For Hoosier storytellers with a taste for the macabre, the Central State Hospital is a familiar theme. The defunct institution on the near-west side of Indianapolis treated and housed many of the state’s mentally ill for almost 150 years. Having inspired countless ghost stories, Central State was the subject of a 2006 documentary film, whose director enlisted the services of psychics and paranormal specialists.
The locale owes its spooky reputation to an admittedly dark history. After twenty years in the planning, the Indiana Hospital for the Insane—as it was originally called—began treatment of five patients in 1848 in a single brick building on Washington Street. Over the next half-century, as the patient load swelled to almost 3,000, the facilities kept pace: in 1885, two ornate brick dormitories were erected on the institution’s extensive grounds. In time, a hospital for treating physical disorders, a farm colony, a chapel, an amusement hall and other structures went up. In 1896, a state-of-the-art pathology department opened, equipped with clinical labs, a teaching amphitheatre and autopsy rooms designed to further physicians’ understanding of the root causes of mental illness.
But the ambitions its directors had with regard to medical science were overshadowed by Central State’s insufficient funding, overcrowded conditions and under-qualified staff which—in tandem with the era’s limited understanding of mental illness—led to the abuse and neglect of patients. Uncontrollable cases were relegated to the hospital’s so-called dungeons, which were described in 1870 by a Central State superintendent as “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 forced to sleep on] forbidding skeletons of iron.” Other eyewitnesses and former patients testified to similarly cruel treatment, considered by some in the Victorian era to be curative of mental and emotional problems.
Although reformist zeal resulted in the construction of upgraded facilities in 1885, and mental asylums opening in other parts of the state took some of the burden off Central by the dawn of the twentieth century, reports of abuse persisted. During the national trend toward de-institutionalization of the mentally ill in the 1960s, the hospital’s client population diminished. By the late 1970s, the grand Victorian structures that had housed men and women separately on the campus were razed, making way for several less architecturally distinguished buildings. The once-pioneering pathology building was left standing on the Central State property. The nation’s oldest surviving facility of its kind, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now houses the Indiana Medical History Museum. Central State Hospital closed its doors for good in 1994, and in 2006 reports emerged that the property had been purchased for mixed-use development.