From the archives: Crownsville State Hospital

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Crownsville Hospital Center was founded in 1911 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane, a place to house African-American psychiatric patients separately from white patients in the other state hospitals.The first patients helped build the hospital’s first buildings on land that previously was a farm. Some patients weren’t even mentally ill, and scores who died at the hospital were buried in anonymous graves.

At one time, 30 percent of the patients died at the hospital, now a group of buildings boarded up and crumbling on Generals Highway.

The hospital eventually was integrated and became a modern mental health facility before it was closed in 2004 because of a declining patient population. Since then, the campus sat largely vacant.

In an article written by Tom Marquardt, the former editor and publisher of The Capital, in July 2013, the legacy of the hospital was written in detail. Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote:

“A 556-acre farm was bought by the state and set up as a model of self-sufficiency: Patients built the structures, milked the cows, tended the crops and harvested the willow wood used to make furniture and baskets.

They even cut railroad ties for the spur that brought their families from Baltimore for Sunday visits.

The hospital was established to remove the mentally disturbed and homeless from almshouses, including one at historic London Town.

Parents, unable to cope with restless offspring with epilepsy or syphilis, dropped off their children there — particularly during the Great Depression, when parents couldn’t afford care for kids with special needs.

Some came to visit their children. But it was not uncommon for a family to never see a child again, once he or she had been sent to the hospital.

Inside the therapy rooms and surgery suites, 103 patients were subjected to insulin shock treatments for epilepsy, according to the 1948 annual report.

Thirty-three lobotomies were performed on what doctors called “the feebleminded.” Fifty-six of the 1,800 patients were injected with malaria. Others were given hydrotherapy — alternate immersion in hot and cold water.

One common and painful procedure was pneumoencephalography: drilling a hole in the skull and draining fluid from around the brain.

The fluid was replaced with oxygen or helium so that doctors could better see the brain in X-rays. Patients suffered from headaches and vomiting until the brain naturally restored the fluid.

Doctors also inserted metal probes into patients’ brains to reach the deep temporal nerves.
Lurz says it was common for mentally ill patients to be used for testing after treatments or therapies had been tried out on animals.

“There was a whole rationale about it that they (the patients) could pay back the institution for their stay. They are not going back to the community. They have nothing to lose. That was the thinking.”

George Phelps, the county’s first black deputy sheriff, escorted countless African-Americans from the courthouse, where they had been convicted of serious crimes, to the hospital’s C Building for the criminally insane. Several tried to escape.

Parents would jokingly threaten to take their kids to the hospital if they didn’t behave.

Driven by curiosity, Phelps broke a lock on a building in the 1950s and entered a basement laboratory where he found jars of skulls and parts of women’s bodies. “I saw them with my own eyes, you understand? I was fascinated but disgusted.”

Although many patients were over 65, a 1955 report by the Department of Mental Hygiene reported 35 patients in the nursery and 169 under 16.

In the mid-1950s, experimental operations were replaced by anti-psychotic drugs, such as Thorazine and Ritalin. Photos show catatonic patients on floors and benches — docile and ignored. One photo shows schizophrenic patients peering in fear from behind a bench.

A patient was more likely to die at the hospital than be discharged. In 1929 there were 55 discharges from Crownsville — and 92 deaths.

After making coffins for their dead, patients carted them to the nearby cemetery. Most of the gravestones are marked only with numbers — and the ledger that would have linked those numbers to names has been destroyed.

No one is sure how many people are buried on the hill, but historians have found at least 1,700 people whose death certificates say they were buried at Crownsville State Hospital.

In the 1940s, conditions at the hospital deteriorated rapidly. The patient census shows that the population went from a manageable 521 in 1920 to 2,719 in 1955.

Patients were crowded into windowless dorms and given little to eat. They wandered aimlessly or were shackled to chairs and walls because they posed a risk to themselves and others. Many photos, restricted by the Maryland State Archives for privacy reasons, reveal the terrible conditions.

By the middle of the 20th century, the hospital’s staff was a melting pot. After World War II, it was difficult to find male doctors to work at the hospital. Many of the doctors in the 1940s were Jews from Germany or Austria who fled the Holocaust.

Efforts by the NAACP and a 1949 expose in The Baltimore Sun, “Maryland’s Shame,” spotlighted the dire conditions at the hospital in mid-20th century. Conditions began to improve dramatically in the mid-1960s.

The state decided to close Crownsville State Hospital in 2004.”

Reporting by Pamela Wood of The Baltimore Sun and Tom Marquardt of the Capital Gazette.