Ghosts in the Hall
I recommend that anyone reading this story first read the previous one titled “Herbert”, and ideally all three of the “Looney Bin” stories to give you better understanding of this one.
It was a lot for a high school psychology student to grasp, even one as intelligent and sophisticated as I thought that I was. If only youth included the wisdom and experience of past generations in our DNA. Experience really is the best teacher, but I wish that she wouldn’t slap me around quite as much.
I had been drawn into the story of a schizophrenic individual and found myself more qualified to be admitted, than to help treat him.
I was a bundle of mixed emotions after the incident with Joshua and nearly didn’t write my report, which would have been catastrophic to my semester grade. My teacher, Mrs. B., ever the cool lady, convinced me that I had something valuable to contribute and I did it, gaining another “A” for my efforts.
We had a long talk about what Joshua had said was going on in the hospital regarding electroshock and other scary types of treatments and to my horror Mrs. B. confirmed that it was true. It was 1971 and I felt like I had just glimpsed the methods of the Spanish Inquisition in 1480. I really, really didn’t like it.
With approximately twelve thousand patients of many different categories and ailments and a doctor to patient ratio of more than 100:1, it was nearly beyond human capability to treat anyone. They appeared to be doing their best to take care of everyone’s physical needs, but as far as effective treatment for mentally ill people; I had my doubts.
My fellow student Barbara and I had only been to two of the nearly one hundred buildings on that sprawling property. It more resembled a college campus with grand red brick buildings surrounding a domed majestic white main building that looked like a government capitol office. The grounds were covered with pecan trees and farmed areas that once independently supported the huge hospital’s needs.
I was hesitant to go back to the hospital for the last project available for the school year, but I wanted to pursue something that I had heard about from staffers in the cafeteria there. I just couldn’t let it go for some reason.
Some people would talk about the many sightings of “the people who aren’t there,” as they were called in whispered conversations, and many would not. Ghosts are not something lightly discussed among the largely under-educated and highly religious population that makes up the work force at this huge mental hospital. Some even fear being admitted as patients if they admit to seeing those that still inhabit the old buildings that are shuttered and abandoned.
While visiting the staff cafeteria I happened to sit close to the kitchen door and serving line, thereby being in a position to overhear a conversation between two employees.
The language is as accurate as I can recall it, and took place between two middle aged African-American women as they worked.
“I saw her again last night when I was walking home past that building,” said one lady to her friend.
“You can’t be talking about that or they will lock you up,” replied her co-worker. “We daren’t talk about haints (ghosts) or Mr. Jim (their white supervisor) will do something bad. He don’t believe in them and gets mad when anyone speaks of them who ain’t there!”
I was curious about the woman seeing a ghost on more than one occasion, and about why they were so afraid of reprisal for speaking about it. I also knew that as a young white boy outsider, they would never open up to me when they were already afraid of speaking about the subject.
It was indeed fortunate that I had made friends with an older black man named Leone who not only worked there, but was a fourth generation employee. He seemed elderly to me at the time, but thinking back, he was probably in his fifties. His gray hair and dignified manner gave him the air of a man of wisdom and years.
His wife Sarah, and now his son Joseph, who, thanks to his parents saving their wages and helping him, had just graduated from medical school, also worked there.
Leone was in a great position to know things about the hospital having lived his entire life there, and being the keeper of the keys for the main building. He was responsible for other buildings too, but the main building was the most important and was where you could find him most of the time.
Sarah was in charge of the cleaning staff for the main building after having spent twenty years responsible for the same thing in the women’s dormitory building, which was considered a less important job and not as “visible.”
She was not bitter about anything, but Joseph and I had more than one conversation about how white women would be hired for the management jobs right out of high school if they were a daughter or niece of a board member, etc., but it took twenty years or more for any of the black staff to reach such a position.
Joseph was doing his internship in a very rough spot; the maximum security wing. This set of buildings occupies what used to be the African-American dormitories and treatment facilities during the not so distant past period when the hospital was segregated by race, as well as gender and type of medical problem. Now it was full of often violent and always unpredictable patients who frequently assaulted the staff and each other. It was the hospital prison essentially.
Even with him being six feet tall and looking like the athlete that he was, Joseph still had problems. The young, white female doctor who preceded him only lasted two weeks before she asked for either reassignment or termination. It seemed like getting rid of new doctors was sport for the inmates.
It must seem odd to most people that we even had this opportunity to visit the mental hospital, being high school students. I can only offer two bits of explanation: five students in this class scored higher than first year college students on course specific tests, and our teacher was either a former colleague or fellow college alumni of several staff doctors there. Additionally, two of us scored “off the charts” (teacher’s words) on aptitude tests for the field of psychology. We were her pet freaks.
For my last project of the school year, (and my senior year), I again faced the options: a chance to write another report from a visit to the state mental hospital, or spend hours in the library either at school or downtown researching some mental health ailment or issue to attempt to write about. It only took one prompt from Mrs. B. and I went for the field trip again. She really knew how to push my buttons! I was also going alone this time as Barbara was at a music competition playing her cello.
My challenge was how to relate ghost stories to psychology more than to prove or disprove their existence. I was glad of that, because I didn’t think that I could get an interview with a ghost!
Getting to the source
Making good time on my trip I arrived a little bit earlier than planned and went directly to the main building (after checking in) and walked what seemed to me to be miles hunting for Leone. You have to remember that this was before cell phones existed and the administration seriously frowned upon paging anyone below the rank of doctor.
I wondered in my own mind if that was only for white doctors or would they page Joseph for me. It might have been 1971 but it still felt like 1950 to me most of the time that I was at that hospital.
Trying to keep my worst enemy, my own mouth, in check, I elected to just go back to the reception desk to wait for my appointment time. It was the right thing to do as I spotted Leone at the desk as I rounded the corner. I should have just waited there instead of chasing my own tail around the property.
I had made the appointment under the guise of talking to him about the history of the hospital grounds. The administrative staff was happy to not have to bother with that, as let’s face it; I was a “nobody.” To them, any “underling” employee was good enough for me. I was completely happy with talking to Leone, as I didn’t think that I would get a straight answer out of any of the rest of them.
Previous conversations had taught me not to bring up the subject of ghosts or “the people who aren’t there” in the presence of the bosses, so I waited until we were all the way outside in the fresh air before I told Leone what I really wanted. This is what I learned from him.
Over the history of the hospital, which was originally called a Lunatic, Idiot and Epileptic Asylum, between twenty and thirty thousand people had died there (1842-1971).
Many of the original patients were Confederate soldiers or slaves with either mental or physical problems, or in some cases, just nowhere else to go. A large percentage of patients were people with no families or means of support. Many were simply dropped off and abandoned there. The end result in almost all of these cases was the same, a grave marked with a metal post and a numbered tag.
In one burial spot some two thousand African-Americans were interred over the years, until the board of directors decided to build a new dormitory building on the very spot where they were resting. They unceremoniously dug them all up and buried them all together in a pit grave. A horrific deed that even today, is still trying to be rectified and the bones identified and reburied.
It is that building which was erected over these violated resting places that is the first specific location of this tale.
The Ghosts in the Hall
This story is just one dandelion seed floating on the wind, compared to the thousands of untold tales of woe that live in this old place.
Leone told me of many sightings in buildings both occupied and not, with more in the abandoned ones. Some had been investigated in those days before “ghost hunting” was a popular past-time, with the hopes of finding a squatter or vagrant as the culprit.
Only once did they find someone; a poor old man sleeping in the very building which was built over the souls of those who had passed on. He claimed that he wanted to be close to his beloved Mary Rose, who had been a nurse there. The old man insisted that he spoke with her on many occasions.
A few days after the man was quietly removed and taken away by the police, a worker passing by that same building after their shift spotted a figure carrying a candle walking past an upstairs window. They were not part of the investigation and had no way of knowing that they had just reported activity in the same room where Mary Rose “lives.”
This report was checked out the next day, (after it got light outside), and no evidence was found of anyone being there. After two more reports in the same exact location, Leone was ordered to board and nail the door to that room; but the sightings continued.
During the day there were reports of laughter heard by those who got near the building and the sheriff from town was called to investigate. He drove up in his car along with two deputies carrying shotguns and acting very brave. The three of them went inside the old structure to check it out.
The lawmen ordered two of the hospital maintenance crew to go inside with them to remove the boards over the door to Mary Rose’s room, but they refused to even enter the building. The exact expression from Leone was “those two black men turned nearly white and ran away as fast as their legs would carry them.”
By the time the police officers came back out they were no longer swaggering and quickly climbed into the car and sped off.
When questioned by the hospital administrator later in town they said that they found no one inside, but felt like they were being watched and followed everywhere they walked. The sheriff declared this to be a state problem and would not have anything more to do with it. Leone said that they (the three lawmen) refused to ever speak of it again. Everyone knew that they were scared, but didn’t dare say so to them.
The man who wanted to be close to Mary Rose was brought back to the hospital as a patient because the judge didn’t know what else to do with him, and thought that he was crazy. He was assigned a locked room (cell) in the main building dormitory wing.
We joined Sarah for lunch in a small, quiet dining room at the back of the main building which used to be a “blacks only” (the sign was still there but painted over with white paint) eating facility and largely still was, although not “officially”. I got some strange looks from African-American employees who were leaving as we came in.
Smiling at me and nodding his head towards his wife, Leone asked Sarah to tell me what she had seen and heard. It took some convincing as Sarah was very reluctant to speak and pulled the cross hanging around her neck out to hold as she began the story.
The man who loved Mary Rose was named Abraham and was in his eighties, possibly nineties, he wasn’t sure himself. They guessed at the time that he was born in the late 1880’s from what he described, when he bothered to talk at all.
He would quite often sit for hours and not speak a word, regardless of whether anyone spoke to him or not. Without any outward warning sign, he would turn his head as if to look at someone speaking to him and nod his head and reply to this unseen person.
It scared the life out of the young black orderlies and cleaning staff assigned to his section as they tried to see or hear who he was conversing with. Finally one of the braver girls approached Sarah to ask what to do as they were afraid that “haints” were among them and would do them harm.
Sarah said that she chastised the girl and quoted scriptures to her and told her that there were no haints or ghosts in that building.
She hung her head a little and said that even then she wasn’t sure about the building where Mary Rose lived. Leone spoke up and said, “You wouldn’t go near that building in the daylight!” Sarah admitted that what he said was true and that it wasn’t right to build on that graveyard and disturb all those souls like that.
One night when a girl (employee) was out sick and she had to fill in, Sarah herself was working near Abraham’s door and heard him speaking in his room. As she opened the flap on his door to look in she thought that she saw candle light and smelled hot wax.
Looking me in the eyes Sarah said,“Mister Ken, I know what candle wax smells like!” She was visibly shaking a little as she watched me for a reaction. I just sat there with my mouth hanging open, entranced as I almost smelled it (hot wax) myself.
“What did you do then,” I asked getting a strange feeling in my stomach.
“I opened his door to make sure that he didn’t have a candle as they were not allowed. Patients could catch their clothes or bedding on fire. I went inside, watching him as he sat on his bed, ready to run for my life if he moved. Mister Ken, I smelled candle wax like it was under my nose in my own hand! But there was no candle there, anywhere!” She said, still obviously very disturbed.
“But that wasn’t the worst thing,” she continued. “I took his water pitcher out because it wasn’t supposed to be left in the room overnight. The male patients would sometimes pee in them and the bosses got really upset if they did that. As I backed out of the room, keeping my eyes on Mister Abraham, I felt like I was backing into an icehouse it was so cold on my back!” said the woman with sweat rolling down her face as she told me this.
“Mister Ken, I locked that door with the keys I carried hooked to my belt with a chain and put that pitcher down on a table across the hall and two doors down. When the morning girl came to relieve me that pitcher was gone! I ran to Mister Abraham’s door and opened the flap and that pitcher was in his room again on his table.” She said shaking her head in disbelief as she relived that troubling event.
Sarah raised the cross to her lips and kissed it and said that she couldn’t talk about it anymore. Leone patted her on the back as he too, remembered that morning.
When we went back outside Leone said that a woman in what appeared to be a Victorian period nurses uniform, like in some of the old photos hanging on the wall in the administrative offices, had been sighted in the hall outside of Abraham’s room several times by different people, both white and black. When the staff attempted to catch up with her she was nowhere to be found.
The worst was yet to come: the sightings in the shuttered building continued and a wheel came off of the car of a white staff member who made fun of the story of Mary Rose and Abraham; right in front of the hall where Mary Rose “lived.” Try as they might, no one was able to assign blame for that event to any particular cause.
The crushing blow came when after yet another nighttime sighting of the Victorian nurse in the hallway, the following morning Abraham was not in his locked room. All three sets of keys were accounted for and each key holder had witnesses as to their whereabouts all night.
It was obvious that the man was not in his room, yet no one could account for his physical location. The grounds were searched as a matter of routine, but they kept coming back to the fact that the door could not be opened from the inside when locked and it had not been unlocked from the outside until the morning bed check.
There was also the matter of the odor of candle wax in his room, smelled by everyone who checked (including Sarah and Leone). It is worth noting that there were no candles used there, the building was fully equipped with electric lights.
The very next day the remaining few patients in the main building were relocated to other buildings, away from the administrative offices. No patients were ever housed there again.
Abraham was “discharged” (in absentia), dated the day before his disappearance and the case was closed. Having no relatives or anyone else to notify, there was no one to say a word in protest. He was never seen again.
The main building was shut down and abandoned in 1974 and lies in ruin, but like the fated building built upon a graveyard full of troubled souls, still has those who aren’t there walking the halls.
Ghost hunters now call that hospital and especially those two buildings, the most haunted place in America.
A new Administration building was built far away from the original one and people rarely go near the old crumbling halls. Sightings of the “people who aren’t there” occur frequently in many of the abandoned structures and ghost hunters all now agree that the place is haunted by the souls of the departed.
I wrote my report on the power of pain and suffering to influence belief in what we want to believe is true, like ghosts. I got my “A” grade and concluded that I had enough of psychology and didn’t want to immerse myself in the suffering of others full time. I found that it was just too hard to deal with as I felt what they felt and it distressed me greatly.
Mary Rose, Abraham, if you are listening; I never said that I didn’t believe in you. Does anyone smell something burning, like… candle wax?