When Darkness Comes
To Central State
An Exclusive Book Excerpt from
"Haunted Indiana 3" by Mark Meriman
Each night, the darkness comes to the grounds of the former Central State Hospital once again. Nearby, in the thriving heart of this metropolitan city, night is merely an illusion, broken by the harsh incandescence of street lamps, or stained the gaudy colors of neon lights. But across this sprawling landscape, the night is something more…something that seems to take on a life of its own. Here the darkness is palpable. It creeps over the grounds, seeping through the cracks of boarded up doorways and steals down dusty halls now long abandoned.
Here the clouds passing over the pale face of the moon cast strange, misshapen shadows on the lawn. Windows of empty buildings stare unseeing into the gloom and the distant murmur of traffic is quickly lost to the pervading, ominous silence that blankets the grounds.
Here the night has a pulse and a breath that brings with it a cool dampness as from the crypt. It is this breath that whispers through the leaves of the tall oak trees that dot the landscape; sighing and gently moaning along the wrought iron fence that separates the grounds from the city that surrounds it. It is this breath that wraps itself around the mute structures in an unearthly caress
Here there are things not fully alive and yet not quite dead. Troubled voices from the past and, perhaps, as some would suggest, even more. Spirits hungering for a freedom and healing they never found in life.
When all is said and done, perhaps the tales told of the place may be simply attributed to the night. Possibly these stories that have been born of the night may take their only reality from it. However, according to the belief of some, perhaps there may be more to them than just moon shadow and wind. Perhaps the night brings with it something mysterious to this place… strange echoes of a sometimes tragic past - voices at once pitiful and plaintive, even more so in death than they once were in life.
The story of Central State Hospital is one of both hope and despair, promise and anguish, extraordinary care and inhuman cruelty. It is a story of souls mended and lives extinguished. It is the story of an institution once venerated for its pioneering efforts in the treatment of mental illness and yet continual rumors of horrific abuse that, in part, caused the hospital’ s ultimate demise.
The story begins in 1827, when the Indiana Legislature authorized the establishment of a “hospital for the insane.” Plans for this venture were formulated, but due to delays, (primarily with state funding) it was not until 1848 that the “Indiana Hospital for the Insane” opened its doors in the young city of Indianapolis. At the time of its inauguration, the institution consisted of one brick building located on 100 wooded acres. However, demands placed on the hospital and staff soon dictated the expansion of the facility and over the next half-century many more buildings quickly arose within the fenced enclosure.
Eventually, a huge gothic building called “seven steeples” was built four housing women patients, as well as a similar dormitory for men. A chapel, a “sick hospital” (for the treatment of patients suffering form physical as well as psychiatric conditions) and a host of other buildings soon sprang among the tall oaks that dot the campus.
The buildings were badly needed for the steady inflow of patients greatly increased with the passing years. While today, inpatient psychiatric hospitals are generally reserved for patients with severe emotional or psychological stress, in the 19th century, the term “insane” had a broad and varied definition. Those coming through the doors of Central State Hospital (as it was shortly renamed) suffered from a wide variety of emotional and mental health illnesses.
The conditions treated at the hospital spanned the spectrum from clinical depression to schizophrenia. Sadly, many warehoused at the institution were sent there because they were termed “simple,” a colloquial term for mentally handicapped. Inevitably, Central State was also known to count among its patients those diagnosed as “criminally insane.”
These patients, judged too prone to violence to be housed in less secure institutions, were held under tight security and at times in the early history of the institution, were kept in a state of near perpetual restraint. Though no firm confirmation may be ascertained, it is said that workers in the 1950’s, while renovating some of the over five miles of tunnels that connected the buildings, discovered dark rooms in the recesses of the tunnels that still bore chains and manacles on their walls.
Other examples of the sometimes barbaric methods employed in retraining patients in the early days of Central State are more easily confirmed. As recorded in the official Indiana archives, on the surface, Central State Hospital seemed to be a fairly pleasant place. A closer look, however, revealed some unsavory realities. For decades, the hospital confined its “worst inmates,” those who screamed incessantly, or who were hostile to staff, to the basement or ‘dungeons’ of the hospital.
Dr. Everts, superintendent of Central State in 1870, vividly reported his findings regarding the conditions at there in a letter to the Governor of Indiana:
“Basement dungeons are dark, humid and foul, unfit for life of any kind, filled with maniacs who raved and howled like tortured beasts, for want of light and air and food and ordinary human associations and habiliments.”
In his report to the Governor, Dr. Everts goes on to state that even the ‘normal’ wards were “without adequate provision for light, heat and ventilation”. Patients, according to his report, were forced to sleep on straw mattresses amid buildings with rotting floors and leaking roofs.
Despite Dr. Evert’s pleas for funding to improve the conditions at Central State, his cries went unheard by state legislators. In 1872, Dr. Everts, frustrated in his efforts to improve the situation there, resigned in protest.
However, it should not be assumed that the entire history of Central State Hospital is one of inhuman treatment of the mentally ill. Eventually, a special committee was convened by the state legislature to investigate conditions there. Their report resulted in sweeping changes in the facility and treatment methods. By 1890, in part due to rising public awareness of abuses at the hospital, conditions began to improve there.
Use of restrains was greatly curtailed and more attention was paid to treating rather than warehousing patients. Social activities were regularly scheduled for staff and patients and vocational rehabilitation was introduced. It was also at this time that more scientific methods of researching the causes of mental illness were brought to the institution.
Under the Superintendence of Dr. Edenharter, a new “Pathology Laboratory” was constructed on the edge of the hospital campus. It was here that hundreds of autopsies were performed on deceased patients and the results shared in lectures to medical students who regularly met there. In time, a brick annex, called the “dead house” was attached to the building to store bodies awaiting autopsy. It was hoped that by examining the physiology of the mentally ill, some physical cause for their condition could be ascertained and new cures for mental illness could be found. It seemed that a new era had arrived for mental health and in particular, for Central State Hospital.
However, despite the best efforts of superintendents through the latter part of the 19th century, the plight of Central State remained a mixed bag. During the twentieth century, the hospital attracted many physicians of national and international renown and patient treatment overall continued to improve. It should be noted that many of those who worked tirelessly at Central State for many years did so with a care and selfless dedication that was a credit to their lives and profession. As a result of their efforts, many of those who passed through the halls of Central State were treated with respect and dignity. Today all across the state, countless people have had their lives made better through the time they spent at this institution.
Still, it must be noted that through the years, persistent allegations of patient neglect and abuse continued to dog the institution. Reports periodically filtered out to the press regarding the callous use of restraints, beatings and worse. Indianapolis newspapers quickly picked up on lurid and sensational tales of patient mistreatment and neglect. Overcrowded conditions, a perpetual lack of funding and sometimes poor training of staff added to a gathering cloud over the hospital.
In the late 1970’s, most of the hospitals ornate Victorian-era buildings were declared unsound and demolished to be replaced with institutional brick dormitories. However, despite the long awaited improvements to the physical structure of the hospital, the fate of Central State seemed cast. According to Indiana State Archives,
“These modern buildings and the medical staff therein continued to serve the state’s mentally ill, until allegations of patient abuse and funding troubles sparked an effort to forge new alternatives to institutionalization which, in turn led to the Hospital’s closure.”
Indeed, in 1994, riding a national trend away from large institutional settings, the state of Indiana closed Central State Hospital. Thus ended 146 years of service at the institution. Upon closure, the facility reverted to the control of the state which, with the help of the State Archives, chose to preserve at least some of the buildings. The old pathology building was converted for use as the Indiana Medical History Museum, while the rest of the facility is maintained under the direction of the State Board of Health and guarded by the Capital Police.
In retrospect, the closure was bittersweet. While no doubt the national movement in the mental health field away from warehousing patients in large institutions was good for some individuals, for others this move was tragic. The wholesale deinstitutionalization of such a large number of patients left many without adequate care or shelter. Some were left to wander the streets with sometimes-dreadful consequences.
Moreover, the closure of Central State Hospital sadly ended nearly a century and a half of history – some of it glorious and some appalling. In the end the history of Central State, like that of any such institution, is a mix of pride and shame, acclaim and dishonor. For the many who served so hard and long in the care of the mentally ill, Central State will always have a place of reverence and honor. For those patients who may have lived and died in horrific circumstances there, it will forever be a place of horror.
And, according to some, the horror may not yet be over.
For, it is said, that within the confines of the wrought iron fence that surrounds the Central State campus, at least some of the dead remain still. Amid the darkness that descends again each night, plaintive, poignant phantoms are said to still linger, searching for the release of suffering they never found in life. According to some, it is their cries which are heard in the deepening shadows each evening. It is their chilling presence that comes with the dark, transforming these beautiful grounds into a place that is truly of the night.
One of those who claim to have heard their voices is Louis Jarecki, who has worked at Central State for over 22 years. In his time at the hospital, he has filled a variety of positions that have bought him into all areas of the hospital.
“When I first came here, “ says Mr. Jarecki, his gravely voice belying a gentle twinkle in his eye, “I worked as security. It was our job to make sure the patients stayed put and that was not always easy. Occasionally, we had to wrestle with some of the more violent patients in order to keep them from hurting themselves. Then, after a while, I went to work in the boiler room maintaining the steam pipes in the buildings. When the main boiler room was shut down, I went to work in the electrical shop.”
Since the hospital shut down, Mr. Jarecki has continued to work in a variety of functions there, from general maintenance to night security. As such, he has been privy to some unsettling and seemingly inexplicable occurrences there.
“What you have to understand is that I hear them all the time. Anybody could. You have to be perceptive, but you can definitely hear them,” Mr. Jarecki says, his eyes suddenly turning serious. His grave demeanor is understandable, for the ‘them’ to which Jarecki is referring are the sounds that he has heard while making his nightly rounds of the hospital. “You hear them on the grounds,” he continues. “It is crying - sometimes screaming, like you used to hear when the patients were still here. While I worked here, we had patients who would scream constantly and who suffered. We even had one patient who hung himself. Sometimes at night you can still hear them scream and moan.”
Although Mr. Jarecki says that he had heard these noises all throughout the hospital campus, one area in particular has drawn his attention more than once. It is an area that he says has a morbid past.
According to Jarecki, at one time a patient was stoned to death by another patient in a grove of trees that shade one side of the grounds. “I remember that the patient who did it was immediately shipped to Logansport Hospital afterward,” he now says. “But when you walk by that grove of trees at night you can still hear the screaming and moaning coming from it.”
As disturbing as these sounds are, they have not been Louis Jarecki’s only contact with the inexplicable at Central State. “I have also seen things,” he flatly states. “At night, when I have been working the guard shack, I have seen what look like patients run by and into the street. They just look like a blur. You see, those gates used to be there to help keep some of the patients in the Hospital and every so often, one of them would try to get out by running past the gates. We guards would have to go after them. Several times since the patients have been moved out I have still seen these figures.”
Some might well attribute such sightings as a trick of light as seen through the tired eyes of a night watchman. Louis Jarecki, however, believes they are the spiritual remnants of patients who are still seeking their freedom, even after their mortal lives have ended.
Were Jarecki the only member of the Central Hospital staff to report such occurrences, his information might be viewed with skepticism if not outright disbelief. However, many other current and former workers at the institution have their own tales to tell. Another present employee at the Hospital, Ben Gray* speaks of a great many such experiences. Like Mr. Jarecki, through his job Gray has often been called to work at Central State at night, often performing routine maintenance. At such times, he too reports having heard strange and eerie sounds coming to his ear through the cool night air.
“Over in the old power house, we used to have to go down and pull ashes twice during our shift at night. It was dark and eerie down there, even during the day, I can tell you,” Mr. Gray says. “At nighttime it seemed a lot worse, somehow. We would go down there and pull ashes while the boiler operator stayed upstairs at his post. That’s when it would happen. I swear we used to hear what sounded like a woman screaming and moaning in the corner. We would look around and search the place, but there wasn’t anyone down there but us.”
At other times, things in the boiler room got even stranger. “I used to sit there, while we took a break from shoveling the ashes and I would swear that I could see shadows or people moving from column to column. There are several big columns in the room and I would catch their movement between them. It got me so scared that I looked all over the place and could find nothing. I absolutely knew that I saw something down there out of the corner of my eye.”
As strange as these experiences were for Gray, they pale in comparison with an incident a coworker reported to him one night at the same maintenance building. “I had a coworker, Ron, who got really spooked” he now recalls. “He was down there in the one of the pump rooms taking a nap late one night. I was taking a break with the other guys on the main floor when he came up white as a sheet – he was just scared to death. I took one look at him and said ‘What’s the matter with you?’ ”
In a shaky voice, the coworker explained that he had been awakened from his illicit sleep in the basement with the strong sensation of being strangled.
“He said to me, ‘Someone was choking me down there.’ ” Mr. Gray reports. “Then he went on to say, “I could feel the hands around my neck but when I broke loose and went and turned on the light and there was nobody down there.’ I told him he was nuts - that he had just had a bad dream. But he looked me square in the eye and said ‘Oh yea, what about this?’ Then he pulled down the neck of his shirt and sure enough, there were deep red marks on his throat, just like somebody had put their hands there and pressed.”
Ben Gray concludes his story by noting that from that point on, his fellow employee steadfastly refused to enter the pump rooms of the building. “One time we were told to go down there and fix the pump,” Gray recalls, “and he refused. He said, ‘I will quit if I have to go down there.’ So I had to go get someone else to help me fix the pump.”
Mr. Gray also reports odd instances of electrical devices apparently turning themselves on without the aid of any human agent. “In the basement of the old power house” he explains, “we had a conveyer belt that used to be used to carry coal to the boiler. There was a switch for it on the far wall and I remember you had to press it hard to turn it on.”
“Well, one night I was in that room with the boiler operator and we were the only ones in the building,” he continues. “We were sitting at a table just talking, when suddenly we heard the click of the switch on the far side of the room and the belt turned on. We were shocked but we went over and turned it off again and then we searched that whole area, but we were the only ones there”.
“Later,” Gray remembers with a wry smile, “we were walking out of the building and as we walked to the door, we heard a hum coming from the basement we had just come from. We listened for a minute and realized that it sounded like that conveyer belt had turned itself on again. I asked the other man with me if he wanted to go down and see what was going on, but he said ‘There is no way in hell I’m going back down there!’ I agreed, so we locked up the building and left.”
Voices and the hum of a conveyor belt that should not be on are not the only things Gray has apparently heard while in the precincts of Central State Hospital. He claims other sounds resound through the administration building late at night. “A lot of times, I am in the administration building at night all by myself,” he says. “Many times I have heard what sound like footsteps going up and down the halls. At first I thought they were just the sounds of animals and then I realized that they were animals wearing high heels.”
One particular instance remains clear in his memory. “I was in the main office in the Administration building, sitting back in a chair with my eyes closed” he recalls, “when I heard the clear sound of footsteps crossing the tile floor of the main lobby. They walked across the lobby and came straight toward to the big sliding window at the front of the office. I thought maybe someone had come into the building unexpectedly so I got up quick and went to the window, but there was no one there.”
“However, as I stood there looking into the empty lobby,” he adds, “I could hear the footsteps walking away from the window into the building. I could trace where the person should have been from the sound of the steps but no one was there at all. I know it all sounds crazy, but let me tell you, there are some pretty strange things that go on here at night.”
Ben Gray is not alone in this supposition. Indeed, while it must be said that many who have and do work around the facility claim no such experiences with the supernatural, in talking with many others, a surprising number of strange stories quickly come to light.
Sandra Torreson* was a psychiatric nurse at Central State for 6hears, from 1986 until its closure in 1994. While she readily states that she is an “agnostic with regard to things ghostly,” still, many of the stories she heard while working at the Hospital and at least one or two of her own experiences, have given her reason to wonder.
“No one talked about the stories all that much,” Ms. Torreson says. “I don’t think the administration was all that wild about it’s staff talking about ghosts, but still, after I had been there a while, a couple of the older nurses mentioned what they had seen and heard. It was pretty weird stuff.”
One story in particular has haunted her ever since. “I remember when I heard the story,” she recalls. “It was a year after I started working at the hospital when a couple of girls and I went out for coffee after work.”
Over coffee, the nurses began to talk about their place of employment and one stated that she refused to enter the “catacombs,” (as the long tunnels that connected the building were called) after dark. Then she cryptically added, “Especially since Agnes told me about talking to her friend down there.”
Intrigued, Ms. Torreson asked her coworker about the story of Agnes and the woman quickly warmed to her tale. As she recalls the story, it seems that several years before, a male patient named Alvin was suddenly found to be missing from the institution. While Alvin was on a “non secure” ward and not considered dangerous to himself or others, still an alarm was posted. All the buildings at Central State were searched from top to bottom, with no result. Local police were notified and all staff were told to be on the lookout for the missing patient.
According to Ms. Torreson, the nurse who told the story said that as time passed and no sign of Alvin had been found, it was assumed that he had somehow wandered off into the streets of Indianapolis and that he would never be seen again. This might well have remained the popular opinion, except for the odd behavior of a female patient some months later.
“My friend told me that one of the women on her ward, a lady named Agnes, suddenly began wandering off,” she now relates. “She would just disappear from the ward and they would have to search for her. Inevitably, she would be found on the steps that led down in the catacombs, just sitting by herself. It got to be so regular that when she disappeared, instead of calling security they would just send one of the nurses down there to bring her back up.”
Ms. Torreson goes on to say that her coworker told of one night when Agnes, true to form, disappeared from the ward and she was told to go down and persuade her to return to her room. The nurse in question went and found the patient in her customary place on the stairs leading down to the tunnels.
“My friend said that as they were walking back to the ward, just out of curiosity, she asked Agnes why she liked to go down there and Agnes told her ‘I go down there to talk with my friend.’ She said she was about to dismiss the remark as merely the fantasy of a delusional patient until the woman said, ‘His name is Alvin and he says he lives in the tunnel.’ ”
The remark caught the attention of the nurse, who realized the significance of the name Agnes had just mentioned. Returning to her ward, the nurse immediately called the security office and asked if the missing patient, Alvin, had yet been found. When the chief told her he had not, she suggested that the tunnel beneath her building be searched and related the story told to her by the patient. It was her thought that somehow, the patient Alvin might not have escaped at all, but had merely wandered into the tunnels and had somehow managed to survive there.
That afternoon, members of the security staff combed the tunnel beneath the women’s ward, once more to no avail. They were about to give up when one officer noticed the grate leading to a small crawl space ajar. Carefully he removed the grate and, using his flashlight, entered the small area.
There he found the still body that used to be Alvin. It was all too clear that the man had been dead for several months; thus resolving the mystery of Alvin’s disappearance. However this led to an even more odd question: how could a patient who had no contact with Alvin in life, claim to visit with him regularly in the weeks after his death? It is a question that today still haunts some familiar with the story.
“When my friend got done telling her story, there was dead silence at the table. You could have heard a pin drop. But then several of the other woman at the table exploded with stories of their own.”
According to Ms. Torreson, another nurse, who had been at Central State for many years told of another strange experience. The nurse claimed that while exploring the tunnels many years before, she had discovered an adjacent room with a dirt floor and manacles attached to the walls. Repulsed by the sight, she quickly left the room and continued with her explorations, yet several months later, while walking past that particular room; she was terrified to hear the sound of moaning coming from within. Mrs. Torreson continues that the nurse who related the story told of how she steeled her nerve and opened the door to the room, only to find it dark and utterly empty.
Understandably, the stunned nurse slammed the door and fled the tunnel. Ms. Torreson remembers that the nurse who told the tale concluded it by relating that, months afterward, when she finally confided the incident to her supervisor she was told, “Oh, never mind that. We all know about that room and we all stay away from it. A lot of us have heard those things.”
Interestingly, Ms. Torreson notes that the only time she personally encountered anything strange while at Central State was in January of 1994, shortly before the hospital closed. “At the time, we were already starting to transfer patients to other hospitals,” Ms. Torreson recalls, “and there was a lot of commotion on the ward. I was working the late shift and I spent most of my time trying to get the patients to calm down and go to sleep. Finally, about 3 AM, things finally got quiet and I sat down for a minute to catch my breath.”
As Ms. Torreson tells the story, her well-deserved break that night was disturbed several minutes later by the sound of a woman’s sobs floating to her ear from the direction of a dark hallway. With a sigh of resignation, Ms. Torreson rose from her chair and wandered down the hall, ready to calm whatever patient had become distraught in the night. However, as she neared the source of the sound, she quickly realized that they were coming from a patient room that was supposed to be empty, it’s occupants having already been transferred to another institution.
“I thought to myself, ‘Now, who has gotten into this empty room?’ ” Ms. Torreson says. “I was not too happy that someone had gotten out of their bed in the night and gone into another room. At the door I paused for a moment and listened to the sobbing coming from inside. There was something about it that made all the hair on my arms stand up. It was heartbreaking - like someone inside was in incredible pain or distress. But when I opened the door, the crying suddenly just stopped and there was no one there. The room was empty – even the beds were gone. I stood there and in that moment I was scared to death.”
As strange as the event was, it was not the last of Ms. Torreson’s encounters with the unexplained that night. She goes on to say that, shocked and disturbed by her experience in the apparently empty room, she returned to her desk quickly poured herself a cup of coffee to calm her shaken nerves.
“As I sat there, I tried to make sense of what had happened. I tried to tell myself that maybe it was my imagination, or the wind, or anything but it I knew what I had heard.” She recalls. “Then, while I was thinking about it all, I kind of subconsciously looked down to the end of the hall where the room was and I saw this hazy kind shadow floating in front of the room. I turned my head and stared in that direction and at that moment, it zipped down the hall and disappeared into the wall at the end of the hallway. It took just a moment and it was gone but I know I saw something.”
By now shaken, Ms. Torreson decided to sit out the rest of her shift at her desk and hope that she was not called to tend to a patient. Gratefully, she now reports, she was not.
Although her sighting of a hazy shadow in the hallway may sound, it is interesting to note that it correlates with the story of an experience reported by a Capital Police Officer in 1997. As a part of the Capital Police Force, (an extension of the Indiana State Police entrusted the task of guarding state owned buildings in and around Indianapolis) it was his occasion to respond to a call at Central State Hospital. The call stated that a workman had seen movement in an upstairs window in the now abandoned women’s dormitory.
As the officer later told the story to a fellow police officer, he drove to Central State that night and entered the building, his flashlight the only illumination because there was no electricity running to the building. He carefully and silently made his way to the second floor, where the movement had been sighted and began the task of searching every room for any sign of an intruder. He was almost to the end of the hallway when, exiting a room, he was suddenly startled by the sound of a woman’s high-pitched cry. As he later reported to his friend,
“I spun around and saw what looked like a woman in a robe run past me down the hallway. She was kind of hazy but I could see her in the flashlight
beam. Before I could draw my gun or even call for her to stop, she ran right into a wall at the end of the hallway and disappeared through it. “ Shaken by the sight, this veteran officer exited the building and returned to his station, vowing to never again visit Central State if it could be avoided.
Nor is this officer alone in his experiences. It is said that recently, two Capital Police Officers were dispatched to Central State on another late night call of movement seen in one of the buildings there. As they walked through the hallways, with their flashlights in hand, suddenly both their lights extinguished themselves simultaneously.
As a fellow officer comments, “Those flashlights are the $100.00 cop flashlights. They are built so that you can immerse them in water, run them over with a truck and drop them over a cliff and they will still work. That one would go out is strange but when both went out at the same time… I guess those officers nearly ran over each other getting out of there.” Their haste, of course, can be understood. Perhaps it is best not to tarry too long in a place where the night holds sway in deep and mysterious ways.
It should be carefully noted that the exact historical veracity of the ghostly tales told of Central State cannot be verified. The Indiana Board of Health, which currently owns the Central State campus, categorically denies that there are any ghostly activities there and many who work at the site will agree.
Perhaps, after all, these tales are nothing more than stories born of the darkness and chill that seems to hold these grounds in their grip each night. Perhaps, after all, there is nothing more here in this once vaunted institution than moonlight and shadow.
But if one asks some current and past employees of Central State, they will tell you differently. They will tell you that when the darkness comes each night to this place, it carries something with it - something not fully alive and yet not quite dead. Troubled voices from the past and, perhaps, as some would suggest, even more. Spirits pleading for a freedom and healing they never found in life.
According to the tales told, they are the spirits of the night at Central State Hospital and a classic part of Indiana ghostlore.
© Copyright 2001 by Mark Marimen. All Rights Reserved.
Ghosts of the Prairie is © Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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