To understand the energies that may linger at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital one has to consider the philosophy driving metal health care in the 1900s. It was believed that those incapable of living with the rest of society due to mental illness should be given a safe haven. In this place they could be as insane as they liked and live a confined but safe life within these often self-contained institutions.
There was little effort put forth to return the individual to mainstream life, and many were eventually forgotten by family and friends. There were horrors, at least by today’s standards, particularly regarding those who struggled against the institutions’ rules and expectations.
Construction on the building to become St. Elizabeth’s began in 1852 on a tract of land over looking the Anacostia River. It was a red brick fortress designed by Thomas U. Walter in the Gothic revival style popular in the time period. It was to be a place where humane treatment was given to the insane of the Army, Navy and District of Columbia populations.
When it opened in 1855 it was called the Government Hospital for the Insane. It also housed wounded civil war soldiers, many of whom refused to refer to the place as an asylum but rather named it St. Elizabeth’s. It was in reference to the colonial name given to the land. There is a cemetery on the grounds where 300 of the dead military men are buried.
The institution was the result of Dorothea Dix’s efforts. It was her vision to provide humane and enlightened care to those deemed insane. The hospital was one of the first to perform procedures such as hydrotherapeutic (cold packs and eventually a full suit) therapy and frontal lobotomies. Today such practices raise more than eyebrows but at the time were considered legitimate treatments for the mentally disturbed.
At its peak the hospital employed 4,000 people and was home to 7,000 patients, and the grounds covered 300 acres. In 1987 ownership was transferred from the federal government to the DC Department of Mental Health. The treatment of the mentally ill was changing direction, with more energy put toward outpatient treatment and returning individuals to society. The need for such a large complex decreased.
Now, the original 1850s building still stands and is controlled by the federal government or, more specifically, the Department of Homeland Security. There is a working hospital on the grounds and, while tours are available, wandering from the designated and approved path is a bad idea.
It’s not surprising that the buildings and grounds are the site of paranormal activity. Many individuals spent a good deal of their lives there, and some were laid to rest in the area. There could well be active spirits still in residence for a variety of reasons, as well as residual energy from the events which took place.
Workers have reported cold spots, disembodied voices in the forms of moans and groans and footsteps echoing through vacant rooms. There seems to be a veil of secrecy surrounding the hospital, probably due in large to patient privacy and the federal government’s involvement. However, reports persist that workers find it difficult to stay in some areas for long and are witness to strange happenings.
On an interesting side note, a psychiatrist at the hospital was reported to have been involved in the exorcism case of a 14-year-old Mount Rainier boy. He kept a detailed journal of the events surrounding the case, and it is thought that it’s his document that fell into the hands of author William Peter Blatty. Blatty’s novel “The Exorcist” is based on the journal. This is not fact, only a theory set forth in an article (“The Truth Behind the Exorcist”) by Steve Erdmann, which was published in the 1975 edition of Fate Magazine.