Westborough Insane Hospital
Westborough, MA

Jeremy Lally had two good views. Behind his bed, if he stretched his neck a little, the covered walkway and solarium was just barely visible. When he was coming and going from his room, or if the nurses let him sit on his bed, he could see into the Recreation Room outside his door’s window.

The doors were heavy, he heard an orderly say, to keep the drafts out. The windows were thick and strung tight with wire, his last roommate whispered, to keep your thoughts in the room. This was fine for Joseph, he thought, because he did not have any thoughts. Just notions, and an overwhelming love for Apple Pie Day.

View of the hospital in 1895 (NRHP Form).
View of the hospital in 1895 (NRHP Form).

Since the hospital has been clearing out, things have gotten quieter at Westborough State Hospital, and more pie to go around. Less noise at night, too, which is never a bad thing. Such was life in Room Twenty-Five of the Front Dorm, Second Floor.

I found the room more than 20 years after Joseph and his neighbors, Jeff Seaura and Bill Jurgens, were dispersed to other psychiatric facilities around the country. At the nurse’s station is a note that some of the rooms on that level have no bed, if there was a need to deprive a patient of their frame and mattress.

This room on the top floor of one of the oldest buildings has seemingly not changed since it was adapted for employee use. Some sections of the hospital were adapted for staff to live in. Paying Patient Ward--where capable patients were separated from wards of the state.
This room on the top floor of one of the oldest buildings has seemingly not changed since it was adapted for employee use. Some sections of the hospital were adapted for staff to live in. Paying Patient Ward–where capable patients were separated from wards of the state.

Around the corner in the Recreation Room waited a piano from the Merrill Piano Company, which was shipped here in the early 1900s from Boston. A short walk past two nurse’s stations connects the Front Dorm to the Women’s Industrial Building, which tells a different story.

Dress forms of varying sizes and busts stand at attention against the backlight of a broken window. The glare of the sunset made their long shadows look almost human. To the greatest degree possible, the hospital was self-sufficient, meaning that patients created their own clothing, grew and cooked their own food, and routinely took part in housekeeping and laundry. In a way, the dress forms represent a remoteness that was expected of the patients.

At the end of one of the crumbling plaster-walled wards is a table. It sits behind a nurse's station, and we do not need to guess what it was for.
At the end of one of the crumbling plaster-walled wards is a table. It sits behind a nurse’s station, and we do not need to guess what it was for.

Down the stairs from where psychiatric patients sewed their clothing together, another trace of Westborough’s past was left behind. A short stack of notecards were scattered across a blue steel desk. The top card read:

Name: Seaver, Linda A.
Admitted: Dec. 27, 1931 Discharged: Sept. 18, 1932
Diagnosis: Involuntary Melancholia
Condition when discharged: Not Improved (Died)
birth

The last line, “birth,” indicated the patient gave birth at the asylum. If her family did not take the child, it would have gone to one of the State Schools, like the one at Belchertown (which I wrote about here). There were hundreds of similar cards piled on the floor beside the desk, each with a name spoken strictly in the past tense.

Stacks of patient record cards; names in the graveyard. All 'Not Improved'.
Stacks of patient record cards; names in the graveyard. All ‘Not Improved’.

History of the Hospital

When Massachusetts established the hospital in 1884, it was known as Westborough Insane Hospital.

It was designed to integrate a preexisting, and recently vacated, reform school for boys. The Lyman School, which it was called, was emptied after being declared unfit for its purpose; it was designed to house 400 to 500 delinquent boys in one massive structure that resembled a prison—very much the opposite idea of ‘reform’.

View of the former Lyman School in 1992 (NRHP Form).
View of the former Lyman School in 1992 (NRHP Form).

The former City Architect of Boston was assigned to rework the 1876 reform school into a new campus for what were referred to at the time as ‘the insane’. Between 1885 and 1886 several wards were added to the former school, and a the center of the jail-like building was demolished and rebuilt to include more common space, air, and light.

For Westborough Insane Hospital, emphasis in the name was meant to be on ‘hospital’ versus ‘asylum’, as the early planners emphasized:

Not an Asylum. From 1887 WSH Annual Report, page 19.
Not an Asylum. From 1887 WSH Annual Report, page 19.

Unlike the hospitals from which the patients were transferred, bearing infamous names like these patients could expect to be treated with massage, bed rest, and hydrotherapy instead of psychoactive or sedative medicine. Granted, treatments like hydrotherapy and bed rest were likely to be forced.

Over time, these tenants relaxed and drugs were used more, though hydrotherapy and occupational therapy (such as dressmaking) were both cited in the 1930s as major programs. More than 1,700 patients resided here by the end of World War II, at the same time many of the nurses and staff were involved in the war effort.

A Merrill Piano from Boston, in the Recreation Room of the Front Dorm.
A Merrill Piano from Boston, in the Recreation Room of the Front Dorm.

Conditions in the wards were, to put it mildly, deteriorating. For example, the few criminally insane patients at the hospital did not have proper supervision, and were (seemingly routinely) killing other patients. After the war ended, staffing barely kept up with rising populations of patients. In 1953, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health recorded over 23,000 inpatients system-wide… about 2,000 of those were at Westborough.

Looking toward the Female Infirmary Ward from the long, glass, Conservatory hallway.
Looking toward the Female Infirmary Ward from the long, glass, Conservatory hallway.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, the state of mental health care had changed; as our knowledge of the brain and its health grew, mental hospital populations fell. By 2005, only about 200 patients still lived in the wards—too few to justify the expense of maintaining more than 60 buildings and 600 acres. With the promise of a new psychiatric hospital in a nearby city, the Department of Mental Health announced that it would soon close Westborough.

...somebody get the number of that truck! Near the Day Rooms in the Paying Patient ward.
…somebody get the number of that truck! Near the Day Rooms in the Paying Patient ward.

On Monday, April 11, 2010, a small bus took the last six patients from Westborough to Worcester, where the new hospital was nearly complete. Today, the hospital looks almost exactly as it did that day. History has demonstrated, to those who take notice, that now is the time where nature often takes its course (whether a property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places or not). Whether that will be the case at Westborough, we will see.

The story of Jeremy Lally was inferred from ward maps that I found while I was exploring the hospital. All names, including his, were changed, if only to keep them off of search engines.

References »

  • Westborough Insane Hospital, NRHP Registration Form. 1993.
  • Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Hospital and State School System. NRHP Registration Form. 1993.
  • Trustees of the Westborough Insane Hospital. Annual reports. 1885-1907