Everything New Is Terrifying Again

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Gypsy Hill, Virginia, was founded in 1732 by Donald L. Packard, a railroad tycoon from Liverpool, England. He built his railroad which opened trade and growth to the North Eastern seaboard. After 400 homes, a bank, and five bars were constructed, the next set of buildings to go up in town comprised a mental institution. The Central Lunatic Asylum, a pristine example of Colonial revival architecture, opened in 1825, a crowning example of central Virginia’s newly materializing humanist policies.

Most of the picturesque and enjoyably walkable downtown was built between 1880 and 1910, tucked nicely in and around small but steep sloping hills, and surrounded by pink dogwood and Cleveland pear trees. It’s one of the finest Victorian small towns in America. In the pure sunlight illuminating brilliant blue skies, it feels like heaven. But when the gray, smoky fog rolls in over the west side of town, like soot spiraling up from a factory, you can’t help but think hell is on the way.

The asylum provided an aesthetically pleasing place to recover. Treatment centered around patient comfort, and participation in outdoor activities. Rooftop walks helped take in the majestic grounds and lush mountainside. Large common rooms connecting corridors encouraged socialization, as did group garden work. It was a natural therapeutic approach to psychiatric care. But after the Civil War, it turned into a dismal failure.

Insane asylums around the country suddenly became little more than warehouses for the dregs of society. The beautifully ornate structures common to the era proved to be dangerous to the patients housed inside them. In an effort to obtain better recovery outcomes, extreme techniques soon replaced the more principled philosophies of the past.  Restraint, seclusion, and frontal lobotomies soon were a part of health practice. Patients were involuntarily sterilized as a way to genetically improve the quality of the population.

This modern bit of torture, sterilization, became known as eugenics, eventually collapsing after society fully realized the extent of the horror science had unleashed into the world. The Central Lunatic Asylum’s population gradually dipped and later was converted into a state prison. From that point it closed after only twenty years because of a lack of inmates, where it fell into neglect and decay.

As with everything else in American culture, circumstances always end up traveling down Commerce Highway. A large, wealthy investment group (is there any other kind?) bought the twenty acre property, renovating the buildings into condos.

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The first female to grace the doors of Central  Lunatic Asylum was Margaret Thornberry, an elementary teacher and resident of Gypsy Hill. Margaret and her husband Richard, one of the few bankers in town, had two children, and were regular church-going folk. Richard complained to authorities that he couldn’t take his wife’s overt enthusiasm for church anymore, that her behavior was breaking their family apart. Margaret was brought to the asylum for evaluation, diagnosed with “religious excitement”, and was admitted.

Margaret told the asylum staff she felt all along her husband was trying to get rid of her, and this seemed like the most honorable way to do it. Naturally, the townspeople could sympathize with a husband dumping his wife because he was a respected banker, and she was accused of being crazy. Upon reflection, Margaret did sing louder than most in church, the parishioners gossiped. She talked on and on about the Lord to such a degree sometimes you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. She was always smiling, as if immersed in a rapturous state, even when there shouldn’t have been anything to smile about. Most parishioners now had understood why Richard had her taken away. They all prayed for her health… in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Margaret kept a journal those first few months. Bed bugs were common. Rats woke her up occasionally, running over and underneath her blankets. Sleep on those nights was impossible. Of course, there was nothing the staff could do to help. After several weeks the problems disappeared. For purposes of monitoring her recovery progress, Margaret wondered if these creatures had been placed in her room as an experiment.

But the odd occurrences continued on a regular basis. One day after the evening meal, she returned to her room and saw a bible on the table. Asylum policy forbade personal property of any kind on the premises. Again, thinking it might be a test, she decided to avoid it altogether and never open it. Now she wondered if she was the experiment.

Some time later, Margaret took a rooftop walk with an attendant, admiring the breathtaking scenery, reveling in the fresh mountain air. Her mind was at peace for one of the few times during her stay. For all the wrong that went on there, they got one thing right. Nature did soothe the nerves. She released herself from her meditative state to find herself alone. Her attendant stood talking to Charles Watt, asylum supervisor, watching her as he spoke. “He certainly was disinterested in engaging me in conversation as we walked,” she wrote in her journal. “When I noticed he had left my side without a word a fear overcame me. His occasional glances at me while he spoke to the supervisor seemed to be checking to see if I would move close to the edge, or even jump, as several patients had before.”

Margaret spent the next year in the asylum, and divorced, but was never suspicious of any ‘questionable’ treatment thereafter. She had no way of knowing how much better off she’d be than Claire O’Brien, admitted fifty years later at the height of the eugenics insanity, because of “excessive promiscuity.” Claire was sterilized, no doubt for the good of society, spent two weeks recovering, and was released.

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