- September 17th, 2011
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I had the opportunity today to visit the former site of Northampton State Hospital with Ms Kingsley of the Unorthodox Arts Foundation. Ste.Croix had suggested that I contact her regarding the old asylum sites in the area, as she is familiar with their history and locations, and Ms Kingsley was more than helpful and gracious with her assistance.
At present, there is very little left of Northampton State, a large field and three dilapidated ruins all that remains in memoriam of one of the largest and most impressive institutions on the eastern seaboard. These buildings consist, Ms Kingsley informed me, of the old carriage house, a south-end building (now being used for fire department training) and North One. Where the secondary complex once stood is now an industrial park surrounded by dirt. Much of the rest has been transformed into Easter-egg coloured condominium homes. It is not a place I would be comfortable living, with such ghosts as my neighbours.
Having been raised in the area, Ms Kingsley was able to tell me what my eyes could no longer see. She did not tell me where she obtained the photographs and I did not ask. Northampton State Hospital was built in 1856, opened two years later under the name ‘Northampton Lunatic Hospital’ and was designed for 250 residents.
Northampton operated under the tradition that assumed physical labour was beneficial for its residents, keeping the violent patients separate from the more tractable ones. Northampton therefore operated its own farm, including both cattle and produce, from which the inmates were expected to derive their own food. By 1885 the hospital’s population exceeded 450. I can only begin to imagine the deplorable conditions a nearly twice-capacity population must have had on the patients’ treatment and living conditions. Infirmary wards were constructed in 1902-1903, and a second complex was added to the ‘Old Main’ during the Great Depression meant to increase its capacity by a thousand. In 1955 Northampton had over 2,500 patients.
The methods with which these residents were treated included water therapy, electroshock therapy, sedation, restraints and manual labour. The last of these, although compulsory, was the most humane. I shudder to think of the horror that must have been experienced by patents whose conditions would today be easily managed by behavioural and pharmaceutical therapies. I try not to think about what this room must have meant to the patients of Northampton.
Fortunately with the advent of more modern treatment procedures, including the discovery of psychotropic medication in the 1960s, the hospital became increasingly less necessary, and it closed its doors in 1993, having admitted over 60,000 patients in its 135 years of operation. The buildings were demolished in 2006.
Some of those patients never left Northampton’s grounds and were buried in the hospital’s cemetery. The stones marking their graves are no longer visible, although I could find no records to indicate whether or not the denizens of the graves remain in Northampton’s ground or not.
I have found that the UMarmot Archives at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst has been most helpful in my research into Northampton State. So, too, have I enjoyed the ‘virtual tour’ provided here by Opacity.