What is now an empty field, initially planned to house a Wal-Mart, stood a magnificent but unnerving facility. It’s grand, iron wrought fence surrounded the complex and the blood red brick towers rose overlooking the land around it for miles. The floor to ceiling picture windows allowed for generous views of the land before it became overgrown with brush. Numerous chimney stacks stretched above the roof line giving the structure an almost royal castle guise to the simple passerby. Before it was torn down, the Dixmont State Hospital (originally known as the Department of the Insane of Pittsburgh) housed both mentally and criminally insane inmates.
When it was first opened 1862, Dixmont was of high estate bringing in simple outcasts to society and the upper class troubled youth. At that time, any individual was served breakfast, lunch, dinner and had coffee and pastries readily accessible at any time of day. The residents provided in-house duties such as grounds maintenance, cooking responsibility, managing the coal burners, etc. Unfortunately, not even five years later the facility fell into disrepair.
The management who ran the property saw dollar signs rather than the happiness and comfort for neither their populace nor the staff on hand, who was severely underpaid to say the least. The population numbers increased in this time period, specifically with the handicapped, and the staff numbers dwindled to a sole few. Needless to say, the treatment of patients were far from appropriate and acceptable, but back in that time the inhabitants were dropped off and forgot about by society.
In 1869, less than seven years removed from it’s opening and gesture to accommodate anyone in need of help and housing, Dixmont Hospital was condemned by the state after a minor upheaval by the residents resulting in the deaths of three staff members, one of whom was pregnant, and six of the residents themselves including an apparent suicide where the patient vaulted through a fourth floor picture window.
The aftermath was brutal and the local authorities assumed control of the patients. During this transition most of the residents were deemed mentally incapable of their own thoughts and officially handicapped. There were multiple push-backs by the inmates, whether they were confused or just disturbed, they injured two police officers and one nurse. They liked to bite and scratch, really anything they could manage with their bare hands. Some of them were deemed insane and dangerous after these attacks; ultimately leading them to be locked in the basement.
With all of these strange occurrences, the police had no choice but to investigate during their occupation. What they discovered only lives on through local lure and folk tales. In the basement, the stench of urine and copper annihilated the investigators senses. There were numerous electric chair type contraptions lining the walls. Instead of shocking the patients though, it appeared as though they were hooked up to a listening device of some sort and their hands would have been strapped to two metallic bars in front of them. The initial review lead to a belief that anyone strapped to these machines was brainwashed with the voice recording system and a slight but steady shock running through the copper piping. The attacks were thought to be premeditated by the doctor staff!
Once the investigation was complete and the building halfway restored to its former glory by the state, a sale of the hospital took place in 1873. It was to a private buyer who operated under the surname of Kirkbride. After the sale was finalized an expansion of the property occurred. The Dixmont Kirkbride building was erected to separate the inmates from the staff as a precaution and safety measure resulting in the original downfall of the estate.
Little was known about this new owner but as a private sell the state could stay far from affairs as any elected official stepped foot on the property in the past had an immediate urge to vacate the property. No one wanted near the location. Kirkbride operated the facility under the name of Dixmont Mental Hospital and drew in crowds of nearly 400 inmates at its peak. They had no problem accepting payment from the state to hide their criminally insane and dangerous. The police set up in the basement remained intact and held the most dangerous prisoners in restrained jackets and tightly sealed rooms.
A cemetery was formally established and a large mass was held on-site to honor all the lost souls who had perished during the last regime and a large monument was erected with all of their names and any pictures families supplied. Few family members attended, however, a large number of elected officials were in attendance if for no other reason to show their good faith and prove that they left the hospital in good hands.
Over the next few years the numbers of housed patients grew. More expansions took place, adding full wings on both sides of the main building, a large rotunda in the staff quarters, and a full garden in a common area complete with a pergola and hanging vines. This new management and ownership really knew how to make their population comfortable and happy.
With as much praise that this Kirkbride received, the real owner was never seen only heard. His voice would sporadically be announced over loud speakers ensuring that they were all in good hands and that if they need anything to let the staff know. His office was always vacant. The lights always off and door locked. Not until the facility closed down for good in 1984, with over 100 years of service by the Kirkbride family, did the public (not on record of course) find out what was truly going on beneath the surface.
All seemed well under the tutelage of the Kirkbride family. Their names were never fully revealed but according to his staff, Mr. Kirkbride was a mental disorder specialist with a focus on the brain and the nervous system while Mrs. Kirkbride was a high powered attorney originally working in New York City. It was also well known that Mrs. Kirkbride was barren so they adopted one child who was actually seen frolicking amongst the patients and in the wooded area on a regular basis while he was young. In due time, the young Kirkbride also disappeared right along with his parents. The head nurse speculated in her daily journal that Mr. Kirkbride wanted to pass along his life’s work to someone and so he took his adopted son under his wing.
The maximum capacity for the hospital over the years was always filed as 400 occupants. The strange thing is that during those first few years in particular, the number of patients grew; and grew fast. Somehow though, that steady number of 400 occupants never wavered. The other peculiar aspect was that the dead were buried in the private cemetery, but never officially recorded in their deed book. There were never any hearses seen on-site nor were there ever any priests or church officiant spotted around the campus. Tombstones and fresh graves just seemingly appeared overnight. Before the demolition, the tombstones all read “Passed away peacefully from natural causes.” I don’t know about you, but those odds seem a little off that the vast array of deceased actually passed away from natural causes.
Regardless of the strange coincidences and possible conspiracy theories attached to the asylum, the police never once stepped foot on the grounds since they gave up control upon their sale. It was rumored that Mrs. Kirkbride with her well known connections to the government and their small fortune that they had some hands in the local government pockets. But whatever the case, Dixmont remained peaceful on the surface. To the locals, the government, and staff members (who were paid much better under the Kirkbride’s) that is what mattered most.
Let’s fast forward to Mr. Kirkbride’s passing in January of 1909. Mrs. Kirkbride refused to let him be buried on the cemetery grounds. She arranged for the doctoral board of the hospital, including the nursing corps, to escort her with her husband’s body back to New York City where she planned on opening a family plot back “home” as she stated numerous times. The journey was unsuccessful as a typical Pittsburgh winter storm picked up and halted the caravan.
Mrs. Kirkbride died that same night, next to her husband. They never made it to the family plot. They were buried side by side in the Dixmont cemetery much to her disapproval.
The estate fell on the young Kirkbride’s shoulders. Now, in his mid-thirties, known only as Junior Kirkbride he made his face well known around the facility. Unlike his father before him, he wanted to be well-known and a public figure. Still, the office which was passed down to him was never used.
The inhabitant numbers slipped until they reached an all-time low for the asylum of 53 only ten years later in 1929. At this point, the patients passed away regularly but during his tenure, Junior had the deaths recorded. They varied from simple and understandable causes like infections to suicides all the way up to “surgery accidents,” which seemed to be the bulk of the deaths under Junior. The families were never contacted upon deaths nor were they ever properly publicized. It was well recorded in local papers on multiple occasions families came looking for their loved ones only to find out they had passed away weeks, sometimes months ago.
Once reporters and investigators started appearing, Junior began to take after his father. It didn’t long for him to disappear completely, not even for his voice to be heard. In fact, Junior
Kirkbride was never heard of or seen again. The head of nursing took over until her death in 1983.
In 1984, the hospital was officially condemned and the few remaining inmates were dispersed between Mayview Hospital in Bridgeville, less than 20 miles away, and the Western Psychiatric Institute in Pittsburgh, barely 10 miles away.
The Dixmont Mental Hospital was demolished in 2006, but not before quite a few stories surfaced…
To Be Continued…