A day at the mental hospital

No, this entry isn’t at all what you think it’s going to be.

The Heritage League of Pierce County, Washington, holds an annual outing for its members every summer, in which we (I’m a member of the board) showcase one or more of our members’ museums or other facilities.  In this case, three closely-related organizations.

At one end of Fort Steilacoom (STILL-a-come) Park in the city of Lakewood, which used to be part of the grounds of what was once called the Washington State Insane Asylum, now Western State Hospital and one of the largest facilities of its kind in the U.S., is a cemetery, where the remains of over 3000 early inmates and some staff members of one of the oldest facilities for the mentally ill west of the Mississippi are buried.  For many, many years, these graves were only marked with a number, and the records of who was buried where were kept private because of the stigma of mental illness.  In 2000, concerned citizens formed Grave Concerns, a group which eventually got state law changed so that these graves could have proper headstones with the proper information on them, and started raising the money to replace the old numbered gravestones.  They’ve made a lot of progress, and we spent an hour or so being taken by Laurel Lemke, the current president of Grave Concerns, on a tour of the cemetery, in a beautiful spot sprinkled with trees, between rolling hills.

After a picnic lunch in Fort Steilacoom Park, we crossed Steilacoom Blvd. to the current hospital grounds, where we met with Kathleen Benoun, who runs the Western State Hospital Museum, in the basement of the main building.  Because of its location, the museum is open only by appointment, but it’s well worth the trouble to call and make one.  The history of mental illness and its treatment is, in equal parts, scary and fascinating.  Some of the equipment, housed in the museum, for these so-called treatments is enough to give a person nightmares.  But seeing how the treatment of the mentally ill has changed over the last almost 150 years is heartening, too.

The hospital has a long history for this part of the world.  It opened its doors in 1871, the same year that our first national park, Yellowstone, was created.  It’s had a few famous patients over the years.  The most famous, or infamous, was Frances Farmer, the actress whose story was immortalized in the movie Frances, starring Jessica Lange.  The museum devotes a whole room (albeit a small one) to her.

The museum itself is housed in a few of the old treatment rooms, which definitely gives an air of authenticity to the whole place, especially with the echoing tile walls.

The third museum of the day was historic Fort Steilacoom itself, first built and manned as a defense against Indians in the 1850s.  It was decommissioned in 1868, and the land and buildings given over to what is now Western State Hospital, but several of the fort’s original buildings still survive on the grounds.  It’s open on weekends in the summer, staffed by volunteer re-enactor docents, and is also well worth a visit all on its own.  The main building houses exhibits as well as an enormous diorama depicting the fort in its heyday, and several of the smaller buildings are furnished as they would have been originally.

And that was my day at the state psychiatric hospital (to use the modern and more appropriate term).  I highly recommend a visit there for anyone.  Just be sure to make that appointment to see the hospital’s museum ahead of time.