmal failure, but it isn’t because residential facilities were too big.
    I hope you spend many hours here at MiA, and learn from those of us who have spent some time at places such as Danvers. You’ve done a valuable service by keeping a historical window open into our collective past. So-called “mental illnesses” are better seen as “STD’s”. They are “socially-transmitted disorders”.
    Thanks again.

    • I’m curious now. Is there a better written article or documentary on Danvers? (In this site or some other site?)

      I would love to read more about the actual economics of how a place runs especially going forward when such facilities need to built or maintained or expanded.

    • We can’t agree on what words to use to describe “it”. Whatever “it” is.

      You put your finger on it — this is the key to whatever “dilemma” people think exists about what causes “it” or what to call “it” if “it” isn’t “mental illness”:

      THERE IS NO “IT”! There are only idiosyncratic blends of thought, belief, experience, feeling and behavior which cannot be categorized despite imagined or projected (and superficial) similarities between different people’s “presentation,” as we are after all the same species.

      The above should not be confused with Bill Clinton speculating on what the connotation of “is” is.

    • It’s offensive but it can be realistic too.

      If you know one concentration camp has a better way of being run versus another concentration camp – you pick up clues on how to actually build a better facility. That can’t be discounted.

      Is it going to lead up to debates? Maybe but life is not don’t talk about my hell – let’s build heaven.

      Yeah, where was heaven for Franco Basaglia and the people that worked in tandem with him? There was none so understanding the specifics of how these things are told are necessary because it stirs awareness. Maybe an extremely low amount of awareness for people who know about the place but then what about for those who don’t?

      The bad idea behind the article is that it’s one article on a blog. It doesn’t teach or show anything at all. It’s just a story.

      But to say why the existence of any kind of article that’s potential information looks like it can’t be a good idea? That’s calling for censoring of history.

  4. I would like to comment back in the days before science most mental illnesses were in fact physical illnesses such as syphilis.
    Back in the days before science, they had no blood tests and no penicillin.

    That era and today can not ever be compared from because there was no SCIENCE at that time.

    People who went to hospital/asylums at the time and who recovered were known as addicts. Once free to resume their addiction many went back to their addiction.
    This is not medicine but morals. Locking people up forced them to be moral or abstain from their addiction.

    The author is also confused as to what a hospital is and what a prison is. If you can not leave the room you are in, that is a prison, not a hospital. Those in authority do call it a hospital as there is no one to oppose the statement.

    “Why were these hospitals successful?” Who reports the success versus failure? The lobotomy was judged a success by those that gave the operation. and the new technique to control the “ill”, given a Nobel prize.

    Locking people up does control them and does stop them from abusing drugs and alcohol and such things. You can call it medicine? Who is paying for the medicinal treatment of steel and concrete walls?

    • This still exists today in my country:

      People who went to hospital/asylums at the time and who recovered were known as addicts. Once free to resume their addiction many went back to their addiction.
      This is not medicine but morals. Locking people up forced them to be moral or abstain from their addiction.

  5. I don’t think you understand, Katherine.

    The history, the documents, who wrote them? whose accounts are available to history? Did you cosider the capacity for for patients to complain or assert any thoughts, feelings aor decions about themselves, their experiences or their lives in this situation, or to make choices about much of anything

    What about the decisions about which records should remain, and the context of what could happen should anyone complain? In regard to decisions about what and who was photographed, who made them and who held the camera?

    Any comments and reports from patients and their famlies – in what context were they made? Who chose what was heard and kept on record? Did even the voluntary patients have any real voice?

    And what about the beliefs and expecations in the wider community, how did these filter the understandings of everyone concerned?

    Mad people were marginalised in, and rejected by communities, and often their families. These were institutions. There was even less accountability than now for those who worked in these places. I feel that creating fairy tales from the self-serving records of those with almost unlimited power and little or no scrutiny, about their own benevolence is to make myths. This was the context into which the drugs, lobotomies, shocks etc., were birthed. They did not corrupt a previous garden of eden. Things could well have gotten worse with their arrival, but I don’t think it is wise to understand the oppression and cruelty of psychiatry as being caused by them. To do so is to minimise, deny and misconstrue oppression.

  6. Katherine, Interesting though the comments here are correct – this is old stuff and it pays to be sensitive to those who are reading. That being said who asked you to write it and submit?
    It is important to know the curve and trajectory of history but there are slot of gaps like maybe Bedlam? And the Dalem Witch Trails right up in your state. One reason was possible Ergot poisoning. That is worth a blog right there.
    I think one reading one of these articles it would help to know many many states had institutions like these and many are still alive who were in them or like mevisted and or did volunteer or fieldwork in them. All of the ruined buildings are places for the kids to go in and get scared.
    Matter of Fact there was a big movement just awhile ago about this very topic. Halloween and the insane asylum for fun and profit. No.
    The point on the graveyards.Just like in Ireland. I strongly recommend the movie about the Magdalene Laundaries – very unsettling but true. In Taum numbers and numbers of small bodies were found and I would be if a dig was done in an asylum some small bodies would be found as well.
    Also before writing I would suggest you do some research on the West African port city? that was the dispatching site for the Slave Trade. There are several good media pieces about African Americans walking through the holding rooms.
    I think this is still important as one day one hopes the well intentioned good and the horrors are catalogued as past history as the families and children who have been detained by our government will walk through the buildings and walk through not as refugees but as free people. The same with Rikkers and other heinous facilities.

  7. The incredible meanness of psychiatry is in the substitution of fundamental moral represent. – Man, his will, his feelings, beliefs, his individuality are marked by illness. That is, a person is designated as a disease. And further with the person it is possible to address, as with illness. Ignoring the will of the man himself, ignoring all his protests! After all he is not a person, he is a disease. And doctors know better what to do with the disease. Clear, is in this situation with a person can do anything. And everything can be imagined as helping a person. The worst example of discrimination is not found! And of course at all times psychiatry was aimed at destroying the objectionable. And used the funds that were available at that time.

  8. Katherine who is your target audience?

    Thorzine and other brain damaging techniques helped Danvers pack warm bodies in till they were overflowing. Ugh. No wonder things went downhill. I hate psych drugs more than ever.

    I have been in some jam packed, depressing places that stunk of urine and stale cigarettes. I was another body to stuff in till I died. Thank God I escaped!

    If you aren’t crazy when you enter they’ll take care of that. Horrible. 🙁

    • Danvers began in the 1870’s. (I couldn’t find the exact date here.) Thorazine was invented in the 1950’s. So I don’t think Thorazine helped Danvers do anything. I’d guess Katherine’s “target audience” is as much of the general public as she can reach. She wants to sell books. Duh. But educating the public is more important, and I bet Katherine agrees with me on that. We’ve both been in some psychiatric snakepits, it sounds like. But if Katherine’s story about Danvers gets us so upset, maybe we’re still back there. I only get stressed thinking about the places I was actually tortured and incarcerated at. And yes, I, too, heard that line, “If you weren’t crazy when you got here, then you will be when you leave.” And, our “recovery” will be a life-long process. We can NEVER be who we would have been, if we had never been subjected to what we were subjected to. You can turn a cucumber into a pickle, but you can’t turn a pickle back into a cucumber.
      We here at MiA are ALL “psychiatric pickles”! (Dills are ok, but too sour. I like sweet gherkins the best!)

      • “It was built in 1874, and opened in 1878…”

        ‘The entire campus was closed on June 24, 1992 and all patients were either transferred to the community or to other facilities.”

        “Chlorpromazine (CPZ), marketed under the trade names Thorazine and Largactil among others, is an antipsychotic medication.”

        “In December 1950, the chemist Paul Charpentier produced a series of compounds that included RP4560 or chlorpromazine.”

        “By 1954, chlorpromazine was being used in the United States to treat schizophrenia, mania, psychomotor excitement, and other psychotic disorders.”

        1954 to 1992. That adds up to 38 years of potential Thorazine use at Danvers. Thorazine, for a spell, must have been used to help Danvers manage it’s inmates.

  9. Psychiatry has always been atrocity. But in former times she did not have in its arsenal such refined, destructive means. What happens as a psychiatric “cure” for the last 70 years is a fantastic nightmare! And this is mainly “thanks” to the new “therapeutic” means. Torazine (in Russian transcription – aminazine) appeared in the early 50’s. And since then has been and is the most effective, not replaceable means of suppression. This is an incomparable destructive tool! It is unlikely that in any other way can cause such a total damage to the human being!
    It is no accident that these “universal tools” appeared shortly after the war. In Nazi Germany, medical experiments on people were put on stream. For this there was a suitable condition – a huge number of prisoners of extermination camps. No consent of the victims was, of course, required. Undoubtedly there, in the Nazi camps, pharmacological means of destruction were constructed. But only the themselves nazis professionals bring experiments to the desired result apparently did not have time. Herefore, their ideas were subsequently implemented by criminals in other countries.