Ohio has a long history of being at the forefront of psychiatric medicine. The Lunatic Asylum of Ohio was one of the first of its kind in the nation. Proposed in March of 1835 and approved to start building in 1838, the original building was meant to help house the mentally disturbed, who were until then mostly kept in either hospitals or, too often, in jails. More than that, however, the Lunatic Asylum of Ohio was a place for healing…whether the patients wanted to be healed (or needed to be healed) or not.
The original building was constructed east of the State House, somewhere near the Thurber House, and it was a large facility on thirty acres of land. It opened its doors in 1838, its first patient admitted in November of that year. The first director of the facility was Dr. William Awl. A pioneer of psychological medicine, Dr. Awl fully believed in curing the mentally ill instead of just locking them up. This sounds like quite an altruistic goal, but in 1843, Dr. Awl made the claim that 100% of his patients had been cured. A 100% cure rate, for any disease, let alone mental illness, would be absolutely amazing even today. Perhaps he hand picked patients that were easily diagnosed and cured? Not at all; Dr. Awl said (and proved) he could take the most dangerous patients and cure them.
Can you guess his cure of choice?
Not all of Dr. Awl’s patients were “cured” in the same way; many ended up in unmarked graves around the property. These graves were meant to be temporary until family members could collect the vict…er…patients and have them interred in family cemeteries. Most never came to collect, as they were perfectly happy with the patients being out of their lives. As a note to you, readers, please remember that they were burying people at this site; this will be important later.
Dr. Awl served as director of the facility for twelve years, from its opening in 1838 until 1850. The facility could hold, at peak capacity, about 300 inmates. Imagine how many he “cured”. In fact, his critics also wondered just how he managed such a feat, and took to calling him “Dr. Cure-Awl” because of it.
The facility, sometimes called the “Columbus Hospital” or the “Ohio Lunatic Asylum” was considered a complete success despite Dr. Awl’s detractors. In 1852, Dr. Awl’s successor, Dr. Samuel Smith, successfully lobbied the state legislature to build two more facilities, as he was out of room to handle more patients. The state agreed and was originally going to build asylums in Cincinnati and Canton, but because of some political wrangling, the facilities were built in Cleveland and Dayton instead. This trend of building additional asylums would continue for the next thirty years or so, culminating in the infamous Athens Lunatic Asylum, or “the Ridges” as they are known.
While Dr. Awl and his miraculous cures and the unmarked grave sites might seem sinister enough, there’s a twist to the story of the Ohio Lunatic Asylum; one night it burned to the ground. On November 18, 1868, at roughly 10pm, a fire broke out on the north side of the west ward, the women’s ward. Most of the patients were in the “Amusement Hall” that evening and were safe, but six inmates died while guards and firefighters tried to save them. A seventh was brought out of the building but did not survive the night. The firefighters had a hard time fighting the blaze as the city cistern system was woefully inadequate for the job.
However, while there weren’t many deaths in the blaze, there was something unsettling that happened. Most of the guards had to assist the firefighters in clearing the large building. The inmates were left locked in the Amusement Hall mostly unattended. As you might guess, all the commotion stirred them up. One witness was at a loss of words to adequately describe what went on while the guards were distracted, but I’m pretty sure you can guess. The debauchery was considered quite obscene, and privately some referred to it as a full blown orgy. Order was eventually reestablished, but not before the inmates had had their fill of physical pleasures, often carried out by male patients on the less than willing female patients.
The grand old building burned to the ground that night; not a bit of it remained when the sun came up. The patients were shipped off to Dayton or Cleveland, and the whole affair was quickly hushed up. The cause of the fire was reported as a “faulty flue”, even though there were no such chimneys near where the fire began. Its true source remains a mystery.
The Ohio state legislature agreed to rebuild the hospital, but it was decided to move it to a larger facility. This new asylum opened in 1877 on over 100 acres of land in the Franklinton Hilltop along Broad Street. It was a gigantic facility, costing over three times what the original building cost. It was a Kirkbride building, just the sort of place you imagine when someone says “insane asylum”. If you have ever seen the movie Session 9, which takes place in an old asylum that looks from above sort of bat-like, you will know what the new Ohio Lunatic Asylum looked like.
This building operated until the late 1980s, when budget cuts and the Reagan plan to sunset mental health facilities kicked in. The Ohio Historical Society tried to get it listed as a historic site, but failed, and in the 1990s, the building was torn down and replaced with an ugly glass and concrete monster that serves as the headquarters for the Ohio Department of Transportation. However, the four hospital cemeteries are still on the grounds.
And here’s were we get spooky. You remember that the original hospital buried patients in unmarked graves? That location was several miles from this one. How many of those patients, whose records went up in smoke in 1868, were moved to the new hospital graveyards? Further, there are stones at the current graveyards arranged in a circle around a stone commemorating the original hospital, with dates prior to 1877 when the second facility opened – were the bodies really moved? Or is it simply the headstones? Nevermind that many of the graves have unmarked stones or stone marked “SPECIMEN”. There’s no record I could find of any of the graves being moved here. So is it a wonder there are reports of hauntings in the area of the old asylum?
Columbus State Hospital at Asylum Project
Forgotten Ohio: Columbus Mental Hospital Cemeteries
This Week Newspaper: 1868 Fire Destroyed Lunatic Asylum
Kirkbride Buildings: Columbus State Hospital