The Northern State Mental Hospital

The Northern State Mental Hospital - Photo

In the early 1900s, Washington was home two mental health asylums and both of them were starting to reach capacity. In response, the state had the Northern State Mental Hospitla built to ease the strain on the system. It too quickly became overcrowded. With over 2,000 patients by the 1950s, it became the most crowded in all of Washington state.

Although Northern State Mental Hospital was touted as one of the ‘good’ asylums with patients being treated with relative kindness, doctors of the asylum were known to perform terrifying experiments on the patients there including lobotomies and electroshock therapy — all against the patient’s will. Many of the patients were heavily drugged during their stay at Northern State and the worst part was that most of the patients weren’t actually mentally ill, but people who were just down on their luck of suffering from common maladies. Patients admitted to the asylum were often suffering from depression, post-menopausal syndrome, or even alcoholism.

The Asylum Doors Are Opened

As the century turned, Washington had just two asylums within its borders: Western State Mental Asylum and Eastern State Asylum. Both had become ridiculously overcrowded, so the state authorized the construction of a new facility near Puget Sound. They chose a site near the town of Sedro-Wolley, just north of the Skagit River. The facility would be designed by the Olmsted Brothers, the world-famous architectural firm known for designing the very famous Central Park in New York City.

Commissioned in 1909, Northern State Mental Hospital opened just two years later. It became the largest in the state in terms of population shortly thereafter. The institution was decked out with amenities — it had 700 acres of farmland, a dairy plant, a lumber mill, a quarry, its own sewer system, a greenhouse, a gym, a bakery, and more.

Daily Life at Northern State

Life at Northern State was relatively pleasant compared to the barbaric mental wards of the 19th century. A sharp contrast from the dungeon-like hellholes of the 1800s, Northern State Mental Hospital prioritized a so-called therapeutic treatment that focused on occupational therapy.

Patients who were functional spent the day working the varying facilities around the asylum. This included farming, raising livestock, or working at one of the lumber mills or factories. Recreational activities were also offered, like spending time at the gym or playing board games.

Unfortunately, life at Northern State wasn’t all fun and games. Most who were admitted into the asylum were suffering from short-term episodes and should have never been admitted to such a regimented care facility. These people included ‘rebellious’ teens, depressed young adults, women going through menopause, and alcoholics. There was even a population at the hospital of immigrants, as a result of ‘racial cleanliness.’

Like today, the general idea of mental health was poorly understood and those who just needed simple therapies or medication were admitted alongside those suffering from actual mental disorders.

Security soon became an issue as the population of the asylum exploded. A murder even occurred in 1922 when a patient was killed. By 1953, the hospital’s population hit a peak of over 2,700 people. The superintendent claimed that this was the maximum capacity of the asylum but he was still pressured to take on more and more patients.

Experimental Procedures at Northern State

Like countless other mental asylums of the time, grisly experiments were performed on patients, some of which have even been rumored to be part of the top secret government program, MK Ultra. Patients were being subjected to clandestine ‘treatments’ like insulin shock therapy, lobotomies, and electroshock therapy. All of these were considered inhumane. Heavy sedation with powerful drugs was also a common form of treatment, but truly it was just used to keep patients ‘in line’ and submissive.

Electroshock therapy is still practiced today, though the electric shocks are much weaker than they were decades ago. Now called electroconvulsive therapy, ECT is performed by applying short electrical jolts to the brain, which induce small seizures. The procedure has been used as an attempt to cure depression, autism, delirium, catatonia, and several other disorders, with mixed results. Side effects include heart arrhythmia, changes in brain structure, and cognitive impairment

Lobotomies were a relatively common practice throughout the 1930s through the 50s. Doctors would drill a small hole through the skill and into the brain to ‘cure’ various mental health disorders. The procedure almost never worked (not surprising) and often ended up leaving the patient with extreme brain damage and severe disability. Many would lose their basic motor skills, and patients soiling themselves after treatment was not uncommon. Many died shortly after their surgery. Those who remained functional were rendered emotionally blank. They were usually left totally expressionless and ended up with a permanent ‘thousand-mile stare.’ Among these patients, suicide was commonplace.

Sterilizations were also common at the hospital as well. Many patients were sterilized before being released, as hospital management said it was what was ‘best for society.’ Because most of the patients were immigrants, the sterilizations drew parallels to those uncovered at ICE facilities over the past few years.

The Hospital Graveyard

Countless patients perished at Northern State. Rarely were the bodies claimed by families, and so their disposal was left to the state. Those who were known to be Protestant were cremated in an onsite furnace — hundreds of these cremains were later found in tin cans bearing their patient numbers. Rumors say that the remains were packaged in the hospital’s canning facility by other patients.

Most patients were buried in the asylum’s 1.5 acre plot. According to hospital records, 1,487 bodies are buried on the grounds of the asylum. While the graves once did bear the names of those below round, the swampy soil has caused the majority of the headstones to retreat into the ground, leaving the bodies of the dead totally unnamed. Efforts are currently underway to exhume the bodies, identify them, and give them a proper burial.

Abandonment of the Asylum

Controversy began to surround the asylum as well as the real purpose of asylums in general. People petitioned for greater rights for the mentally ill, and the word about the brutal experimentation began to make their way around. The Washington State Legislature cut off funding to the asylum and in 1976, Northern State officially closed its doors.

Some of the buildings were torn down over the next few decades, and today the grounds remain mostly abandoned and off-limits to visitors.

Ghostly Sightings at Northern State Mental Hospital

With so much suffering, death, and disregard for human life, the abandoned land is crawling with reports of strange happenings. Most of those who were admitted weren’t actually suffering from severe mental illness and were sent to the asylum to live out the rest of their lives under lock and key. They were likely experimented on, perished in the hospital, and buried or cremated right on site. It’s hard to believe that these would be happy spirits.

Those who dare visit the asylum grounds report strange phenomena such as cold spots, the feeling of being watched, disembodied voices, and the feeling of being touched. Some have seen strange shadows darting around the graveyard. The most commonly encountered entity is that of a young girl with a red ball and a man chasing after her. They’ve been seen running about the property, though some report the girl standing alone in the graveyard as well.

In Conclusion

It’s no surprise that the suffering endured at Northern State has translated into the present. Hundreds of patients spent their final years suffering, only to end up unnamed and forgotten. For more on the haunted locations of America, check out our blog.


Sources Cited: