View of the main building at Crownsville State Hospital

photo by: Stuart McAlpine/Flickr/CC by 2.0

March 28, 2016

Behind the Walls: The Uncertain Future of Crownsville State Hospital

  • By: Kirsten Hower

Most people familiar with Crownsville, Maryland, often think of it as the home of the Maryland Renaissance Festival and the Anne Arundel County Fair. But just beyond the fairgrounds lies a relic of a darker part of Maryland's history: the abandoned campus of Crownsville State Hospital.

Established in 1911 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane, the hospital was a place to treat and house African-American patients separate from white patients. It also alleviated the burden on almshouses which were less equipped to deal with the demands of the mentally insane and homeless. Built on a 556-acre farm, the hospital was a self-sustaining institution in which many patients helped build the many structures that comprised the campus, tended the crops, milked the cows, and harvested willow wood to make furniture and baskets.

Patients ranged from the mentally ill to the homeless to children with epilepsy or syphilis whose parents could not deal with the demands of their illness, particularly during the Great Depression. Nearly all of the patients admitted died while still at the hospital, including Henrietta Lacks' eldest daughter Elsie and Pauli Murray's father William. It is estimated that 1,800 patients were buried on the grounds, approximately 1,400 in unnamed but numbered graves. The ledger that once documented which grave belonged to which patient has been lost or destroyed.

Interior of Crownsville State Hospital through a broken window

photo by: Stuart McAlpine/Flickr/CC by 2.0

The dilapidated interior of the hospital reflects the ravages of the years since its closure.

The third asylum in the nation established for the treatment of African-Americans with mental illness, the hospital has a grisly history that is unfortunately not uncommon for such institutions of the time. Local historian Paul Lurz, who came to the hospital in 1964 as a student social worker, says that the use of mentally ill patients for testing new treatments and therapies was not unusual: "There was a whole rationale about it that they (the patients) could pay back the institution for their stay. They are not going back to the community. They have nothing to lose. That was the thinking."

The hospital was eventually integrated, the additional patients adding to the already overcrowded hospital (it was built to hold 1,100 patients, but in 1955 was home to 2,719 patients). Decades later, the population declined to a measly 200 patients and, to save taxpayers the $12 million a year in upkeep, the hospital closed in 2004.

Since its closure, the hospital has been the center of controversy concerning what to do with the extensive campus and its buildings. Many of the buildings are beyond repair, while others are candidates for restoration. The cemetery, now protected as part of the Anne Arundel County Bacon Ridge Natural Area, is closed off to the public with the exception of the Scenic Rivers Land Trust's annual "Walk for the Woods."

photo by: Scenic Rivers Land Trust

No one is sure why patients were buried anonymously.

Janice Hayes-Williams with dedication stone for cemetery of Crownsville State Hospital

photo by: Scenic Rivers Land Trust

Janice Hayes-Williams at a "Walk for the Woods" event.

No one wants to see the memory of Crownsville State Hospital disappear, particularly Lurz and fellow historian Janice Hayes-Williams who continue to work endlessly to uncover the history of the hospital and those buried in the cemetery.

"I am attempting to save black history. We don't want to see this disappear," says Lurz.

What's to be done? The buildings are shuttered and crumbling, and the land costs the state roughly $1 million per year to maintain. The county doesn't want the responsibility, and outside companies haven't stepped forward with solutions. Is there an option that helps the site move forward with a new use for its property, while also allowing for preservation, particularly of the memory of those who lived and died there? Only time will tell.

Kirsten Hower is a former member of the National Trust’s social media team. When she’s not helping save places, you’ll find her reading, wandering around art museums, or hiking along the Potomac River with her dog.

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