Shadows Over Waltham

I’ve always got my eyes open looking for interesting places to go urban exploring. I love abandoned, decaying places, as well as their history. So when I stumbled upon info about the Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, so close to where I live, I knew I had to go.

I took the journey with my usual spooky companions (my mother and my nana) and we headed to Waltham armed with comfy sneakers and cameras. As we drove past the gated entrance on Trapelo Rd. we realized we needed to find parking, and we happened to turn onto a road with several old buildings.

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“Is…this place abandoned too?” I raised an intrigued brow and looked to my mom, then hopped out of the car. We both walked around the building, casually trying doors and peering into windows. Then we saw the black SUV driving up…a State Police plate on the front.

We had only been exploring two minutes and already the cops had found us.

The officer stepped out, and we walked up, trying to seem nonchalant. “Oh hi! We were just driving by and saw this building…” My mother smiled sweetly. Luckily the officer seemed to be in a good mood.

“I don’t blame you.” He put his hands in his belt loops. “Do you know what this place is?”

“No.” We admitted. “Was it a school?”

“Sort of. It was called the Fernald School for the Feeble Minded. Lot of history here. You should look it up.” He shook his head gravely. “A disappearance of history…” He trailed off looking over at the brick building.

The name certainly sounded familiar. We nodded and replied “Thank you. We will”

“Alright, unfortunately this is state property and I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

We bashfully conceded and headed out, driving out of the lot as I furiously began to google.

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The Fernald School was built in 1888, and at its peak housed over 2000 young boys. Like most mental asylums of the early 20th century, it was overcrowded and underfunded, and reports of bad conditions and abuse of the children were frequent. Though the Fernald was supposed to be a care center, a large portion of its occupants were not disabled at all, but were instead orphans or the poor/homeless. The boys there had almost no rights, and were treated as “sub human” according to reports from former ‘patients’.

In the 20’s the school became best known for leading in Eugenics research and advocation. For those not in the know, eugenics is the attempt to genetically create more “perfect” people, and was a foundation of Adolph Hitler’s beliefs.

In the 40’s the school partnered with Harvard and MIT and was funded by none other than Quaker Oats to do more experiments on children, this time by feeding them doses of radiated cereal. The children who had parents got permission slips to join a “science club” and were bribed with trips and toys.

Despite all of the this, Fernald existed and continued to house patients all the way up until 2014, with most living there for their entire lives. According to most the conditions greatly improved after the 70’s. Part of the reason for this was because Judge Joseph Tauro heard reports of the conditions, and made an unannounced trip to the institution. He described the school as being the realization of ones “worst horrors”. He found a ‘hospital’ that reeked of urine and patients covered in bugbites.

After learning all of this we were rather amazed, and I’ll admit, REALLY wanted to go back and explore more. Unfortunately the grounds were heavily patrolled by police, and each subsequent time we passed the road we could see a patrol car stationed up the road, watching. Further exploration there was simply not possible. Instead we headed onward to Metropolitan state. We parked in an old ball field and walked to the gate, past several abandoned houses we assume were part of the staff housing of the facilities, and had been abandoned around the same time as the hospital.

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I was shocked to notice a familiar sight…the same small white figure I had seen painted on the Clinton Tunnel in Western Mass. The coincidence was eerie, but I had to assume now that it was some kind of tag, perhaps from a fellow lover of urban exploration but with a slightly more destructive tone. Nonetheless, something about the figure gave me a positive feeling, like it was some sort of guide.

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We weren’t sure where exactly the asylums buildings were located, or if any even still stood. As we walked up the cracked paved road we saw our little friends once again.

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Though tempted to veer down the path we wanted to check the paved road first, and it snaked up the hill and let off at several other dirt paths headed toward an old water tank.

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Though interesting, it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. Our break came in the form of two dogs speeding past us after a rabbit, their owners coming up behind.

We made small talk, (easy to do as dog lovers) and then I probed. “Do you come here a lot?”

“Almost every day.”

“Do you know if any of the buildings are still here?”

The woman launched into explanation, a wealth of knowledge on the area and a goldmine for us. She told us that only one building still stood, and we would have to head down Metropolitan Parkway toward the Avalon condos. She also talked to us about the old incinerator, the secret tunnels, and more. I could tell immediately we would never find the mythical tunnels, but within reach was the cemetery. She told us it was down the path through the woods we had passed earlier.

We thanked her and said farewell to her dogs, then headed for the cemetery. It was down a steep hill in the woods, but the graves were in a small clearing surrounded by a stone wall.

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The graves were mostly stone blocks with numbers carved into them. The patients were from both Metropolitan and Fernald.

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According to our local guide, the cemetery had closer to 350 souls buried in it, and only a few with more dignified memorials.

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The graveyard was a humbling place, dotted with annual flowers that had been planted there in years past by loved ones of the deceased, or just those who pitied them.

On out way out we nearly stepped on one of the cemetery’s few living inhabitants; an extremely feisty snake who lunged at us.

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We headed back to our car and drove down the road to Metropolitan Parkway.  It wasn’t long before we found what we were looking for.

Metropolitan State Hospital was built around 1927, but the only building that we could still experience, the Administration Building, had it’s cornerstone laid in 1928. We were thrilled to see it, beautiful in its decay.

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Metropolitan State had once been a busy hospital for the mentally ill, housing thousands of patients. It was laid out like many asylums of the time using the Kirkbride  model, but it was comprised of many different buildings that gave it a colony effect.

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For some beautiful photos of the buildings pre-demolition click here

The conditions at the hospital slowly decreased as time progressed. In 1978, a patient named Anne Marie Davee went missing. Her disappearance wasn’t formally investigated until 19 negligence complaints against the hospital had been filed and two entire years had passed. It was then that they learned that another patient, Melvin Wilson, had murdered and dismembered Anne with a hatchet and buried her body on the grounds. He had kept some of her teeth as souvenirs.

The horrific crime was likely not the only dark event in Metropolitan’s past.

Other accusations included the attempt to ‘cure’ mentally ill children by adding chemicals to their milk, resulting in multiple deaths.

For 25 years Metropolitan State’s Admin building has stood, slowly crumbling. When I found it, boards firmly covered all the windows but one, where a hole had been dug out just big enough for a person to slip through. I strongly considered it, but my mother had some objections. As we drove away I felt both complete and yet hollow, not unlike the skeletal building I had left behind.