About Me

My photo
We are known as PaWingers or just The Wingers by our Geocaching friends. When we found our first cache we had to come up with a name to log the find. We came up with this name simply because of residing in Pa. and because one of our many passions is cruising this beautiful country on our Honda Goldwing. Aside from geocaching we are passionate about most anything outdoors including hiking, kayaking, snowmobiling and biking. We are blessed beyond words with a wonderful son and daughter in law. We're also blessed with some terriffic family and friends. We consider ourselves very fortunate due to the fact that after being married over 40 years we still enjoy these things together.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Silent Witnesses from the State Hospital for the Insane

Typically my entries to this Blog are light hearted and the subject matter is intended to be maybe surprising but not disturbing.  What we discovered today was rather disturbing and was quite an eye opener to us.  I will try to explain why we felt this deserved a spot in our “Whoda’ Thunk Blog”.  Quite simply, whoda’ thunk so many poor souls could depart this life without any loved ones bidding them farewell.

Okay, at this point you’re probably going insane wondering what the heck I’m talking about.  Oddly enough, insanity is what this entry is all about.  Let me tell you how this day unfolded and maybe put all this into perspective.

After checking out the new glass bottomed observation deck at Kinzua Bridge, we decided to stop at Lowe’s in Warren and pick up a few items.  As we approached Lowe’s, something caught my eye at the foot of the hill behind the building and we decided to investigate.  That something ended up being a small cemetery, but not just any cemetery.  We approached from the rear and immediately we could tell there was something very unusual about this cemetery.  We noticed that almost every stone was exactly the same.  They weren’t granite but actually molded concrete.  They were a very simple angled shape and each one had a small stainless steel plate with a name engraved on it.  Some of them had a date of death below the name.  Others had the name and the date of birth as well as date of death.  What we noticed right away is that there weren’t small groups of stones with the same last name which is typical of any other cemetery.  In fact, as we walked from monument to monument there were no two names alike.  The only common denominator seemed to be that the years of deaths seemed to be clustered together.

As we worked our way toward the entrance to the cemetery we finally noticed a small sign that cleared up the mystery for us.  This burial ground was the final resting place for those poor souls from the State Hospital for the Insane.  The name was eventually changed to Warren State Hospital. As we walked among the perfectly lined up rows of markers the feeling was very disturbing.  It is just so sad to think that these people left this earth and had nobody that cared enough to give them a decent burial in their hometown cemetery.  Their death was as sad as their life in the asylum.  It’s impossible to explain the emotions we felt as we walked through this place.  Please visit it sometime and maybe you will understand.

After leaving the cemetery we decided to visit the grounds of the Warren State Hospital which is within sight of this cemetery.  We went there to maybe get more of a feel for what went on within these walls.  Quite honestly, I don’t think we could even begin to imagine what life was like for those mental patients.  It did inspire me to do some research and maybe learn a bit more about this institution.  The first patient was admitted in December of 1880.  At one time there were as many as 1200 patients.  One bit of info stated 3000 patients but that doesn’t sound realistic. These estimates are by no means facts as it's difficult to get accurate numbers.

Construction on the center or main building began in 1874.  The building design is known as a Kirkbride Model named after Dr. Thomas Kirkbride.  The concept of this model is that every room must receive natural sunlight at some time during the day.  The building is designed to have a natural air conditioning.  This was accomplished by venting towers that pull fresh air through each room.  It was also designed with elaborate landscaping and fountains.

Back in those times there were no dozers and backhoes.  The cellars were all dug by hand.  Single horse driven carts were used to haul the stones from a quarry located a mile away.  Nineteen loads of stone and a load of sand was considered a good day at the building site.  Most of the sixteen million bricks were manufactured, shaped, and fired on the site, including rounded bricks and keystones.  Six men were hired to do nothing but sharpen the stonemason’s tools.  If you are ever in the vicinity of North Warren, go around to the front and drive in the main gates and check this place out.  I think you’ll be amazed.

Sadly, this entry isn’t about architecture and old buildings.  Sure I touched on that but it’s really about those that were held in this asylum and those thought to be insane.  Note that I said, “thought to be insane”.  I felt it was important to say that.  Without a doubt many patients of the State Hospital for the Insane were truly insane and had to be put in this place.  Sadly though, many actually were not insane.  Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s  a person could be labeled insane just because they were eccentric or maybe they thought a bit differently that others or had some odd ideas.  A person could be labeled insane by some one in the law enforcement or a Dr. or anyone with a bit of influence.  They weren’t evaluated, they were simply removed from society and placed in an institution such as this.  I'm pretty confident had I lived back in the early 1900's my wife would have threatened to send me to an institution on a pretty regular basis.

A case in point might be that of a fella named Joe Root.  If you are ever in Erie and head to Presque Isle you will notice an eatery called Joe Root Bar and Grill on the right just before Waldemeer.  Joe Root was a legend in his own time.  He lived out on the peninsula and pretty much lived off the land.  He built several basic shelters and lived in them as the conditions varied.  It’s true that he had some crazy ideas but he was harmless.  One of his crazy ideas involved building a balloon factory and floating people to Buffalo taking advantage of the prevailing winds.  Joe Root ended up being labeled as insane and was sent to the Warren State Hospital where he died within a few years.  Truth be known, he was framed in a set up which involved a fight.  It seems that authorities were afraid Joe would claim squatters rights on Presque Isle so it was just convenient to have him put away.  Joe didn’t end up in the Warren State Hospital Cemetery.  When he died, his body was sent to Philadelphia for a scientific study.  He supposedly was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery.  This is another story in itself, but perhaps I’ll save that for another time.  If you managed to read all the way to this point, I certainly admire your patience and want to extend my heartfelt thanks.  Whoda' thunk something as simple as a small cemetery would have prompted such a long post on this Blog.

The first burial at this cemetery took place in 1881.  Prior to 2006 the condition of this burial ground was pretty much in ruins and was overgrown with weeds and brush.  There was only a very small handfull of proper monuments and these still are present and quite easy to pick out.  In 2006 a group of volunteers and state workers put a tremendous amount of effort forth and began a restoration project that took two years to complete.  They had concrete monuments formed with engraved stainless steel  identification attached.  Unfortunately there are no photos to be found from the old cemetery but I'm guessing it would just look like a hillside overgrown with weeds and brush.  These volunteers should be proud of what they accomplished here.

There are 954 poor souls resting here.  These are all patients from the Warren State Hospital.  There are two infants buried here and they were supposedly the babies of former patients. I still don't quite understand that. The most recent markers had a death date of 2009.  It's sad to think that this is where their life ended with nobody that cared about them and were simply left to live out their existence in an institution.  As we strolled through this cemetery our emotions were stirred in a very somber way.  So much in fact that I felt it more appropriate to have the images portrayed in black and white rather than vibrant colors.  I made an exception when it came to Old Glory.

Row after row of forgotten souls.

There were no names that were the same, no families and no spouses lying side by side.  They simply are arranged by the year of their death.  How sad!

Imagine the horror this man witnessed during the Civil War and then to live out the balance of his life in an institution.  And we complain because our steak was tough or the internet was down.

This badge show that he was a veteran of the Civil war and fought as a Union Soldier.  The GAR  stands for Grand Army of the Republic.

And this is where it all began with patient after patient conveniently tucked away out of sight and out of mind.  There are a series of tunnels leading to and from the Center Building.  Info leads me to believe that there is a tunnel leading over to the Lowe's Complex and perhaps beyond as far as the cemetery.  Some locals claim that in the winter you can see where the tunnels are because a fresh snowfall seems to melt away and exposes the warmer tunnels.


Unknown said...

My grandfather was a patient at Warren State. I only met him once when I was little. He had been there since my mother was one year old. Not having him around was normal to me, since I grew up this way. But years after his death, I wished i had gotten to know him. He died when I was 25.

Dan said...

Great story Tom

Larry Nobles said...

You wonder why infants were buried there. Probably the lucky ones. If you were "left on the doorstep", or otherwise dropped off and under age, you became a ward of the state. Since you grew up in a mental hospital, by the time you were of age you probably were a mental patient. I worked at Warren State and Polk State Institute for the Retarded. I worked at Warren State 54 years ago. All of the buildings are connected by tunnels, I don't know about across the road. Years ago sheep and pigs were raised there, and there were buildings. The Institute was self supporting down to making their own electric. The patients that were able worked at all different jobs there with a few Aides giving oversight. Two Doctors or a Doctor and a Court could have people admitted there, even if they weren't mentally ill. All a spouse had to do was complain and bye bye. Things changed in the 1970's which didn't improve very many patients lot. They were essentially dumped on a society un ready for the jurisdiction and follow up they would need. There were old motels that weren't making money who opened their doors to these patients and were allowed 2 to a room. Before too long there were quite a few more than two to a room. No one checked on their welfare so anyone wanting to make a buck took them in. The ones who weren't taken in walked the highways day after day after day and soon expired, or got in trouble with the law. If you want more info, contact me.

Bob Heath said...

Pennsylvania had many hospitals like Warren and polk, Western center mayview, torrence, Woodville, and a couple others I cannot remember the names. I was on the board of trustees at mayview for about 15 years.

Jenca said...

The first patient was admitted to the "State Hospital for the Insane at Warren" in 1880 even though the building wasn't quite finished. The middle of the building of the building above the small roof use to have a balcony that balcony marked where the Superintendent initially lived until the Superintendent's house that I think is now used as a Conference building based on the angle of your photo of Center building (that's what the hospital refers to the main building as) the Superintendent's house would have been almost directly behind you. I forget what they renamed it to but it's something like "Mayweather" or "Fairweather" Conference center/building. if you follow the road from the Main building and head North you'll come to another long building on your right made of similar stone to what the main building is made from this is called "Stone Building" I think it was named after Charles W. Stone who was instrumental in convincing the 3 men commissioned by the Governor to choose the location in North Warren for the state hospital to be built. Dr. Curwen who would later become the 1st full-time Superintendent was one of the men Commissioned by the Governor to find a location for the hospital. There was also someone who served in the Civil War (Think he was a General or Colonel) on the commission, but his name escapes me and the 3rd person I can't remember his name or anything about him. Dr. Curwen actually had worked as an Assistant superintendent under Dr. Kirkbride at Harrisburg State Hospital, and I've seen some indications that it wasn't uncommon for them to not see eye to eye on how patients should be treated.... Kirkbride felt that kindness and compassion should be the prominent feature of care of patients and Curwen felt a more authoritarian approach was better I don't know details about the specifics of their approaches just that things I've read indicate they had very different approaches with regards to caring for patients.... Dr. Curwen did fight for better funding and to care for patients and did seem to make an effort to improve how people with mental illnesses were viewed by society he included the rod iron fence that once surrounded the hospital, not as a way to contain the patients, but rather as a way to help keep people from the community from treeating he paatients at WSH as a form of entertainment, so even though he was more authoritarian in is approach, he did show signs of having some degrere of compassion for the patients under his care. Once the main building was finished being constructed, the Governor was impressed with Curwen because he had accomplished the construction and had I think $5k or $10k leftover from what had been allotted to him for the construction. The stones seen on the outside of the building have a layer of brickwork lining the inside of them. The bricks were said to have been made out in Starbrick someplace, I assume it was somewhat close to the Allegheny river in Starbrick, but I don't know the exact location. The building where Warren Higher Ed and Family Services is located is named after Dr. Curwen. The building that Forest Warren Dept. of Human Services is in is named after Dr. Guth who was the Assistant Superintendent to Dr. Curwen, and then after Dr. Curwen resigned, Dr. Guth became the Superintendent.

Unknown said...

This is a really good read and I'm glad someone touched on this. I will say that I don't believe that they are forgotten Souls. I know how much my patients have impacted me in a beautiful way. I truly love them as people and I know some of my coworkers feel the same. We aren't supposed to be bonded with them in that way but when you spend everyday with these people it's hard not to. I truly have their best interest they might as well be family. With that being said I don't think any of them are lost souls because in some way they impacted someone and are remembered. LOVE where I work and how I can contribute.

Brittney Coy said...

I’m making a scrap book. I was born and raised in Warren before moving to GA. Could you email me any stories or info along with anything else that could help me?

Chuck K said...

My great great grandfather was a pt there beginning in 1880 until his death in 1884. He is interred in the WSH cemetery. He was a civil war veteran of several battles including Antietem, Chancellorsville, & Gettysburg. He was with the PA 111th Volunteers. Prior to the war, he was a friendly gregarious person and was considered a good soldier. He began to exhibit mental issues in 1862. His enlistment ended in 1864 & he returned to his home in Erie. His condition steadily worsened with periods of mania, depression, & illusions. He spent time in the Erie jail, which was common then (and today) for people with mental issues. I do not have any records or indications of family visits. After his death, his wife was granted a widow’s pension because his death was considered to be war related.

He had 4 children, two of whom were also patients there for what sounds like bipolar disorder.

He laid in an unmarked grave for 112 years. My cousin researched the family history & discovered this. She was able to obtain a government grave marker and arranged to have the grave dedicated by the PA 111th Re-enactors and VFW post #631 of Warren, PA in 1996. They came together to pay homage to this man who sacrificed so much for his country.