Hidden Histories and Haunting

By Anastazia Schmid


Fear is a base emotional response to trauma, pain, and uncertainty. As one experiences fear or terror in a paranormal presence, they share the emotional energetic pain that trauma invoked. Epistemic injustice occurs through silencing trauma and human atrocities. That silence allows human rights violations to continue unabated. Ghosts (both those who live with the damning label and those from beyond the grave) raise questions as to whose bodies and lives are used as fodder for other’s social, political, and intellectual gain. I propose the recovery of lost, secret histories via paranormal experiences and a collection of oral histories encountered and taken at the Madison State Hospital and Correctional Facility.

The Southeastern Hospital for the Insane, also known as “Cragmont” and now the Madison State Hospital and Correctional Facility, opened in 1910. It was designed to be Indiana’s largest hospital for the insane, and in the first ten years of operation, the population rose to 1,200 patients, with the number of women patients nearly always exceeding that of men. Hospital records consistently noted the race of patients; 233 of the insane patients were listed as immigrants, and 185 patients were purported to have “mixed” blood. Eugenic field workers and doctors proliferated the staff. Their reports and statistical charts permeate the early hospital reports. In 1907 the state issued a compulsory sterilisation law targeting institutionalised people; I question how many of these people became the targets for medical experimentation or marked for death.

The hospital was known for its medical research and experimentation on patients. Shock and insulin treatment, “hydrotherapy” (various forms of water torture), chemical and physical restraint, and the unspoken dark room isolation cells, complete with chain restraints, in the bowels of the institution were all forms of purported “treatments” inflicted upon the inhabitants. Death permeates the institution. By 1919 Cragmont’s annual report noted that nearly 1,000 people died in less than 10 years. At least 17 violent deaths were reported during that time, mainly listed as suicides by hanging. Early newspaper accounts reported on a few of these suicides, including Daisy Phillips who hanged herself at Cragmont in 1924. Phillips previously attempted to shoot herself after her husband’s suicide the year before and was committed to the asylum. Perhaps violent deaths like these contributed to the Madison State Hospital and Correctional Facility’s notoriously haunted reputation. Madison is listed as one of the most haunted sites in Indiana, yet very little information documenting its paranormal activities or darker histories exists.

In 2007, part of the Madison State Hospital transitioned into a women’s prison. Upon transfer to MSU, I planned to expand my autoethnographic research into the history of the Madison State Hospital. When I arrived at Madison, I immediately recognised the facility from multiple dreams I’d had for five years prior to arriving. The history and ghosts of Madison appeared to be calling to me long before I knew anything of the institution. Originally, my research was solely focused on the institution itself and the patients who were there. As I began conducting interviews, stories of the facility’s extreme paranormal activity began emerging. Most staff members would only speak to me if I promised not to divulge their identities. The superintendents and wardens of the facility have a longstanding reputation of habitually denying outsiders entrance for filming, photography, or research on the facility and its inhabitants. I experienced my own encounters and collected numerous stories while inside the facility.

Blank South Lower is currently the in-house drug rehab at the facility. I was repeatedly told that the presence of a large man was felt physically and could be seen or heard in the corner room at the far end of the hallway. One woman who lived in the room told me she woke from sleep after feeling the weight of this man holding her down in her bunk, his face twisted in a grotesque distortion right in front of her, screaming, “you’re not safe here!” A counselor employed by the facility for a few decades told me that when that portion of the facility was used as a men’s prison in the 1980s, a man hanged himself in the same section of the building where many women experienced this paranormal presence.

The open population dorm, McCart South Lower, also harbors recurring paranormal experiences. Room one on hallway one was reported by staff and residents alike to constantly be excessively cold with a feeling of a strange, sometimes dark presence. The inhabitants of that room repeatedly spoke of being touched in their sleep to the point of being awoken. Shadows were seen hovering over the lower bunk by staff members. An incarcerated woman who had been chronically sick died in that room in 2010; her death went undiscovered for three days. The room was left uninhabited and was used as storage for several years after the incident, but as the prison population began to swell, the room was once again inhabited by residents.

Officer Mrs. D has worked at the facility for over thirty years. She told me about the old dentist office in the basement of one of the now-condemned buildings on the grounds. Patients purported to have been violent with a propensity to bite were forcibly restrained in that office to extract all of their teeth, and she claimed to have been a part of this practice. When I questioned her about the legality of permanently maiming patients, she stated, “I think it was the right thing to do. What are you supposed to do with monsters who won’t stop biting? No one wants their germs or their filthy mouths on them.”

I went into the basements of every building I had access to, roughly five different buildings out of 40 on grounds. They all harbor isolation cells, many still bearing markings on the walls and floors where chains and restraints once were. The interior cells are extremely small and completely dark with dirt floors. Once inside an adult cannot fully stand upright, forcing a person to remain cramped in the tight space on the ground. Also the pipes to the furnaces and water heaters run along the ceilings in several of the cells. Many times during the day and night, loud banging on those pipes is heard through the floors. At times the banging would become so loud and intense that it woke people from their sleep and rattled the bed frames from the vibrations through the floor coming from the banging.

Regardless of whether these stories are folklore or actual experiences, they are a contestation of silencing, trauma, and the disappearance of people’s hidden lived experiences. Substantial profit has been made off the bodies of institutionalised people across time and this continues today in institutions like prisons. There is a vested interest by interconnected power structures to keep these voices silenced and the histories of lives captured within hidden. We must recognise the commonality in pain and suffering before we can delve deeper into the lives of disappeared people and their histories. I acknowledge those demands from beyond the grave as a form of resistance to human degradation in all forms and the continued perpetration of trauma to all institutionalised people.


Anastazia Schmid is an activist artist and graduate independent scholar in the higher education program at the Indiana Women’s Prison. She received the 2016 Gloria Anzaldua Award for her work in gender and sexuality by the American Studies Association, and received the Outstanding History Project Award presented by the Indiana Historical Society. Her work and interviews span multimedia sources including NPR and Slate magazine. She is the co-author of the play The Duchess of Stringtown currently under production both inside prison and out.

Illustration by Ilyanna Kerr


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