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The Permanent Stain of the Ridges Asylum

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.

In 1867, state and federal governments purchased over 1000 acres of land in Athens, Ohio with the sole intent of creating a mental health facility there. For the design of the facility, the state turned to Thomas Story Kirkbride, founding member of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane (AMSAII). Kirkbride had recently introduced his Kirkbride Plan—a standardized method by which mental asylums should be constructed and patients should be treated. It was Kirkbride's belief that the two should go hand-in-hand and that asylums should not just be buildings, but rather large, self-sufficient communities.

Originally known as the Athens Asylum for the Insane, this massive institution first opened its doors on January 9, 1874. 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 four-story main building was designed to be symmetrical with two wings (one for male patients and one for female). Between the two wings was the administration building. This enabled the staff to move easily between the two wings. 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 patient wings themselves, both male and female, were divided in such a way so that they could house 10 different patient groups based on what they had been diagnosed with. Each wing had a central corridor with the patient rooms on either side. Together, the two wings contained a grand total of 544 patient rooms, all of which had windows and plenty of ventilation.

The landscape of the asylum was something a lot of work and effort was put into. Fountains, ponds, walking paths, and lush foliage and vegetation, blended well together with the functional portions of the grounds such as the barns and farms. 

Over the years, more and more patients kept being admitted to the asylum. And while that made for crowded conditions, it also benefited the asylum in that patients were put to work on the farm and at other facilities from which the asylum made revenue. But things eventually got out of hand and by the 1950s, the asylum, now renamed the Athens State Hospital, was well over three times its capacity and was caring for close to 2,000 patients.

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 that 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? To name just a few; ice water dips, shock therapy and lobotomy (both the original and pre-frontal varieties).

This of course leaves out any extra cruelties that 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."

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.

In 1981 the facility had fewer than 300 patients. Throughout the 70s and 80s most of the land was donated to the University. Ultimately the former hospital became an OU building, was renamed Lin Hall, and was partially remodeled to house the Kennedy Museum of Art and various offices and studios. Billy Milligan, the notorious multiple personality rapist, was among the final patients before the Ridges closed its doors in 1993.  

Even with all the new occupancy, several wings and entire floors remain essentially untouched. In one of these unrenovated rooms on the top floor there still remains the last vestige of Margaret Schilling, the hospital's most notorious ghost. There is a stain on the top floor of the Athens State Hospital in the shape of a woman who died there nearly thirty years ago. Margaret's story is shrouded in myth; some say she was a deaf mute who hid from the staff when they were vacating the hospital and ended up locked in the upstairs wing, unable to call out for help when she saw it was too late. The truth seems to be that she was simply a woman with profound mental disabilities who managed to lock herself in a ward which had been used for infectious patients and had been abandoned for years, on the top floor of ward N. 20. She disappeared on December 1, 1978. It wasn't until January 12, 1979 that they found her, dead on the floor of heart failure, probably due to exposure in an unheated ward during the coldest part of winter. As she was dying, oddly enough, she took her clothes off, folded them neatly beside her, and laid down on the concrete floor.

Weeks later, her decomposing body was found lying on the floor next to a window. When authorities attempted to move her body, they found that it had made a permanent stain in the outline of the woman’s body on the concrete floor. It seems as though the stain had been caused by the combination of her body naturally decaying, coupled with its position in front of big bay windows that allowed the sunlight to shine down on her. Despite constant scrubbing, the stain would not come up. Even more, people walking past the asylum at night would sometimes see the ghostly image of a woman staring down at them from the window where the body was found.

It is true that her body left a stain. You can still see it today. People sometimes leave flowers and other trinkets around it. Some say that Margaret Schilling’s spirit wanders the building at night. They say that other patients, especially those who died at the hospital, also wander the building at night. Rumors about patients shackled in basement torture chambers add fuel to the legends.

Tours of the Ridges are a popular Halloween event in Athens—so popular, in fact, that they had to cancel one year's tour because of the unmanageably huge turnout. Other parts of the grounds are off limits, however.

Ghosts are sighted the most in the main asylum cemetery, which occupies the downslope of the hill behind the hospital itself. Only those patients whose families cared enough to pay for professional stones are identifiable by name, since all the state provided a patient with was a plot and a simple, narrow gravestone marked with a number.  Hospital records tell who each number belonged to, which is why several of the unmarked stones are accompanied by veterans' plaques. Due to missing records, the identities of the male patients with numbers 1 through 63 are lost to history. In total there were roughly two thousand people interred in the Athens State Hospital burial grounds before 1972. Apparently Ohio University also buried the cadavers used in its medical classes here.  To see the two more recent graveyards you need to double back toward the Dairy Barn art museum and climb a hundred or so wooden stairs set into the hillside.  But it's this, the oldest and closest cemetery, where the spirits are most active. 

Several gravestones are arranged in a perfect circle on the hillside for no apparent reason and in no apparent order, though it's been speculated that this was a prank pulled by OU students sometime in the 1920s. This circle is supposed to be a Mecca for witches and practitioners of all sorts of black arts, who hold seances here and use it as a "circle of power." Also unique about the graveyard is the presence of half a dozen more stones on the other side of the creek that runs alongside the graveyard. Crossing a wooden footbridge will take you over to where their final resting places are, beneath the trees at the place where the woods begin. Some say these are the graves of murderers, unable to be interred in the same hallowed ground as the others. Their spirits are particularly violent and vindictive, but they cannot cross the running water of the creek.

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