At one time there were large public mental institutions serving every part of the state of Ohio. Asylums existed in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, Akron, and Dayton. Southeastern Ohio's hospital was established in Athens, near the campus of Ohio University. Today the only one of the Ohio mental hospitals which still stands in anything resembling original condition is the Athens Mental Health Center--also known as The Ridges.
Originally monikered the Athens Asylum for the Insane, this massive institution first opened its doors on January 9, 1874. The state and federal government had purchased the more than 1000 acres of land from the Coates family, whose farm had previously occupied the spot, and spent six years building the hospital. Giant asylums in the Kirkbride style were going up all over America at this time because of the number of Civil War veterans suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. If you visit the cemeteries behind the building you will find a large number of the nameless graves marked with metal veterans' plaques from the Civil War.
The first patient at the Ridges is believed to have been Thomas Armstrong from Belmont County, followed by Daniel Fremau. Fremau apparently thought he was the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The asylum itself was built from bricks which were fired on-site from clay dug on-site. Herman Haerlin, a student of Frederick Law Olmstead (the designer of Central Park), was responsible for the design of the hospital and its grounds. By the turn of the twentieth century, orchards and farmland were maintained on the property, tended to by hospital residents and employees. This made the hospital nearly self-sufficient. Nevertheless, at the time of its construction it was a major boon to the economy of the city of Athens, which was able to supply milk, eggs, linens, and other necessities. Local citizens made use of Haerlin's extensive grounds, which included landscaped hills and trees, a pond, a spring, and a creek with a falls. Apparently they were able to get past what was happening on the hill above them.
The main building is gigantic. Thomas Story Kirkbride's designs centered around the idea that it was therapeutic for patients to be housed in a facility that resembled a home--a much more humane approach than bleeding, freezing, and kicks to the head, which were thought to be ways to "shock" the illness out of the brain. In a Kirkbride building the less disturbed patients were housed closer to the center, where the administrative offices and employee housing were. This encouraged them to socialize and become more accustomed to human contact. Violent patients were housed at the far end of either of the long wings--farthest away from the center, which was the only part of the building with convenient entry and exit.
The Athens building had 544 patient rooms. When it opened it housed around 200 patients. The more sedate among them participated in recreational activities like boating, painting, dances, and picnics. They were offered church services and plays, and were often free to roam the grounds. Some patients tended the farms and orchards. Nurses trained at the Athens State Hospital School of Nursing inside the hospital and were able to live there while they cared for its other inhabitants. The late nineteenth century was a good time for the mentally ill in America; progressive policies, modeled after European methods, gave people confidence in the way their loved ones were treated in the public asylums.
The downside of the progress accomplished by the Kirkbride plan was the increasing popularity of the asylums. In Athens, as elsewhere, it was common for families to drop elderly relatives off at the hospital when they could no longer afford to care for them. Parents committed teenagers for insignificant acts of rebellion. The homeless would use the hospital for temporary shelter. The population of the Athens Asylum shot up from 200 to nearly 2000 in the early 1900s. Overcrowding led to the sharing of patient rooms and a severe decline in the quality of treatment administered by a staff which had barely been increased in size since 1874.
This decrease in individualized care and attention led to a renaissance of many of the primitive treatments of Colonial days--with a few new tortures thrown in for good measure. What sorts of things were done to human beings at the Ridges? Well, to name just a few...
1. Water Treatment
Patients were submerged in ice-cold water for extended periods of time. Sometimes they were wrapped in sheets which had been soaked in icewater and restrained.
2. Shock Therapy
Electric shocks were administered to patients submerged in water tanks or, more commonly, directly to the temples by the application of brine-soaked electrodes. A patient held a rubber piece in his mouth to prevent him from biting his tongue off during the convulsions which followed a treatment. (See One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for a painful example of electroshock therapy.)
3. Lobotomy (Original)
Patients had their skulls opened and their neural passages separated midway through the brain. This difficult and arduous procedure killed many people, but those who survived did in fact forget many of their depressive or psychotic tendencies. They also forgot a lot of other things, like how not to shit down your leg at dinner time, but with such an abundance of patients the only thing most doctors worried about was how to streamline the process. Open-skull brain surgery is a tricky business no matter how you slice it.
4. Lobotomy (Trans-Orbital)
Developed by Dr. Walter J. Freeman in the early 1950s, this simpler lobotomy became something of a craze in mental health circles up through the 60s. Dr. Freeman's method involved knocking the patient unconscious with electric shocks, then rolling an eyelid back and inserting a thin metal icepick-like instrument called a leucotome through a tear duct. A mallet was used to tap the instrument the proper depth into the brain. Next it was sawed back and forth to sever the neural receptors. Sometimes this was done in both eyes. There is some evidence that this method actually helped some people with very severe conditions, but much more often the patient had horrible side effects and in many cases ended up nearly catatonic. It also killed a whole bunch of people, too.
Dr. Freeman performs a trans-orbital lobotomy in 1949.
This of course leaves out any extra cruelties which might have been given without the justification of therapy. Patients were often restrained and were forced to sleep in group bunks in rooms intended for one person. One nurse was sometimes responsible for as many as fifty patients. In these conditions some restricted patients would carve messages on the sandstone windowsills of their rooms, reaching through the ornate bars to leave an anonymous word or sentence. One poignant carving still reads, "I was never crazy."
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The 1960s brought about a new emphasis on the humanity of mental patients. The lobotomy was condemned as barbaric, and psychotropic drugs such as Thorazine replaced it. Although the heavy drugs administered in hospitals at this time weren't perfect (the "Thorazine shuffle" was a term used to describe the way people move around when they're on it) they were far more humane than electric shock or radical brain surgery, and they led to recovery for a greater number of people. Mental retardation received more specialized care. Drug rehabilitation and geriatrics programs were also added in the 1960s.
Over the years the buildings and grounds at the Athens Mental Health Center underwent many changes. In the 1920s a fire destroyed the grand ballroom. In 1924 a building was erected on the grounds for the treatment of mentally ill patients with tuberculosis. In 1928 the dairy barn went in, making the hospital almost self-sufficient. Later, in 1960, part of the farmland belonging to the hospital was acquired by Ohio University for the construction of the Convocation Center. Between 1968 and 1972 the Hocking River and State Route 682 were rerouted, eliminating the reservoir as well as four of the decorative lakes on the property.
In 1977 multiple personality rapist Billy Milligan was sent by a Franklin County judge to Athens for treatment after his insanity plea was accepted by prosecutors--a first in American history. Milligan had kidnapped and raped three women on campus at Ohio State but had been suffering from mutliple personality disorder from early childhood. His story was told in the book The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes (the author of Flowers for Algernon). Billy Milligan's stay at the Ridges was among the last ever. In 1972 the last patients were buried in the asylum cemetery; by 1981 the hospital housed fewer than 300 patients. 344 acres of land were transferred to Ohio University.
The 1980s were the final days of the Ridges, as well as other mental hospitals all over America. Reagan's "de-institutionalization" redefined the official standard for mental illness, while shifting much of the burden to states which were unwilling or unable to keep centers like Ohio's state hospitals operating. The end result was that many thousands of mentally ill people were simply released. Homelessness shot way up from coast to coast.
The final patients left the Athens Center in 1993, when they were bused to a new, much smaller hospital across town. The building stood vacant for several years while Ohio University prepared to renovate it into museum, office, and classroom space. During this time it was common for OU students to explore the grounds and even the hospital itself. October was always a popular time; in 2000, a planned Halloween tour of the Ridges had to be canceled when thousands of people lined up on the lawn. The police were forced to disperse the crowd. It was also included in an Athens episode of the FOX TV show "Scariest Places on Earth," which from what I hear took heavy liberties with the truth when exploring OU's haunted hotspots.
In 2001 renovation work was completed on the main building, which today is known as Lin Hall and houses music, geology, and biotechnology offices, as well as the Kennedy Museum of Art. Nearly all of the dozens of hospital buildings have been remodeled and put to use by the University.
Throughout its life the hospital eventually known as the Ridges underwent no fewer than nine official name changes. The most recent change was the result of a contest to rename the hospital and grounds once the hospital left the building. Below is a list of each of the names it's had.
1874-1911: Athens Lunatic Asylum
1911-1944: Athens Asylum for the Insane
1944-1968: Athens State Hospital
1968-1969: Southeastern Ohio Mental Health Center
1969-1975: Athens Mental Health Center
1975-1980: Southeastern Ohio Mental Health and Retardation Center
1980-1981: Athens Mental Health and Developmental Center
1981-1991: Athens Mental Health Center
1991-: The Ridges
Now that the University has reclaimed the Ridges, only one building of any size remains unoccupied on the hospital grounds: the old tuberculosis ward. Click below to explore it.
To take a look at the creepier aspects of the Ridges, choose either hauntings or the asylum cemetery by clicking below.
For more information on the Ridges, try one of these links: