Haunted Hospitals and Patient Abuse

April 28, 2011

With so many aspects of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to discuss, the fate of Deborah’s younger sister, Elsie, sometimes goes unmentioned. Elsie, committed to Crownsville Hospital Center at a young age, was likely abused and neglected prior to her death at the institution in 1955.

One UW professor has studied the connection between patient abuse and a seemingly unrelated topic: haunted hospitals. Dayle Delancey, a professor in the Department of Medical History and Bioethics, published a 2009 paper called “‘How Could It Not Be Haunted?’ The Haunted Hospital as Historical Record and Ethics Referendum.”

In this work, Delancey states that, “Medical ethicists and medical historians might be tempted to dismiss these depictions as mere vagaries of popular culture, but that would be an unfortunate oversight because haunted hospital lore memorializes historical claims of patient abuse, neglect, and maltreatment.”

Delancey discusses one specific example at length: Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. This institution was opened as an insane asylum in 1878, and was closed to patients in 1992. Reports of patient abuse and neglect first began to surface in the 1890s. The hospital, near a Salem Witch Trials location, was already nicknamed “The Witch’s Castle,” and combined with the stories of abuse, ghost stories flourished throughout the decades.

Delancey maintains that “the public has not only memorialized those patient populations whom historical instances of purported abuse, neglect, and maltreatment once marginalized, but has also given those patients voice, agency, and, by extension, a measure of justice.”

Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s youngest child, had been committed to Crownsville Hospital Center for alleged cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and a “diagnosis of idiocy” (273). When Rebecca Skloot and Deborah Lacks visit the center to find out what became of Elsie, they learn of terrible patient abuse and neglect at the institution, including scientific research without consent, which resulted in permanent brain damage and paralysis for many patients, possibly including Elsie. While the hospital has closed, it too was surrounded by supernatural rumors. Regardless of the truth of these hauntings, the stories of patient abuse and neglect, including that of Elsie Lacks, are even more horrifying to consider.

What do you think of the connection between patient abuse and haunted hospitals? For further information, click here for Dayle Delancey’s article, which begins on page three. More information about Elsie Lacks is available in Chapter 33 of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, titled “The Hospital for the Negro Insane.”

Click here for a photograph exibit featuring Crownsville Hospital Center.