Grafton State Hospital

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Grafton State Hospital
Grafton State Hospita
Construction Began 1901
Closed 1973
Current Status Closed
Building Style Cottage Plan
Peak Patient Population 1,700 in 1945


INTRODUCTION Grafton State Hospital was established in its present location in 1901 (Chapter 434) as a farm colony for "chronic insane patients" of the 'Insane Hospital' in Worcester. In 1912 it was administratively separated from Worcester (Chapter 679). By 1945 the number of patients had risen to 1,730, with a total staff of 250 with 241 vacancies. By this time the institution had grown to 1,200 acres with buildings scattered widely over an area covering three towns. After 72 years of operation Grafton State Hospital was closed in 1973 as the first of a series of institutions to close in Massachusetts. The campus is now occupied by the Tufts University Veterinary School, the Federal Job Corps Program, and various state agencies. Most structures have been renovated and altered for re-use, some have been demolished. A graveyard remains on a nearby hilltop with 1,041 numbered, nameless graves of persons who died in this institution. A handwritten list of their names survives in various archives.

This and the following information was assembled from various texts of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, National Register of Historic Preservation Registration Form, 1993. Grafton State Hospital was nominated as one of fifteen institutions for the 'State Hospital and School System' nomination. All fifteen sites were accepted and are group-listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

LOCATION The former Grafton State Hospital is located at the juncture of the Grafton, Shrewsbury, and Westborough town lines one the eastern edge of the Central Massachusetts uplands. State Route 9 is located several miles north of the campus, with I-90 to the south and State Routes 20 and 140 to the west. The original site of 700 acres was expanded to over 800 acres by 1908 with purchase of portions of Green Hill to expand the water supply. By 1945 it encompassed 1200 acres. The campus is roughly bisected by Westborough Road and a former Boston & Worcester Raiload line. Pine Street provides access to the north campus (Pines Group) while Willard Street (farm group) and Institute Road (Oaks Group) lead south off Westborough Road. Green Hill, which forms the northern edge of the campus, is the primary topographic landmark. The surrounding area remains very rural and sparsely populated despite the proximity of North Grafton (SW), Grafton Center (S), Westborough Center (NE) and Shrewsbury Center (NW). The campus occupies a hilly scenic site surrounded by woodlands, wetlands, and agricultural fields which are still used for hay and corn. The campus was originally developed as a farm colony for the old downtown 'Worcester State Hospital' of 1830 (demolished). Most of this land had been allowed to go fallow by private owners in the late-ninetheenth century, and was only gradually reclaimed for productive use by the hospital.

CAMPUS LAYOUT Grafton State Hospital was based on the so-called 'satellite colony system'. Four fully developed and geographically isolated colonies for the "chronic insane" are dispersed over the campus. These colonies and their component buildings are linked by tree-lined internal roadways, many of which display acorn globe streetlights. The colonies developed around the nuclei of pre-existing farmsteads (encompassing the farms of Samuel Knowlton, Lyman Rice, the Ashley family, and the Sinclair family). The colonies were named according to their location: Pines, Elms, Oaks, and Willows. Most of Willows was demolished in the 1970s.

The three colonies served separate 'classes of patients' (my quotes) with distinct needs. Pines was primarily intended to serve "excited" female patients and was thus developed with large-scale brick wards that provided locked confinement for large numbers of inmates. Similarly, Elms was developed with masonry buildings for "excited" male patients. A few wood-frame dormitories provided a transition for more stable patients. As the center of agricultural activities, Oaks was developed with unlocked cottages for male patients who had proved themselves trustworthy and industrious. (All of this is transcibed verbatim from the National Register of Historic Places nomination forms by the Historical Commission.) The Willows, which was developed somewhat later during the 1910s campus expansion, seems to have been similar to Oaks. It is important to note that the 'classes of patients' were defined in terms of behavior rather than diagnosis, e.g. "excited", "violent", "quiet", "peaceful", etc. The building and landscape elements of the Elms, Oaks, and Pines colonies are described in greater detail below.

DISCUSSION OF THE TERMS 'FARM COLONY' & 'CHRONIC PATIENT' ( Schuleit) The 1908 Annual Report of the State Board defined the term 'farm colony' thus: "The colony idea applies to the harmless, quiet, able-bodied chronic patients. Its aims are provision of a home with natural interests, industrial re-education of the demented, and their training in useful occupations for self-improvement and support."

This definition of the term 'farm colony' should appear curious to us today not only for its discriminating language but also for the inherent definition of the term 'chronic', which is found in the Grafton State Hospital entry of the four-volume "Institutional Care of the Insane" of 1916, by Henry Hurd: "The question as to who were the chronic insane was decided by the dates of the commitment papers." (Hurd, 1916, p.711) At this point it should be pointed out that a patient who was found 'chronic' would rarely leave the institution again. Many patients at Grafton State Hospital were there for decades and entire lifetimes. Interviews conducted by with former employees confirm this fact. At the same time it must be pointed out that many patients had been abandoned by their families once they entered the institution labeled as 'chronic'. Those patients who died at the institution and whose bodies remained unclaimed by their families were buried without gravestones at the remote graveyard of the institution, and of those there were not a few dozen but one thousand and forty-one.

In the same source (Hurd, 1916), the supposed benefits of the 'farm colony' are further described: "Dr. Scribner (superintendent) encouraged open-air and out-of-doors work for both sexes and many patients who had been cared for on closed wards seemed glad to be out of doors, where fresh air, plenty of work and a different environment helped to change many of them from turbulent to quiet and industrious patients." (p. 714) The inherent problematic of patient labor as found in the histories of numerous state institutions is that those patients who were found to work well on the farm and in the shops were only reluctantly discharged by the staff. At the same time, those who were unable or unwilling to work were more readily labeled 'chronic' and hence also remained at the institution. For both groups of patients, the outcome was the same: long-term institutionalization. As the hiring of staff slowed down during the first half of 20th century, the number of patients continued to rise, and the cycle reinforced itself. The institutions relied heavily on patient labor, which was routinely unpaid. Returning those who were hoping to be treated for a psychiatric disability to the community was thus contradicted and made impossible by the institutional set-up itself, which is the sad irony of the history of Grafton State Hospital and other such institutions. In a recent message the acting commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, Ken Duckworth, reminds us that "that our priorities must be to provide the best services to our clients, in the settings to which they all aspire: in the community." (dmh, 3/14/03) [1]


  • Year 1908: over 500 patiens
  • Year 1912: 650 patients
  • Year 1916: over 800 patients
  • Year 1930: 1,550 patients, 328 staff
  • Year 1931: 1,154 patients (563 women, 591 men)
  • Year 1945: 1,730 patients, 250 staff with 241 vacancies
  • Year 1973: 641 patients