If there’s something I have learned from waking my happy ass up at 3 in the morning to venture hours away and photograph a location, aside from the proverbial ‘the early bird catches the worm,’ it would be that 4 in the morning, through the back roads of Ohio’s countryside yields no traffic…not a car for miles. This was a fairly constant thought during my first hour of driving the morning of this explore.Tucked deep within the mountainous woods of Maryland lays a former asylum, once home to thousands of the District’s most mentally ill patients.
Erected in 1925, this large 200 acre, 22-building compound would welcome some of the most mentally ill that the District of Columbia had to offer. As years passed, institutionalization became more of a last resort, and as treatment methods advanced, this particular selection of wards sat still, falling behind. In the 1960s, funding was drastically cut for this institution, and with recreation and athletic programs dropping nearly out of the picture, residents began to suffer. As population within the walls grew larger and larger, patients would wander empty, padded rooms unfit for any type of living as previously planned. Physical, mental and sexual harassment was running rampant through these living corridors and everything began to fall apart.
Hundreds upon hundreds of deaths occurred within the asylum, where usually bodies were taken to a tiny morgue deep within the basement before being transported to their final resting place, an unmarked grave on asylum grounds. Now, 387 people lie buried below a headstone, which was purchased by families of residents in the 1980s. The headstone stands alone in a field, as a monument to the losses these families had to face.
In 1976, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the asylum for its grounds being unfit to house a patient of any type, noting that there was little to no treatment within these decaying, dimly-lit buildings. These spaces sat too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, abuse was at an all-time high and this center for education and treatment was turning to nothing but a center for abuse and decay.
In 1978, the Department of Justice joined the suit, forcing the District to relocate the hospital’s residents, and so began the largest overhaul, ever, of its mental health system. For the better part of the next 15 years, patients were transported to group homes, where they would finally get the attention and treatment that was always much needed.
For its final few years, the death toll continued to rise as more and more patients were dying of aspiration pneumonia, where food enters the respiratory system, due to being fed while lying down in beds. Though the District demanded the asylum to improve how patients had been treated and improve conditions for the falling population, nothing more was ever enforced within its walls, while “doctors” and “employees” turned a deaf ear to orders.
September 29, 1991 marks the final hours of the asylum’s life, when the final 15 patients were moved onto a newer, better location for treatment, leaving the 22-building complex nothing but a massive shell of abandonment.
With every piece of equipment, all tools, furnishings, records and all left behind, this massive section of land now sits as a time capsule of horrific memories accompanied by a very dark history.
America has since changed, and over these years, so has its health system. Insane asylums such as these have now become less prevalent in today’s society, as have such treatments, which you would see being commonly practiced in the dark days of what was then thought of as normal procedure. I grind my teeth at the thought of such practices once being heralded as modern medicine. I mean, imagine going in for a routine check-up where the doctor straps your head back to a solid metal restraint pallet, cold, itchy leather wrapping around your sweaty forehead. “Open up” says the dentist, while he grinds a sharp utensil forcibly into your mouth. This does not sound like a fun time, and I have to say I’m quite glad we have advanced beyond these systems.
What is it that brings a haunting, chilling feel to places such as this? Could it be the years of collected deaths, each stranger in their own stories, or a vibrant, gruesome history of medical procedures performed on insane patients, as some struggle to survive, while others attempt to end their lives? Rusted, rotting bed frames, where once lie the mentally ill, now consumed by the aging of time as the rest of the building warps into a state of decay around them. The fluttering, of swinging doors, scraping their way across a debris-cluttered ground, coming to a loud pounding halt could make anybody’s heart skip a beat while standing amidst such a dark destruction. Click-clacking and tip-tapping water drips to the counters holding medical equipment left behind.
At times, while tracing these long corridors back and forth, you may still catch a sterile scent lingering in the air. Examining these spaces is sometimes more than just researching the previous functions of a space, but immersing yourself in the fragmented remains of entire past lives. A cracking canopy hangs above us as we tread the destruction of time and nature, passing through the rooms where immensely insane patients were kept behind locked doors, with only the silence of their padded room to comfort them.
Examining the post-apocalyptic scene which stood before me, buried deep down in the basement’s morgue, I thought to myself ‘people have died here…people have literally gone bat-shit crazy and this was their final resting place before the dirt plot on these very same grounds.’ Needless to say, it’s always a chilling experience when you are face to face with the rolling trays, which used to hold fresh, cold dead bodies…Eh. So how could so much fall into such a monotonous mess of ruination?
Death was a common occurrence in these asylums, as it is in almost any hospital, for it is inevitable to all of us, and apparently our structures…but what is it about death that intrigues us as human beings so much? Think about it, most of us think about it more than any other aspect of our lives. We rarely think about our birth, before our birth, even our current living of life, but we seem to wonder about what happens when we die, how we will die or how soon. I feel that this is one piece that connects us to the dilapidated structures, in the sense that not only can we focus a strong interest on the lives lead through these spaces, or that we could have a history there ourselves, but we have a chance to examine the before, beginning, middle and afterlife of something that was once grand and full of life. We are given the chance to see what we have left behind, what we have forgotten, and how the afterlife has progressed it into natures play toy, while a full fern garden covers the church floor. This is no longer just photojournalism, it’s almost a post-apocalyptic artistic movement, and we can make a great impact on the minds of those around us, bringing them to attention that these fantasy worlds truly exist, though they are far from happy fantasy…yet a dark, dreary one.
When most people realize that something like this; a video game-esque post-apocalyptic scene resides directly across their neighborhood, they become baffled at how long it has slipped through their attention. As an explorer, I always wonder how. Where we once pictured a chrome skyline and hover cars now shows a dull, cracking city host to abandonment and these forgotten, crumbling structures.