I spent 2 hours today exploring and shooting the grounds of the old Medfield State Hospital. Why? Because old mental institutions are interesting and haunting and provide lots of cool "stuff" to shoot? Yeah, of course. But I mainly went there for personal reasons. My cousin and I have spent the better part of the last year researching our family history and we discovered that our great-great-grandmother was a patient there for 40 years. Crazy right? Even crazier still is the back story that we uncovered through research and the memories that these facts brought to the surface in some of our older relatives. It turns out that our great-great-grandfather had our great great-grandmother, Ellen, committed in 1900 and he told their children that she died. Ellen wasn't ill; she was perfectly sane. We don't know why he put her away, just that she lived most of her time there with no visitors because everyone thought she was dead. Years later, their son (my great-grandfather) found out that she was still alive and had been living a mere 35 minutes away in the hospital. He and my great-grandmother immediately went to see Ellen and wanted her to go home and live with them, but she refused. This was her home; these people were her friends and served as her family for 40 years. She couldn't just leave them, so she stayed and that's where she died in 1941. Ironically, she outlived her husband by a mere 3 months, true poetic justice, considering the circumstances.
Naturally, my cousin and I were anxious to see this place which had such deep roots in our family, but we were also a little freaked out. Ellen's story is extremely sad, but it feels worse because she was family and she was wronged by family. That's not exactly what we hoped we would find when we began this search so many months ago. I assumed going there would be difficult, but still something we needed to do in order to truly research our roots. The hospital closed down almost 10 years ago so we were unsure what we would find when got there.
To say we were surprised is an understatement. I think it helped that we went in the middle of the day. It wasn't dark, gloomy or rainy, so that definitely toned down the creep factor. What we found were brick buildings, beautiful even in their decrepid state, and sprawling grounds, covered with numerous varieties of trees and other natural beauty. Contrary to what I thought I would feel when I got there, I wasn't scared and I didn't feel an overwhelming sadness. It felt kind of incredible to know that I was walking the same paths that my great-great-grandmother walked over 100 years ago and even though I know that bad things happened in some of those buildings, it felt more like a community in the way the grounds were laid out. I know that in its day, it must have been really beautiful to look at, regardless of what was going on behind some of those doors. This might sound strange but it made me feel a little better to know that Ellen at least lived in a pretty place, even if she didn't really belong there. And despite the fact that she was forced to live away from her children in a place riddled with illness, I am kind of comforted to know that she was able to find a sense of family, and I hope, some kind of happiness. I have to believe that this is why she chose to stay.
I can't say I left the grounds feeling good because Ellen's story didn't change; it only became more real. Nonetheless, I was glad I went. I AM glad I went. I know that Ellen's story will never be hidden again. I lived a piece of my history simply by being there and I captured it in photos that I can share with the rest of my family. Because of this visit, I am more connected to my past and I know that my pictures will forever keep me connected to my future and that feels really good.
For more photos from this shoot, click here.