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Danvers State Lunatic Hospital in Massachusetts History and Memories Part I


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American state hospitals in the early 1800s until the early 1950s referred to as “the golden age, " were much different than the facilities and state institutions of the 21st century.

In the 21st century the mentally ill people are treated in programs in the communities where they live. During the golden age, they were cared for in state hospitals usually situated in secluded, rural or out-of-the-way locations away from the rest of the population. They were often called asylums and were self-contained villages and communities that offered a lifestyle as well as total medical and psychiatric care. Danvers State Lunatic Hospital was probably one of the most notable of these asylums.

The Danvers State Lunatic Hospital was constructed under the supervision of a prominent Boston architect by the name of “Nathaniel J. Bradlee" in the year of 1878. The facility at South Boston was just about to close. The closure would cause an immediate crisis for the care of and housing of the mentally ill. Worchester, Taunton and Northampton, as well as the 1866 Tewksbury Asylum for chronic patients were housing 1300 patients in buildings created to house 1000. In addition there were another 1200 patients scattered about in various other hospitals in Massachusetts.

Danvers State Lunatic Hospital was originally established to provide residential treatment and care to the mentally ill. The hospital expanded to include:

  • A training program for nurses in 1889
  • A pathological research laboratory in 1895
  • By the 1920's the hospital was operating school clinics to help determine mental deficiency in children

    The Hospital occupied a site of over 500 acres with a glorious view of Boston 18 miles to the south. Through the years of its operation, the hospital gained several different nicknames that included:

  • The Castle on the Hill
  • The Haunted Castle on the Hill
  • Hathorne Hill
  • Prospect Hill
  • Dodge's Hill

    The complex's design was a masterpiece of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. Dr. Kirkbride served the Pennsylvania Hospital as superintendent from 1841-1883. His philosophy included a humane and compassionate environment for the mentally ill. He felt beautiful settings restored patients to a more natural “balance of the senses. " Dr. Kirkbride's progressive therapies and innovative writings regarding hospital design and management became known as the “Kirkbride Plan. " The Kirkbride Plan influenced almost every American State Hospital by the turn of the century. His plan was in operation at Danvers State Lunatic Hospital as well.

    During the 1960's, there became an increased emphasis on alternative methods of treatment, deinstitutionalization and community based mental health care. It was at this time when the population at Danvers State Lunatic Hospital started to decrease and closed on June 24, 1992 due to government budget cuts within the mental health system. However, the rich and relevant legacy of Danvers State Hospital and the memories from patients and hospital staff remains alive today and most likely forever.

    Today, on top of Hathorne hill, you will find a contemporary prime real estate property managed through Avalon Bay Communities. Residents of this community receive preference for the 70 affordable housing units at the luxury apartment complex that totals 433 units in all. This is a very beautiful apartment complex. The former hospital gazebo is used, and what looks like to me, the front part of the Kirkbride Building was renovated into apartments. There is a one and two bedroom apartment here called, “The Kirkbride. " I think it is an exceptionally beautiful apartment complex, however, one would have to just imagine, and it could be haunted!

    What was daily life like for patients and employees at Danvers State Hospital? There have been many books and stories written. There are several web sites as well.

    One of the most notable patient stories is probably the life story of Marie Balter. The film “Nobody's Child" was based on Marie's life. Actress, Marlo Thomas played the part of Marie Balter in the film. As quoted by a hospital employee, John Preston, “Marie and Marlo Thomas became very close friends. " “Marlo came to the hospital many times to visit her before and after the film was made. " “They were good friends. "

    Marie Balter entered Danvers State Hospital around the age of 18. She lived there for 20 years, was released and went on to earn a graduate degree at Harvard University, later becoming a strong advocate for the mentally ill and an employee of Danvers State Hospital. Her story is remarkable and as stated by M. Scott Peck, M. D. and author of “The Road Less Traveled, " “A glorious tribute to the mysterious freedom of the human will. "

    In this series of articles about Danvers State Lunatic Hospital, I will briefly write about some of these stories. The sources I use for these writings will be either in the resource box of each article or a part of the article itself for your further reading.

    Source: I obtained email permission from John Gray (link to his website, Danvers State Insane Asylum, is in the resource box of this article). The book “Nobody's Child, " written by Marie Balter and Richard Katz.

    This article is FREE to publish with the resource box.

    © 2008 Connie Limon All Rights Reserved

    Written by: Connie Limon. Visit us at and for more information from John Gray about Danvers State Insane Asylum, visit his website at:

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