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In 1804, Pitsburgh, Oh opened the first “poor house” with a population of 30. There might have been good intentions, but by 1818, 30 had turned to such a rise in population that the poor were moved to the Allegheny City Almshouse. By 1846, the population of the poor and incapable had risen to such a level that 150 acres were acquired along the banks of the Monoghahela River at Homestead, in Mifflin township and a three-story brick building was built to hold 300 patients. Note – they had been gone from the indigent poor to being known as patients and now included the insane. The City Poor Farm at Homestead was opened in 1852 and by 1879 a separate building was erected for treatment of the insane. With the city growing and the theory prevailing that open air would be an improvement for the inmates as well as a treatment against consumption, final plans would be made to move the facility well outside of the city boundaries.

The city bought the George Neal Farm and in what is now South Fayette Township and set up a rail station. In 1892, construction began on a new hospital with an ironic name began. They called it Marshalsea – after the London debtors prison Charles Dickens’ father was allegedly jailed at, which was in turn named after the middle English term for a stable. By 1899, a separate building was erected for the care of the ‘insane’ inmates and a physician was assigned to the insane department in response to the need for adequate medical care for inmates – it is important to note that this was a need previously overlooked or seen as unneeded – A general hospital was also erected in 1909, but it was too late. By 1900, the institutions reputation as a place of sorrow was firmly established. The Home Monthly, a publication of the time, described the inmates at Marshalsea as “Poor wrecks of humanity they are – some mental, some physical, some moral wrecks – stranded, at last depended upon the city for enough to keep a miserable broken body and a poor shrunken soul together. …If there is to-day a discontented man or woman in this city I prescribe a trip to Marshalsea. The blood may flee from the face at times at pity clutch at the heart strings.” Times changed and in 1916, they changed the name to Mayview. More change was to come. In 1938 the state took over the care of the mentally ill and followed by taking over the hospital portion in 1941. At one point, there were 3,785 patients there. Budget cuts dropped the population dramatically in the mid 1970’s and by 2008, the hospital only had 354 patients. It was closed in December of that year and sits empty – or so everyone thinks.

Mashalsea was a place of misery. Many were there through sheer poverty. Even of the insane, one must consider what made a person insane at the time… any refusal to adherence to the norm. That said, there are many who were genuinely crazy there – whether they started that way or the place made them that way is hard to say. Over the century that it was open, Marshalsea saw many deaths, many of which were unnatural or premature. The ownership liked to take care of problems in-house. That often meant the death of problem prisoners… it also meant the death of problem guards. It is hard for a ghost to slip the bonds of a place like Marshalsea, especially when many did not know why they were there to begin with. They walk the halls… living as they had always lived, never thinking about why they did not age and not thinking it strange that no more patients were coming in. Really, the place was chalk full.

It is at that. A certain type of Pitsburgs’ youth have taken to hanging out there. They seldom go home and several would claim that they live there. They like to play insane. They are not bad kids… just those that are able to see a certain beauty in the morbid. The only trouble is, the ghosts do not care for such intrusion, and a few select kids are able to sense the ghosts. The longer they remain there, the thinner the barrier becomes, especially for the more sensitive kids. Some of the ghosts are hostile, some intrigued. Some of the young girl’s actually fancy themselves in love – it is far better than the rough attentions they receive by the guards who remain on duty of habit though they breath no more.

Are you a ghost… a young lady of the 1920’s who committed the insanity of attraction to other girls… or a young wife from the 1940’s who’s insanity is in not knowing your place? Perhaps you are a soldier from one of the first two world wars who just didn’t come back quite right… or maybe you are a kid who just does not feel like the world outside of the insane asylum understands them… yet within the halls that have known such misery… you find home? Be careful – it could become home permanently.


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February 2013

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