Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Oklahoma Sanitarium Company, 1895 - Reputed to be VERY haunted

Two wide-release, big-budget movies filmed in Oklahoma will be released in 2022.  First is the series on Paramount, Tulsa King, featuring Sylvester Stallone.  I watched the first episode. It was free.  I’m not sure I want to pay $10 / month for a Paramount subscription. Oklahoma is doing a great deal to try to attract companies to film in Oklahoma and to hire Oklahoma talent. I hope it works.  

Oklahoma would be a great location for horror films. Norman, Oklahoma, would be a perfect location for a new sort of horror film – not one designed just to shock, disgust, or startle, but one that would trigger compassion and a more open and inclusive view of history and the people we tend to hide and make invisible. 

In 1948, Daily Oklahoman journalist Mike Gorman published Oklahoma Attacks its Snake Pits in the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.  It was based on a long series of articles he had written about Norman, Oklahoma’s Central State Hospital, founded originally in 1895 as The Oklahoma Sanitarium Company, which took over the buildings first occupied by High Gate College, a Methodist women’s college founded in 1890, but quickly overshadowed by The University of Oklahoma. The book shocked its readers and Gorman went on to write another book which is available online, but originally published in 1956. Entitled Every Other Bed, it detailed mental health practices and patient care in mental hospitals throughout the United States.  It was a strong criticism of the mental health care, and it perpetuated the notion that “insane asylums” were “snake pits” where there was rampant abuse. Central State Hospital tried to fight back by filming a very detailed documentary in 1953, which focused on how benevolent and kind-hearted the mission of the hospital was.  It featured photos of mental health patients in rehabilitation activities such as working on farms and in bakeries. We were not treated to any scenes of electroconvulsive shock therapy, ice bath shock-to-the-system therapy (cold showers but taken to an extreme), sedation by Thorazine, or lobotomies. 

Oklahoma Sanitarium Company, established 1895 -- Hope Hall

Dr. Griffin founded the Oklahoma Sanitarium Company as a for-profit endeavor. It was envisioned as a cheaper alternative than shipping the “insane” and “mentally defectives” to a sanitarium in Illinois where it was necessary to pay $25 per month per patient for their room, board, and care. If they could take care of Oklahoma’s mentally ill, they would have a profitable, sustainable, ongoing business model. 

It worked well, but there were a few bumps in the road. First was a dreadful fire in 1915 which resulted in many deaths, partly because the wood walls and stairs were soaked in paraffin for sanitary reasons.  I guess it was designed so that human excretions would not soak in.  No one knew how many patients perished, or even exactly who they were until a study was conducted in 2015 using ground-penetrating radar. They found a mass grave with 39 boys’ bodies on the grounds, and after doing research, they found that they were between the ages of 10 and 15, and had been sent to live at the hospitals because they had what we would now call “Intellectual Disability Disorders.”  I would imagine that would include kids with Down’s Syndrome, extreme autism, very low IQ, etc. It’s very sad, and I can only imagine how it was in those days – having an “idiot” child was considered such a tremendous stigma.  So sad. I wonder if those little boys ever felt any love poured out toward them in their young lives. How could the mother give up on them? I don’t mean to judge – it would be hard at any point in time. 

The hospital rebuilt and expanded with stunning brick buildings with wrought iron and Corinthian pillars, as well as a gorgeous chapel. The largest of the buildings was named Hope Hall.  The goal was to try to help the patients who were deemed to be able to improve and to protect the more extreme cases from being a harm to themselves and/or to others. In 1953, there were 3,200 patients living there, and at least 500 employees. It was considered a small city and even had its own power plant, water supply (wells), cannery, bakery, farm, butchery, dairy, and laundry.  Obviously, there would be doctor’s offices and pharmacies as well. 

When I was a child, my Uncle Gene’s wife, Sylvia, was committed to Central State.  Uncle Gene was an electrical engineer and a bit of a geek. I am sure he drove her to a state requiring hospitalization.  Perhaps she was “out of hand.”  When I was an undergraduate, I knew a guy who worked there as an orderly. Apparently, it was true that on a full moon, there would be restlessness. Missives from a patient who claimed he an emissary from God would come to my dad’s office. I was always asked to write a polite response. In the 1960s, you could not enter the grounds without being allowed in by a guard at the gate. 

I think it would be an amazing to put together a ghost story / horror series with patient stories: 

Young intellectually disabled children who died In the fire

Elderly suffering from dementia (or greedy relative syndrome)

Extreme depression

Criminally insane (although Vinita had most of them)

Paranoid schizophrenia

Delusional disorder

Dipsomania (old term for alcoholism or violent cravings for alcohol)

Native Americans who violated cultural norms (and who may have had guardians for their oil and gas interests)

Each person’s story would be quite different, but there would be a common thread. I think there should be at least two story arcs, perhaps three. I can work those out. 

Here are a few ideas for the title of the series: 


Oklahoma Sanitarium Company

Hope Hall

Hospital Lake (not really appropriate because little would happen there)

Griffin Memorial (would be interesting although not accurate to include gryphons)

Echoes at Dawn

Probably Hope Hall would be the best. It’s an actual place, and not a title that has been used many times before. It is hard to tell from the photo, but the building is very large and has three Corinthian pillar entrances. Notice the barred balconies. It is probably a good idea, but rather scary. 

What makes mental illness so scary? I think that there are one or two obvious reasons – 

Lack of socialization & refusal to conform to social norms (and thus unpredictable)

Lack of contact with common points of reference, hence it’s hard to communicate or relate

Dehumanization – lack of markers that identify one as a human being – the half-human/ half-beast concept can be profoundly disturbing

The concept of community mental health care (outpatient, medication) took over and now the old residential “insane asylums” stand empty. Granted, the therapies were cruel. But is it better now in 2022 for the mentally ill?  As one article put it, in Oklahoma, the county jails are the mental health facilities, and they are woefully inadequate and unprepared. I’d say that homeless encampments are the ersatz, DIY insane asylums, but with self-medication and drug dealers acting as community mental health doctors. It’s horrible. I’d rather see people have opportunities to live in clean, regulated environments with the opportunity to work (farm, dairy, bakery, etc.).  But, the majority would probably prefer squalor. Mentally ill people prefer their ”freedom.” But, what is “free” about addiction? 

No comments: