Oct. 30, 2020 —
What do civil war soldiers, assassins, “zombies” and the U.S. Coast Guard have in common?
Coast Guard members and civilians on their lunch breaks trudged through the fallen leaves three days before Halloween to hear the history of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. It was an overcast autumn day and Daniel Koski-Karell, Ph.D. was giving his “Spooky Halloween Tour” of the campus. Now home to U.S. Coast Guard headquarters, St. Elizabeth’s was founded in 1852 and was the first federally owned mental institution in the United States.
St. Elizabeth’s has a haunted history - from one of the world’s most notorious lobotomists who began his career at the hospital, to the hundreds of civil war graves that mark the landscape, to the infamous inmates who were patients there.
“The people he created were very much like zombies,” said Koski-Karell, referencing Dr. Walter Jackson Freeman II, who got his first job at the laboratory on St. Elizabeth’s in the 1920’s.
Freeman had a theory that mental illness was the result of something physically wrong in the brain. As a result, thousands of pre-frontal lobotomies with no anesthesia were performed on-site to treat mental illness. He used to utilize a drill and an icepick.
“People that survived this procedure were like human vegetables,” said Koski-Karell. “Rosemary Kennedy, one of the sisters of President John Kennedy, had mental illness and her father had him do this procedure on her and she went into a vegetative state [for] the rest of her life.”
The Coast Guard audience in attendance, perhaps regretting having eaten lunch before this, began walking down the hillside to the Civil War cemetery across the river from Washington D.C. for the next stop along the outing.
Soon after the civil war broke out, St. Elizabeth’s was recognized as a prime location for a military hospital for the Union. Patients with mental illness were relocated to other parts of the sprawling 170-acre campus.
“As the war grew on, in time, patients here at the hospital succumbed to disease,” said Koski-Karell. “Many of them were … interred here at this cemetery. There are approximately 300 or more graves in this cemetery. There are only 217 known names.”
The faded grey-white marble tombstones, stuck into the earth at varying angles, form a cross when viewed from the bottom of the hill. Visible through the trees sits the modern-day Coast Guard building.
Both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried on-site, including several tombstones from regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). One tombstone marks a soldier who served in the 128th regiment of the USCT. Each regiment consisted of 1,000 soldiers.
“That man was in the 128th regiment, that's 128,000 men, all African-Americans joining the Union Army and they really overwhelmed the confederates.”
Koski-Karell said by the end of war, over 150,000 soldiers had volunteered to serve in the USCT. They were a major reason that the Union was victorious.
The tour concluded by the imposing red brick building at the crest of the hill known as The Center Building. Now home to the Department of Homeland Security, the Center Building was originally called “The Government Hospital for the Insane.” It housed many famous patients such as Richard Lawrence, the failed assassin of Andrew Jackson; Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield; Ezra Pound, the famous author turned expatriate with ties to Mussolini; and John Hinkley Jr., who shot President Ronald Regan in 1981.
Before sending his tour group back to their workstations, Dr. Daniel Koski-Karell offered one last anecdote. He said that he had learned the secret to making real, living breathing zombies while he was in Haiti in the 1980’s.
“Can you keep a secret,” said the doctor to an expectant audience.
“Well, so can I.”
Writer’s Note: The east campus of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, which is separate from the federally owned west campus, is still operating as a (highly regarded) psychiatric hospital in southeast Washington, D.C.
Prior to the The Center Building’s recent renovation, many people working on the abandoned building and reported stories of “energy,” “presences” or “ghosts.” To this day there are rumors about the aged building. Most narratives describe hearing voices, cold pockets of air, or creepy surroundings. One anonymous online writer said, "We experienced a sense of dread . . . a sense of being lost, and a sense of surrealism (the air was super-heavy and felt like it was expanding and contracting, as if we were moving through dimensions).”
Whether this is fact or fiction is not for me to say…but you, the reader, can do your own research.