Cow barn at Northern State Hospital. Photo courtesy of Thendara M Kida-Gee
Insane asylums are not pleasant places in any era. Our investigation picked up on assorted assaults, two attempted murders and more than a few cover ups.
The Northern State Hospital Farm allowed the Northern State Hospital for the mentally ill to be self-sufficient. With a 700-acre spread combined with lumber and quarry operations it essentially became a profit center for the State of Washington with involuntary labor in the form of forcibly committed “insane” patients. It opened in 1909 and ran until 1973 after which it was turned over to Skagit County.
Although a wide range of ages were committed to Northern State most of the ghosts I saw there were in their teens and 20’s. That makes sense if you consider the buildings we toured covered the dairy farm and commercial kitchens that put out assorted foodstuffs year round. Able bodied workers (patients) were a necessity.
This was one of the AGHOST events open to the public and once again I found myself wandering through long empty buildings with Sam and Al, with Al and I usually picking up on a lot of the same things. Because it becomes nearly impossible to separate our real-time impressions, this account will be written as a melding of our respective experiences. Thus far I have only found a handful of people I can do this with, but Al happens to be one of them.
Harvest Celebration cow barn at Northern State Hospital October 2018. Photo by Lynne Sutherland Olson.
Our experiences started out at one of the remaining cow barns, although by October 2018 the overhang had completely collapsed. First thing I saw was a harvest picnic buffet set out under the veranda roof. The white covered table had bunches of brightly colored dried leaves and a few small orange pumpkins. Most significantly on the far right end of the table was a glass bowl of pink hued fruit punch someone thought it would be fun to spike with alcohol.
The consequences of that prank played out in the dairy barn across the road from the one pictured above. I saw a blond 14-year-old girl cornered and beat up by two or three fellow male patients who were a handful of years older. It read more like an attempted rape, but she fought and the worst didn’t happen. It was bad enough. She was wearing a scoop neck, peter-pan collar cotton print dress with small flowers in the pattern. It was her party dress, made by her mother and put on with excited anticipation for the harvest celebration. The older teen boys ripped it in their attack. She was upset about both the attack and the destruction of her dress. She fought them off and ran, humiliated and bleeding from the nose with some facial bruises already showing.
The events Al and I saw unfold in the adjacent dairy barn didn’t end as well. At the far end of the barn close to the rear doors we saw a male staff member rape a Native girl, another teenager. It was pretty much every female’s worst nightmare including violation with a bottle in addition to unwanted genitalia. I think that was the first time. It happened again, but a subsequent rape included multiple men. She fought like hell but there were too many of them and they had her isolated. Both front and rear doors were closed at the time and the cows were out to pasture, so didn’t kick up a fuss at the disturbance. Her ghost told me she became pregnant after repeated rapes, delivered a child and died of a subsequent childbirth induced infection. She was only 16 or 17 years-old.
Cow barn where Al and I saw assorted past sexual assaults unfold at the former Northern State Hospital. Photo by Lynne Sutherland Olson.
In the first third of the barn another sexual assault occurred, this time a teen boy attacked by a male staffer. The boy wasn’t able to stop the attack but he managed to noticeably damage his rapist. The story flew around the farm like wildfire. Everyone knew what had happened, but the victim was not punished because it was known that staffer routinely did such things. The rapist was the head dairyman at the farm at the time and the boy we saw him assault was not his first nor his last victim. More on him later. The teen boy was eventually released from Northern State and came back when he had grown into his full strength. He cornered his rapist in the same barn and nearly killed him. No charges were ever filed. At first I questioned what I saw because a bullwhip straight out of an “Indiana Jones” movie was involved. However Al independently saw the same thing. Unlike the famous movie prop this one was the natural brown shade of the hide it was made of and broke off into two long whips with knots tied into them at the tip of the whip. The knots increased the damage by ripping out chunks of skin on top of the brutal lacerations.
Interior of the cow barn where assorted assaults took place at the former Northern State Hospital. The first assault I saw took place in the rear left corner, the second about a third of the way in also on the left side of the structure. Photo by Lynne Sutherland Olson.
A few hundred yards away was another cow barn but this one had a grain silo attached at the end for cattle feed. This was the site of an attempted murder, but I doubt you will find it in any history books because the intended victim survived. Both Al and I saw a teen boy intentionally trapped inside the silo as it was being filled with dried wheat. The victim was shoved in there by three other boys, also patients. Two of the three were the real instigators. I saw the wheat pouring in around the victim. He curled up into the fetal position to try to protect his face from the stinging surge of kernels. This created an air pocket that allowed him to breathe shallowly for a few hours. The third boy affiliated with the attack came back around sunset that day, dug out the would-be victim and helped him crawl out.
The intended victim not only survived being entombed in the gain silo, he made it out of Northern State Hospital and lived to old age He did not let the incident slide. When he was free of the hospital he lived a full and successful life as a businessman with lots of connections in the community. He used those connections to get even. The primary would-be murder applied to a regional bank for a loan many years later. His would-be victim had a talk with the branch manager and the loan was denied. A second application for a loan from the same bank a few years later was not only denied, but resulted in the aggressor loosing his financial shirt. The aggressor’s wife left him, he lost his house, his job, everything. The shade of the teen who survived being buried alive made sure of it. He remains proud of it to this day. The second would-be murderer was also tracked down and made to pay for his crimes. The third accomplice was spared the victims wrath because he walked away, wouldn’t be part of the matter and came back and dug his friend out, saving his life. I think the shade of the survivor would have spent all afternoon telling us about his successful payback, but we had to move on.
Grain silo next to a dairy cow barn at Northern State Hospital, the site of an attempted murder among patients. Photo by Lynne Sutherland Olson.
Revenge seemed to be an ongoing theme in the course of our visit to Northern State Farm. The dairyman who raped a male teen patient in one barn showed up several other places doing the same thing to other victims over the course of our visit. One of his preferred locations for such attacks was the barn that held cows waiting to be milked. It was attached to the milking room the equipment for which remains in place today.
Many of the attacks of this particular dairyman happened when he was a single man and lived in the private room and bath attached to the main milking barn. Eventually the dairyman married and a home was built for him and his family across the courtyard from the milking barn. The home was a dark gray shingle sided cottage with a covered front porch. It sat beside two more of the massive cow barns, long since gone. Today all you can see is part of the concrete floor of one of the structures. Not surprisingly marriage did not cure this fellow’s predatory practices. He and his wife had two children, a girl and a boy. At some point the rapist did something to his son that was the final straw for his wife. I wasn’t given the details and was relieved to not have to know after an already full afternoon of witnessing past rapes and assaults. This is the dark side of mediumship few talk about for obvious reasons. It is always horrifying to witness even as a past event and unfortunately negative events tend to stick to locations. I have seen such things endlessly at all kinds of institutions, former hospitals, nursing homes, insane asylums, prisons, military bases etc… bottom line, sometimes man’s inhumanity to man becomes overwhelming.
Once the rapist dairyman’s wife decided enough was enough she started planning. One night he crawled into bed in a long old-fashioned cream-colored men’s night-shirt and a matching hat to keep his mostly bald head warm. Once he was asleep, she emptied the contents of kerosene lamps over him, smashed the glass globe of the bedroom lamp into the floor and lit a match. She made sure the kids were safe and raised the alarm. The cottage burned. Her husband survived, but just barely. Horrific burns covered his body that healed into permanently twisted flesh. He was never functional again and spent the rest of his days in a different hospital, out of sight and no longer able to harm others. I am not sure he could talk after his “accident”. His attempts sounded garbled at best. Once again, the staff knew what really happened but the wife was never turned over to authorities. Instead she was quietly shipped out-of-state with her children and never returned to Washington. The hospital certainly didn’t want the scandal nor the years of abuse by their former employee to come to light.
The commercial kitchen and attached refrigerator room is similarly crumbling over time. I saw all female workers in the kitchen. A great deal of equipment remains in the building from lockers for the girls to stash their personal items in to rusted out rolling trays for the preservation of perishable foods until they could be picked up from the loading dock at the back of the kitchen. First thing Al and I saw were chickens being processed. Just like my own grandmother told of such tasks in the family deli growing up I picked up on a similar lack of enthusiasm among the female patients pressed into such jobs. I saw two 1920’s era delivery trucks could pull up to the concrete deck of the loading dock. One of the deep dual ceramic sinks survives as does the built-in work benches along the walls. I saw apples, berries and choke cherries being made into preserves and I think sold to local grocery stores in addition to supplying Northern State and the two other mental hospitals in Washington.
The types of fruit I saw being made into preserves was partially confirmed by the long neglected remaining apple trees nearly growing into the building at this point. As Al is a landscape architect by trade he pointed out the choke cherry bushes to me after we left the building. Al alarmed another member of the group when he picked a few of the apples off the trees and bit into them. Being aware he knows his stuff when it comes to plants I didn’t blink and munched on a few he offered me. If those trees were properly tended today the fruit would be amazing. (I grew up in a family where wasting food was considered a cardinal sin, so my mind still rebels at wasted bounty.)
As our group made its way back to the parking lot Al stayed on the far side of the road. It didn’t take me long to realize why. I saw and heard some of the more disabled patients rosted out of bed at night and taken to the barn that they called “the hospital”. It was no hospital, it was a site for punishing patients that drove the staff nuts. I am sure it did not happen throughout the entire history of Northern State Hospital. Based on the garments the patients were wearing I would guess the early years of the institution’s operation which depending on different sources commenced in either 1909 or 1912. Both male and female patients were sprayed down with water in winter cold barns. I couldn’t go any closer, I had seen and heard enough for one day so we headed for our vehicles with the screams of past patients ringing in our ears.
(c) 2018. Lynne Sutherland Olson. All rights reserved.