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Studying a Relic of a Painful Past
Advocates Seek to Save History At Md. Mental Hospital for Blacks

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005

Doris Morgenstern Wachsler grew up among the people society called lunatics, idiots and maniacs. Within the walls of Crownsville State Hospital, their howling and sobbing went on without cease.

Wachsler was the daughter of Jacob Morgenstern, the Austrian immigrant who, in the years after World War II, occupied the superintendent's mansion overlooking the red-brick fortress once known as the Hospital for the Negro Insane in central Anne Arundel County.

"It was scary for me when I was a little girl," Wachsler recalled. "Both of my parents worked at the hospital. I would go home to the hospital."

Crownsville State Hospital sits empty now, shuttered since July 2004. The rusting window grates that once held patients in keep trespassers out.

As sordid as life was at the hospital, particularly for blacks, there is interest in retaining those lonely buildings and preserving the ornate murals, painted by Crownsville patients as art therapy, that still cover many walls and window panes.

A small group of former Crownsville employees, black leaders and historians is quietly monitoring deliberations over the empty facility, hoping this emblem of African American toil, artistry and suffering will not fall to the wrecking ball.

To those who see Crownsville as hallowed ground, the arrival of a film crew this summer to shoot a horror movie called "Crazy Eights" and featuring former porn star Traci Lords was not an encouraging sign.

"The land was purchased for African American people. They built the buildings. They raised the food," said George Phelps Jr., an elder statesman in the Annapolis black community who spent years monitoring conditions at Crownsville. "Now it seems like they should have some say in the usage of the property today."

The story of the defunct hospital spans generations of evolving race relations in Maryland. A glimpse inside hospital archives affords a grim view of the sort of treatment a black mental patient could expect in the days before integrated health care.

From wartime till the 1950s, Crownsville was the most crowded, understaffed mental hospital in Maryland. Children sometimes slept two to a bed, or on mattresses on the floor. Photographs from the era show patients sprawled on the concrete floor for lack of chairs. People disappeared into Crownsville's back wards, sometimes for decades.

"You were more likely to leave Crownsville through death than discharge," said Paul Lurz, an employee at Crownsville from 1964 to the end and now its unofficial historian.

Alone among Maryland's mental hospitals, Crownsville housed the criminally insane, the mentally ill and retarded, adults and children along with drunks and people with syphilis and tuberculosis, all on one campus. Adults and children dwelled in the same wards.

Doctors tested drugs on patients without consent, according to Lurz and other Crownsville scholars.

For decades, Crownsville's dead were buried in numbered graves. The book that matched the numbers to names is long gone.

In later years, hundreds of cadavers were sent off to Baltimore for medical research, usually without the consent of relatives, said Janice Hayes-Williams, an Annapolis historian who has researched Crownsville death records.

Patients were sent to work on neighboring farms for "pittance" wages, Lurz said, as a means of exploitation. The shutdown of the hospital's own farm operations in the 1960s prompted a large-scale release of patients, suggesting that many had been kept for their value as laborers.

The Washington Post and various other newspapers published reports in the 1940s and 1950s exposing the dire conditions at Crownsville and the other state hospitals.

"Epileptics, hopelessly senile patients, low-grade idiots and psychotics were packed in two gloomy 'day rooms' during a tour Monday," wrote reporter Laurence Stern in a 1958 Post story. "In one windowless basement room, 40 'working' patients live under a tangle of hot water pipes."

Rumors persist of even darker secrets at Crownsville. Some black leaders, including Phelps, remain convinced that doctors subjected live patients to gruesome medical experiments akin to those practiced in Nazi concentration camps. Phelps said he heard such accounts decades ago while touring the facility.

"During this time, we were not considered as human, I guess," Phelps said. "They could do what they liked."

Other authorities on Crownsville said there is no evidence to support such claims.

"If it was done, I mean, it's all in the shredder, and it's been there for years, because I can't find anything," Lurz said.

Crownsville was created in 1910 with the purchase of 566 acres of farmland for $19,000 by the state, part of a movement to reform the treatment of mental patients.

To save money, the state used patient labor to build much of the campus.

From the start, Crownsville served as a dumping ground, "a place of last resort for black people with any kind of problem that affected your behavior," Lurz said.

Conditions at Crownsville began to deteriorate in the 1930s, said Robert Schoeberlein, a state archivist. The war effort sapped the hospital's staff. By 1949, the year of an influential report in the Baltimore Sun, there were 1,800 patients at a Crownsville campus designed for 1,100, and one doctor for every 225 patients.

Public debate over Crownsville often focused not on the welfare of the patients but on the safety of the surrounding community. Dozens of patients escaped the hospital every year, including criminally insane men from the dreaded C Building.

Civil rights groups had sought to integrate the all-white Crownsville staff for years, but hospital administrators long opposed it. In a 1943 interview, G.H. Preston, then Maryland's commissioner of mental hygiene, told a black journalist that integration would work only if "you people demonstrate it can be done."

Jacob Morgenstern brought the first black employees to Crownsville in 1948. By 1956, one-third of the staff was black. Crownsville fully integrated in 1962.

By the time the facility closed, Crownsville's legacy was largely forgotten.

Hayes-Williams and Phelps, her uncle, have finished the work of identifying whom they could among the 1,800 people buried there. She has not yet had time to computerize or publish the data, which could ultimately lead hundreds of families to lost relatives. Their labors inspired a state law that prevents the state from selling the graveyard.

The fate of the hospital and its 1,200-acre campus, a prize parcel to developers, remains in play. Proposals run the gamut from an equestrian park to a shopping mall to a clutch of million-dollar homes. State and county officials said they are studying the potential costs of repairing and renovating the buildings instead of tearing them down.

Crownsville advocates said they will be watching.

"I would hate to see everything just leveled and McMansions placed there," said Schoeberlein, the state archivist. "It sounds schmaltzy, but it really is hallowed ground."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company