the advent of cognitive therapy or the development of psychotropic drugs designed
to relieve or at least lessen the effects of many forms of mental illness, no
wonder “crazy” people scared those who perceived themselves sane.|
through the 1950s, Texans referred to facilities built to house people who today
could probably live normal lives, as lunatic or insane asylums. The unfortunate
folks relegated to these places were feared, and in the case of some of them,
rightfully so. No question, bi-polar disease, untreated schizophrenia or outright
psychosis can bring about real-life Halloween-like scenarios.
to real world mental issues, which could be scary enough, popular culture added
to the public perception that the best place for the mentally ill to be was tightly
bound in a straightjacket behind locked doors and high fences. Movies, and even
early television, portrayed the mentally ill as frightening-looking people with
vacant stares, unkempt hair, and inappropriate grins and laughter. Any contact
with such people was dreaded and avoided if possible.
An example from the
mid-1970s is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” with Jack Nicholson and Louise
Fletcher. Though the patients in that film were portrayed sympathetically, the
quality of care in mental institutions was not. Nurse Ratched was no Florence
Nightingale. Anyone sitting uncomfortably through that Oscar-winning movie is
not likely to forget the shock treatment scene. Following that, which was unsettling
enough, came the ultimate horror, a lobotomy.
On top of everything else,
those who were institutionalized for life sooner or later died. Mix mentally ill
stereotypes with death and you have the ingredients for some pretty frightening
brings us to an old two-story building on the far south side of Wichita
Falls known as White Sanitarium or the “old insane asylum.”
of the place has nothing to do with the Jim Crow era, though it operated in that
day. Rather, It honored the facility’s founder, Frank S. White, who opened it
in 1926 back when the standard treatment for troubled people was to lock them
White had been head of what is now the Austin State Hospital before
moving to Northwest Texas. When he was in the Capital
City, of course, the institution he oversaw was more generally known simply
as the State Lunatic Asylum.
Actually, White had a modern outlook on mental
health. He believed that his sanitarium should be a home, not a prison. But he
ran the place for only about five years before bad physical health forced him
After that, the sanitarium had a succession of operators until
it closed at some point in the 1950s after a flood damaged it. Located in an isolated
area south of the Wichita River, it stood empty for decades. And while its former
residents were long gone, the local perception soon arose that, reminiscent of
the Eagles’s hit song “Hotel California,” some of their spirits had not checked
out. Ironically enough, the sanitarium is on California Street.
years passed, the former sanitarium morphed from vacant building to haunted old
insane asylum. The empty building seemed to have a particular attraction to local
teenagers, who found it a scary place to hang out and drink or take their girlfriends.
Local folklore included tales of floating glowing ends of cigarettes
(everyone smoked back then, including ghosts), crazy looking apparitions in hospital
gowns, a woman in white walking the grounds or staring out of a window, children’s
voices, lights in the windows at night despite the lack of an electrical connection
and even a ghostly stag poker game in the former recreation room.
as mental health care has progressed, so has the state of the art in investigating
the paranormal. With the development of new technology, which includes everything
from infrared cameras to instruments that detect energy fields and sounds imperceptible
to the ear, ghost hunters found the vacant sanitarium to be fertile ground.
In 2008, several Wichita
Falls ghost-hunting enthusiasts spent some time checking out the former sanitarium.
They invited a local television journalist to document their adventure. One member
of the expedition later reported on a legend- and ghost story-probing web site
that the TV person’s video camera quickly lost power despite a fresh battery,
as did the audio recorders they took inside the old building. The boo blogger
said that during their visit they felt as if they were being watched, experienced
occasional rushes of cold air and chills, as well as a general sense of “heaviness.”
They also heard a child’s voice, but no children were present.
before the amateur investigators got permission to visit the Jazz Age building,
an investor bought it and had it remodeled, its various rooms transformed into
apartment units. Since then, the former White Sanitarium has once again been a
residence for the living, folks no more or less crazy than any of us.
Mike Cox - October
30, 2013 column
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