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Haunted Hospitals and Patient Abuse

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.

9 thoughts on “Haunted Hospitals and Patient Abuse

  1. I think that hospitals are seen as haunting grounds and with the association of patient abuse, the idea adds up. It can be strongly correlated in my opinions yet we don't really know.

  2. Thanks for some useful insights as we consider the foundations of ghost stories related to hospitals. The sociological value of ghost stories and memory are definitely things to consider as we analyze the merits of paranormal tales, both as fact and folklore.

    I'm already familiar with the tales at Danvers State Hospital, which I only vaguely allude to in my podcast, Ghosts Near Salem, Massachusetts. Frankly, I don't talk much about the hospital because the paranormal reports are often intense. My readers (and listeners) often seek a "good scare," not truly traumatizing encounters.

    (In addition, I've heard that over 100 people have been arrested for trespassing at the hospital site since ghost hunting became popular around 2000. It's a good location to avoid, for many reasons.)

    If we approach ghost stories with a belief (real or temporarily adopted) in residual energy — as opposed to ghostly entities — we may be able to layer the original tragedies and then the stories built around them, partly so those events aren't forgotten or repeated.

    Danvers State Hospital is a quirky location, and its historical and paranormal connections are interesting.

    Many people don't realize that the origins of the Salem Witch Trials weren't in Salem… they were in Salem Village, now called Danvers.

    The stories at Danvers State Hospital are enhanced by the eerie architecture of the original hospital. I like the pictures at the Abandoned Photography site for the depth of eeriness they convey.

  3. Elsie is actually the OLDER sister of Deborah, Henrietta's second child, and not the youngest.

  4. Such a horrific tale – with a history like that it's no wonder that the Danvers and Crownsville hospitals emit a ghastly aura. I hope both buildings are demolished.