Patricia, a mother who moves to the area to raise her family in the late 1960s comes to know the State Hospital through tragedy.

Chris [00:00] So how did you come to Northampton?

Patricia [00:07] How did I come to Northampton?

Chris [00:08] That’s, I think, where I think we should start.

Patricia [00:10] 1968 It was that old way that women used to travel: following my husband. I had been a student at Cornell, we had three children ages 6, 9 and 12, and Charles was hired to teach economics at Smith and we moved here and lived in a Smith College faculty house for three years right above what is now the new athletics complex. It was a great place to raise kids.

Chris [00:50] Can you tell me a little about what Northampton was like?

Patricia [00:56] We looked at Amherst and Northampton. Northampton was obviously the most convenient because we could be close to his work but I had really thought I’d like to go to UMass because at Cornell I had studied physical anthropology, and they had that at UMass and they didn’t have that at Smith. So I said, well maybe we should live in Amherst. So we looked at Amherst and then we looked at Northampton and we loved Northampton because it was, if I can say this, regular people lived there. It wasn’t just academics, you know, and we wanted our kids to be raised in a community that had a little bit more diversity, and there were people that worked in factories and farmers and it was a good New England diverse kind of a community. We loved the way it looked also. We loved the wide downtown, from the very beginning we felt at home with that. In those days there were urban problems. Urban renewal had hit the country like a plague, and Ithica were we had been living, and Austin where we had grown up had succumbed to some of the urban renewal ideas of razing wonderful old buildings and leaving empty parking lots, which is what pretty much happened. Well Northampton had not done that. And so it seemed like a downtown that had a lot of integrity, architecturally, but still there were very few buildings that didn’t have boarded up second floors, and not long after we came Newberry’s which was a kind of a mid-range department store closed, and a few other locally owned stores closed. So it was a downtown that still was viable, but shaky I would say. And then McCollum’s department store where Thornes is now closed, and that was a big change. But it was still always vibrant.

Patricia [03:31] In the early days it had a larger Puerto Rican community downtown than it does now. The Post Office was on Pleasant street and very rarely did you go by in the evening where there weren’t a whole lot of Puerto Rican’s sitting, singing, it was much more vibrant. I think it changed really because of prejudice and they were sort of relegated to Hampshire Heights and Florence Heights. But we liked that there were Puerto Ricans, people speaking spanish. We got very interested in 1970 in some of the old vacant buildings like what is now the Round House, you know, that now is something. It was an empty railroad building, and a lot of other examples like that. So our kids, well, two of them went to the Smith College campus school, which back in those days if you were in the faculty it was very inexpensive, and one went to Hawley Jr. High, and then they were all in the public schools after grade school. We thought the schools were fine. They were a little crowded, that was before John F. Kennedy Jr. High was built I think, Hawley was the Jr. High. So it was a community that was active, we were against the Vietnam War. We had worked hard in various movements and Northampton was a place where you could find like-minded people. Some of them were at Smith, not that many but some. And Smith became a much more politically active place during those years we were here and afterward I’m happy to say. So it was beautiful. We had a lot heavier Winters in those days. I can remember in the Winter living on Belmont avenue next to Smith, and having snows that you couldn’t drive in at all, and all of us walking downtown on paths people had shoveled, and the whole town being shut down if you can imagine Northampton mostly shut because of snow. It was a small town with a lot of opportunities, it felt like, for children to grow up with what felt like a real world. Though of course it was very sheltered compared to say New York City, but it was less sheltered than Amherst I would say.

Patricia [06:52] Patricia I don’t remember when I heard about the State Hospital, I suppose fairly soon after we moved here. I didn’t know anything about it except is was what in Texas we had called an insane asylum, that was the old word for it, and that it was kind of an awful place, that was the image that I had. That people didn’t get much treatment, that is was a holding facility, I didn’t really know any of this for sure but that was the image I had, and that anybody who had any choice at all would not go there. What else I knew about it was that my children loved, all three of them, was to sled down Hospital Hill.

Chris [07:42] I did that when I was a kid.

Patricia [07:45] Exactly, it was a fabulous sledding hill. And in the Summer they would play there too because we lived so close to it, we lived practically at the base of it. So they enjoyed it a whole lot, and I imagine that they explored up in there some that we didn’t know about. We hadn’t forbidden it, but there were certainly fences and things. As far as I know they didn’t have any negative experiences with it. It was huge, it seemed huge. If you’d go up Route 66 and looked on either side, very sort of impenetrable, the old buildings felt that way. But that was purely, you know, a kind of intuitive thing, I didn’t really know. One of my children loved horses, and the horse stables were right across the street from Hospital Hill and just down from some of the other buildings of the State Hospital so he used to go there. So it was always kind of part of the landscape, I would guess you would say. I knew people who worked there, I guess, it did employ an awful lot of people. And I knew that people went there from all over this part of the state. That’s about all that I knew.

Patricia [09:21] When I started to learn more about it was in 1974, when I started working for the State’s Office for Children, that was an advocacy office for kids. And I supervised people who were advocates for children all over Western Massachusetts. We tracked, we did a sort of case management approach, so we tracked individual children. And one of the problems had been that children had been sent to institutions inappropriately, and in those days there were very few community based services, very few. So if you didn’t have any money where else were you going to go? Children had been put, and adults, had been put in the Belchertown State [School] as quote retarded, who weren’t. They were trouble makers in the family supposedly, or the family couldn’t afford that many children, and they were not treated well. There’s a lot of documentation about that for Belchertown State School for example. And I knew about Belchertown because I had also been working as an advocate for organic agriculture and small farms and we started a school for small organic farmers on the grounds of Belchertown State [School] at the old school farm, called the New England Small Farm Institute which is still there. So I had met the superintendent, Bill Jones and we became friends, so I learned a lot about what was happening in there, and he was a reformer. This was about the time that Jery Miller was made commissioner for the Department of Youth Services, Frank Sargent was Governor and he and his wife Jesse had gotten really concerned about what was happening in these institutions. And it began with the juvenile detention centers, then the state schools for the so called retarded, and then the state hospitals for the so called mentally ill. It sort of spread just like that, the sense we had that people in these institutions were not being well served to say the least. That there was a lot of political graft that went on, that a lot of legislators were using these state institutions as places to pay back political favors by creating what were called No Show Jobs. You’d get one of the jobs and you never had to show up and you got a paycheck. And that happened through these institutions a lot.

Patricia [12:41] At Belchertown people would be lined up, wheelchairs, you know taken out of their beds and hosed down, literally hosed down, and left to dry or whatever. Not fed well, tied up, terrible. So it was this reform movement that went on. This was in the early, 72, 73, 74, 75, right in there. The State Hospital, there had been some things that had been happening at the State Hospital that people were concerned about, though they had some very caring people on the staff. Working for the office for children I was working at a level of calling meetings of people from these various institutions about individual children, and children went to age 21 or 22. So some of these were in the state hospital. So I knew a good many of the staffers and heads of these institutions. So when my own son, who had had a lot of emotional difficulty from about age 15 to 16 I would say, became violent and tried to take his own life a couple of times, and seemed to be aggressive towards others, or at least acting out in ways that frightened other patients, and I was a single mom by then and had no savings whatsoever but I did have insurance, health insurance, Blue Cross. If you were over 18 you couldn’t be under your parent’s health insurance, so he wasn’t being covered, so I couldn’t get him into McCleans or Brattleboro Retreat which had better reputations. But after the second time he tried to take his own life his psychiatrist said if you don’t put him in a place where he can be safe he’s going to succeed. And the only place there is that will take someone who’s violent is the State Hospital.

Patricia [15:25] It was the hardest decision I had ever made in my lifetime to allow him to go there. He actually liked it. He felt he could be as crazy as he was there. And he said that to me and I knew what he meant by that. But at the same time it was an awful place. He wasn’t getting treatment. And even his psychologist sort of left on vacation. He was really abandoned a lot of the time. So at the same time I knew about some of this reform movement that was going on. It hadn’t really hit the State Hospital yet. And then when Bill was there I had gone to Boston, on the bus, I don’t think we had a car then, and had gone to the office for children meeting I was slated for and gone to the Blue Cross office. I had heard that maybe they could pay for him if he had been declared disabled, emotionally disabled, which he had been he was on DSS. And so I said you will pay for him to go to McCleans? Well if these things are true and so on, yes. I had told him the night before that I was going to be doing this, and that I was hopeful that maybe we could get him out of the State Hospital. And it was while I was on my way home on the bus from Boston that he hung himself. So he knew that he might get out.

Patricia [17:30] It was really really hard. When he died, you know it was handled just horribly by a phone call, and I never saw him. And my lawyer who was a good friend, who was definitely an advocate really wanted to sue the state for not checking on him often enough, and leaving him with something he could hang himself with and so on. And I just didn’t have the heart for it. I felt that there was neglect, I thought, I also thought they were also working under really horrible conditions, the staff that I knew, that were the direct care staff, for the most part were really doing their best. And I felt it was a real choice that we made. And I don’t know if I would choose these days, I might go ahead and push it. But I was emotionally not in a place to do that. I felt so guilty myself that I had not somehow been able to save him. However his death spurred work by a number of people to shut down that hospital. And it sort of just gave them… it inspired them somehow, they’re friends of mine, and to become involved in the deinstitutionalization effort. And I watched on the sidelines, you know I couldn’t, I couldn’t even work for a whole year, because I would have had to work with the very people who I felt did let him down, really the people at the higher level had not responded with some resources that they could have. So I was just so angry. I was just incredibly angry.

Patricia [19:44] But it was a place, the State Hospital, he was in [Haskell] house for Hampshire county people. There were maybe some Berkshire people there, I don’t remember. It was divided into counties. And his was the most modern, up to date I guess. And the coldest, it was very cold and stark I guess you would say. Nothing about it was anything but institutional. And people were encouraged to go to the Rec room and smoke, drink coffee, and eat candy bars out of the machines which we now know is some of the worst, you know, encouragement for emotional in-balance for people who aren’t even ill. So there was that kind of just gross, try to keep them quiet, keep them on Thorazine, there’s not much hope, you know, maybe they’ll luck out and come through this, it was that sort of a thing. It was not a place you would have happily put anybody. I’m not saying that anybody that I knew was like punished or mistreated in that way, but they were neglected and they were given things that were not in their best interest by default, I mean that’s all there was for them, were smoking, rocking, eating candy bars, and drinking coffee. That was it, pretty much. So, when he died I couldn’t even drive up Route 66 for several years. It was like something lived there that I couldn’t be near. Grief I guess. About a year later the children and I were able to sell our house in Northampton and move to the woods which was very therapeutic for all of us, the land, and that’s where I still am. Twenty eight years this September, so he died in February of 1976 which is 30 years ago now. And, it took a few years for them to close it down, and I think a lot of people were hurt in that because there were programs that were set up.

Patricia [22:40] Some of them were really good, and so some people really lucked out. But there were other people who were just let out, and they had no job, and they had no money, and they had a room with a bare light bulb and that’s all they had. And I met a number of those people, and I didn’t blame them for going back to drinking or whatever it was that they had been keeping themselves alive doing because they had nothing, at all. So it was a time of great ferment, and it was almost like you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. I think a lot of the programs now are quite good. I think there’s been a lot of progress made in the treatment of Bipolar disorders and Schizophrenia, and its still a terrible problem but its a lot better, people can live a lot better lives now, with treatment than they did. And there are places, there are humane and clean and supervised, but, you know there’s no perfect solution except to regain your balance somehow, in your life, and that’s like grace.


  1. My father was the chief engineer at the state hospital. We lived on the grounds. I would have been but a few hundred yards away from the haskel building in 1976, There was a fire in our house in June of 1976 and we would of moved away by the next year. We lived on the first floor of the house that wasn’t smoke damaged until our new home was built. I would have lived there between 1974 – 1976. We lived in a big white house right at the stop lights.

  2. This story is most important because it made a significant change at the hospital. Having worked there for 8 years I know the history. Out of this tragedy the hospital instituted a change that is still in effect today in most human service jobs. Everyone has to be trained in CPR and First Aid. The hospital also provided training for staff to become EMT and had their own ambulances. Lives were saved. I will always remember this.

  3. Amazing interview! I relate, I know of this Hospital.. I was a S.H.E.P Student, I always looked forward to school, getting of the ward. I almost felt as if I would go crazy in that place. Going to sleep at night was a fearful time for me. I was young, a teenager with teenager issues, not issues that needed a locked ward. But, today I am a far better person with a kind heart, soul and a special place in my heart for all lost souls starting from North Hampton State Hospital to all men and women with any type of mental illness. The mental health system has gotten better since 1980-1983, but it still sucks, and falls way short in coming to the aid of needed people… but it is better. Thank You Doctor H.

  4. I worked at Northampton Hospital as a volunteer, with a group of six young women from Mount Holyoke college, during 1957 &`58. The descriptions given above are accurate. Despite the frightening looking institutionality of the place, the staff was indeed knowledgeable and caring. I saw things there that horrified me, but the staff was doing the best they could with what they had at the time. We volunteers could only be present and companionable to the inmates. Many were self-committed as they could not cope with the outside would, and they knew it. All my life since then I have remembered the people I met- inmates and staff, and wondered what happened to them and to the hospital. Thank you for a fascinating record of the hospital. My deepest sympathy concerning the death of Patricia`s son.

  5. Thank you Patricia for sharing your story and Chris for bringing the stories of the State Hospital to life.

    How short we as a society fall in caring for the most needy among us…

Leave a Reply