Looking for a new ghost story to share with your friends this Halloween? How about one based in reality? Few buildings in America have darker histories than the insane asylums constructed in the late eighteen hundreds, the Athens Lunatic Asylum among them. Opened in 1874 and located in scenic Athens, Ohio, the asylum treated dozens of conditions ranging from PMS to multiple personality disorders. The treatments administered were equally disturbing. According to the Friends of Athens Asylum Cemeteries, over 1,700 people died while receiving treatment here and at least seventeen hundred bodies were left unclaimed by family members. These bodies were interred on the grounds, many of them in graves identified only by numbers.
Local lore insists that the dead here do not rest easy, especially the spirit of Margaret Schilling. Margaret disappeared from her ward on December 1st, 1978, reportedly while playing a game of hide and seek with one of the nurses. The legend states that the nurse became distracted by another patient and subsequently forgot all about poor Margaret. Margaret’s body wasn’t discovered until January 12th, a full forty two days later. Apparently, Margaret wandered into one of the unused wards that was previously used to house very ill patients and locked herself in. Without food, water or heat, Margaret probably died a slow, painful death. She was found completely naked lying next to a window, her clothes neatly folded and lying nearby. Her body left a permanent stain on the floor that can still be seen today. Locals insist that Margaret’s spirit still roams the main building of the asylum, which now functions as an Art museum for the local university, forever trapped in her deadly game of hide and seek.
Many of the people admitted to the asylum were labeled as criminally insane and subject to harsh treatment. Aside from the expected problems of overcrowding and general neglect by the staff, patients were subjected to barbaric treatments. According to local lore, patients were subjected to treatments that would be considered forms of torture today such as ice water baths, electroshock therapy and trans-orbital lobotomies. Sometimes, these treatments went horribly wrong, resulting in the death of a patient. These patients, who had little or no contact with their outside family and no money, were buried on the grounds. A small, white headstone bearing their patient number instead of a name marked their graves. Even more bizarre than the way the graves are labeled is the unusual way one section of plots is laid out. While most of the stones rest in nice, neat rows, there is one section where the headstones fall into a circular pattern. Many people believe this circle holds special powers and legends abound about witches gathering here for séances and dark rituals.
The asylum officially closed in 1993, busing the patients to another local hospital for care. To this day, the graveyard is open to the public during normal daylight hours all throughout the year as is the main building of the asylum, now known as the Kennedy Museum of Art. If you’re planning on visiting to get a sneak peek at the stain Margaret’s body left on the floor, however, you’re likely to be disappointed. Ohio University, which owns the grounds, keeps this area closed off except for those rooms in use by the museum and the college itself. In the past, the local historical society has offered walking tours during the month of October, though none have yet been announced on their website for 2013 at this time. For more information, please contact the Athens County Historical Society. Current contact information is available on their website.