Sometime around 10:30am on the morning of Saturday, November 12th, 2011, a 24-year-old Danvers, Massachusetts man knocked on his neighbor’s door. When the neighbor opened the door, the man took the cat he was carrying under his arm and tossed it into the neighbor’s house.
Startled, the neighbor asked him why he was doing that. The man replied, ““Because of the aliens, they’re in the woods killing people. We need to save the cats.”
The neighbors knew Stephen Ansastasi. He had been in and out of trouble with the police and was known to be a bit peculiar. At this bizarre pronouncement, they thought it best to accompany him home, to have a word with his father and see if he needed help. But when they got to the house, Stephen abruptly announced that his father wouldn’t be answering the door. “The aliens got him,” he said. “He’s dead.”
Indeed he was. 60-year-old John Ansastasi had been bludgeoned repeatedly with a hammer and stabbed twice in the neck. Stephen was the killer.
Yet three months later, Stephen Ansastasi continued to maintain his innocence, insisting that aliens had done it.
This macabre turn of events was nothing new for Danvers. Surely if any town could claim to have seen such madness before, it would be Danvers, the creepiest town in America.
Confined in Cages. Naked, Chained and Lashed.
As far back as the 1600’s, Danvers was grappling with the question of what to do with the insane people in their midst. The early solution for Danvers, as it was for other early colonial communities, was to auction them off.
As isolated as these Puritan communities were, clinging to the edge of a strange continent, surrounded by potentially hostile natives and thousands of miles from home, there was no room for gibbering lunatics. But apparently enough of them existed that a policy developed that said, If a sane person wants to buy the services of one of these people, they can be purchased from the community at large and become the property of the purchaser to do with as they wish (presumably to work), but if they are not purchased, they fall back on the community, which usually resulted in them being driven out to face the elements and die.
What is amazing about this system is not that it came into existence, but that it lasted so long. 200 years later, in 1841, Massachusetts reformer Dorothea Dix noted that most New England towns still contracted with local individuals to care for people with mental disorders who could not care for themselves. Naturally, such a system was rife with abuse.
Dix noted that such individuals were routinely “confined… in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience.” Nothing prevented men from contracting for young women. No one was heartbroken if one of these weird, scary people died unexpectedly.
Dix advocated for a more humane system in which state governments would play a direct role in providing homes for the insane. The fruit of her labor in Massachusetts was the eye-popping Danvers State Mental Hospital, a sprawling Victorian era complex consisting of 17 buildings, constructed between 1874 and 1878. In the beginning it was a model of compassionate care and treatment. And then things started to go wrong.
An Ice Pick in the Eye
In 1939 a Portugese psychosurgeon by the name of António Egas Moniz was shot by one of his patients. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. The new procedure he had been developing was the kind of thing that might’ve been expected to provoke violence in a patient. It involved drilling a hole into the skull of the person, and then injecting alcohol to destroy the tissue of the frontal lobe.
The frontal lobe, it was theorized, was the location of aberrant pathological brain circuits. In an effort to cure psychosis, Moniz sought to attack it where it lived. His efforts had mixed results.
Yet far from being labeled a brutal quack, Moniz was embraced by a frustrated psychiatric community, one desperate for an answer to the riddle of insanity. Among those most impressed was a young American neurologist named Walter Freeman. With Moniz as his mentor, Freeman developed and refined the procedure, giving it a new name; he called it a lobotomy.
Freeman introduced the procedure rapidly in the United States, performing 200 lobotomies in just six years, almost before any one noticed. By 1942 he was casting around for a way to speed things up, presumably to get even more lobotomies to his credit. He hit on the approach pioneered by an Italian psychiatrist named Amarro Fiamberti who gained access to his patients’ brains through their eye sockets.
It was straightforward. Take a long metal pick, insert it into the corner of each eye, press down and swirl it around, cutting the connections to the pre-frontal lobe in the cerebral cortex. Painful? Undoubtedly. Excruciatingly painful? Why yes. But nothing that couldn’t be overcome with a little electroshock therapy.
Freeman became such a freewheeling purveyor of these so called “ice pick lobotomies” that he actually traveled from asylum to asylum in a van that he called “the lobotomobile”. Freeman charged only $25 for each procedure.
At some point, it is a foregone conclusion that he pulled up in front of the glowering Victorian hulk that was Danver’s State Mental Hospital and unsheathed his pick.
Welcome to Hell
The howling, shrieks, gurglings and groans emanating from inside the walls of Danvers were enough to make any decent person’s skin crawl. By the 1950′s Danvers was out of control. A hospital that was designed to hold 500 people now held more than 2,000. Frenzied violence occurred within an environment of blood, filth and defecation. Patients far outnumbered staff. Conditions were deplorable. Freeman arrived with a solution. It’s a fair guess that Danvers jumped at it.
If previous procedures were any indication, patients were restrained, jolted into submission and subjected to ice pick lobotomies.
Some reportedly got better. Many showed no signs of improvement. And others, like Rosemary Kennedy, sister of JFK, were reportedly rendered vegetables.
Still, Freeman rolled on. His partner, James Watts eventually split with him, objecting to needless cruelty and overuse of the procedure. Indeed, by the 1960’s lobotomies were being given cavalierly, sometimes to teenagers who acted up in school.
Back at Danvers State Mental Hospital, lobotomized patients wandered the hallways like zombies. Although their violent outbursts may have been curtailed, the generally hellish atmosphere could only be reduced by alleviating the overcrowding.
Finally, with the advent of anti-psychotic drugs in the mid-1970’s, Danvers began cutting back on its population. Gradually it began closing down each of its seventeen buildings, and finally, in 1992, closed down altogether.
Danvers by Any Other Name
For the next fifteen years, the eerie old asylum remained empty, abandoned. Stories of strange disembodied voices, wails, and tortured groans were common. The place became a magnet for ghost hunters and adventure seekers. The alleged goings-on there inspired two movies and two novels, included H.P. Lovecraft’s classic, “The Thing on the Doorstep”.
In 2005 the property was bought by Avalon Development and turned into an apartment complex. Most of the buildings were torn down, but the imposing Victorian façade of the main building was retained and incorporated into the new structure. Today, you can still see the fearsome face of the old mental institution as anxious patients saw it, committed against their wills, transported down a dark road to be delivered into this squirming hell.
In Danvers they don’t like to traffic in superstition and ghost stories. They like to think of themselves as a normal suburban New England town, and to most outward appearances, they are just that. But Danvers can’t escape its dark past, and in some cases they might do well to heed it.
In 1875 when they were looking for a site to build Danvers State Mental Hospital, they might’ve been well advised to choose some other spot. For the place they put it already had a dark history. It had been the homestead of John Hathorne, one of the harshest judges at the Salem witch trials. Many of the scenes of that grim undertaking occurred on the same spot, and in the surrounding vicinity. In fact, the town of Danvers once went by another name. It was called Salem Village, the actual site of the Salem witch trials.
The Devil in Danvers
Twelve miles down the road in the adjacent town of Salem they have made a business out of marketing the witch trials. Here you’ll find the Salem Witch Museum and costume shops, guided tours, street performers, and all the usual hokum associated with the sanitized version of that event. But only a few of the actual events occurred here.
Most of what happened actually occurred in the isolated and rural community of Salem Village, which, in 1692, was a distant outpost separated from the main town by twelve miles of wilderness. It was a tense and creepy place even before they started hanging people.
The inhabitants of Salem Village were a disagreeable lot. They quarreled over everything: property lines, grazing rights, who or who should not be minister. A long running feud between two local families had divided the town. Backbiting and physical altercations were common. About the only thing everyone agreed on was a bleak puritanical theology that attributed every misfortune to the devil.
When Samuel Parris arrived to take over the duties of minister, he found himself having to pick sides. Right away, half the parishioners in town shunned his church, largely because the other half was attending. After briefly trying to cajole the standoffish ones, he settled on trying to coerce them by accusing them of iniquitous behavior. This only served to further divide the town. Then things took a bizarre turn.
9-year-old Betty Parris, daughter of the minister, and 11-year-old Abigail Williams, his niece, began behaving strangely. They jittered, screamed, crawled around on the floor, and contorted themselves into grotesque positions. Danvers was being visited by its first bout of madness. The authorities quickly determined that the girls had fallen under the influence of witchcraft and set about to find the culprits.
The foundations of Parris’s parsonage where these events took place still exist in Danvers. You can find them by walking down a narrow pathway between two suburban homes into a small area hemmed round by harmless looking backyards featuring swing sets and vegetable gardens. It’s hard to imagine that this was ground zero for the hysteria of the witch hunts.
A Dark American Legacy
First to be hauled before the magistrates was Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, who, according to some accounts, had insulted Minister Parris. Next to be accused was Sarah Osborne, a casual free thinker who rarely attended Parris’s church. Finally, Parris’s own servant woman, a West Indian slave named Tituba, was accused.
When these individuals were jailed with little outcry from the community, other youngsters began to show signs of being afflicted and new accusations started to fly. Some of the accused confessed and named accomplices. By May of 1692, the magistrates had 62 people in jail awaiting trial.
One of those magistrates was a harsh and unforgiving man convinced that the accused were guilty. He was John Hathorne, a wealthy merchant and landowner whose homestead would someday become the grounds of Danvers State Mental Hospital.
The trials themselves were farcical. The spellbound claimed to be able to see visions of their tormentors and pointed them out in court. The magistrates called on the accused to come forward and touch the victims. If the victims stopped having fits, then the accused were deemed guilty as charged. Dozens of people were condemned on this flimsy evidence.
It appears that Bridget Bishop was the sort of world-weary, wisecracking barmaid we all know, but in Salem in 1692 her vocation was frowned upon. The fact that she had been married three times didn’t help. Her proclivity for wearing provocative clothing, playing recreational games and making herself memorable to her neighbors also worked against her. So when she scornfully rejected the accusations of witchcraft against her, the authorities took it as a sign of her guilt. She was hauled before the magistrates, condemned and executed. She was the first victim of the trials. Thirteen more followed.
Today the home of Bridget Bishop still stands in Danvers, as does the home of Rebecca Nurse, a 71-year-old grandmother and well-respected member of the community whose only crime appears to have been a series of acrimonious land disputes with the powerful Putnam family. Indeed, it was the testimony of Ann Putnam that condemned her. She was hanged on July 19, 1692. Her death provoked the first public backlash against the trials.
The final witch trial was held in May of 1693. Thereafter, public condemnation of the trials grew. Eighteen years later in 1711 a petition was accepted reversing the charges of witchcraft against 22 of the victims. A hundred years later, the goings-on at Salem were universally condemned as a shame and an outrage. Even so, it was not enough to prevent it from happening again. The New York Draft Riots, the Red Scare of 1919, Joe McCarthy and The Iraq War all owe a debt to Danvers.
Perhaps there is something unique in the American character that makes us prone to witch hunts of all kinds. Fomenting fear against a vague and amorphous “other” has long been a tactic of demagogues and rabble-rousers. While it’s disappointing that it happens, it’s even more dismaying how often it succeeds. Americans, frightened by the unfamiliar, shocked by the unexpected, fall prey to those who would manipulate them. The results are almost always tragic.
Out of Nowhere
On June 16th, 2011 a mysterious blast rocked Danvers and surrounding communities. It was enough to rattle windows and set furniture to vibrating. No one seemed to know where it came from. Explanations ranging from a construction explosion to rock blasting in a nearby quarry were offered, but didn’t pan out. No smoke or fires were seen. The police were baffled.
Five years earlier, a blast at a chemical plant had exploded with the force of a magnitude 0.5 earthquake in Danvers, knocking houses off their foundations and obliterating the plant. This time no damage was reported. The source of the blast remained a mystery. It was weird. Maybe a little creepy.
Five months later Stephen Ansastasi became convinced that aliens were roaming the woods of Danvers, killing people. Before he had time to think things through, he became the thing he feared the most. He bludgeoned his father with a hammer and stabbed him to death.
Maybe it was the drugs; Stephen was a heroin user. Maybe it was the tension in the home; Stephen and his father “fought constantly” according to neighbors. Maybe it was all this and more. Maybe it was the vague sense of apprehension, the subtle whiff of anxiety that comes with living in a place like Danvers, where weird, scary things erupt violently out of nowhere, and leave behind a faint scent of dread.
Creepiest Town in America Driving Tour
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Danvers State Hospital Retelling
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My American Odyssey Route
Buccini, Molly and Masterson, Les. Murder Suspect Said ‘Aliens’ Killed Father, According to Neighbors. DanversPatch.com,12 Nov 2011, 30 Sept 2012.
Dorothea Dix quote, Dix, Dorothea L (1843), Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts 1843, p. 2, retrieved 1 Oct 2012.
Danvers State Insane Asylum. Danversstateinsaneasylum.com, retrieved 1 Oct 2012.
Walter Jackson Freeman III, Wikipedia, retrieved 1 Oct 2012.
Kincaid, Andrew. Lobotomy – The Ice Pick Cure. Lucid Dreams and Saturn Skies. 20 April 2012. 30 Sept 2012.
Efeyas. Insane Asylums – America’s Most Notorious Hauntings, 12 June 2010. 30 Sept 2012.
Salem Witch Trials, Wikipedia, retrieved 2 Oct 2012.
Burke, Alan. Mystery Blast Baffles Neighbors. The Salem News, 17 June 2011, 2 Oct 2012.
Portrait of an insane Woman, Public Domain; Danvers State Mental Hospital, Public Domain; Henry Clarke image of mental patient in restraint chair 1869, Wellcome Library Iconographic Collection; Ice pick lobotomy, George Washington University Gelman Library; Walter Freeman and James Watts, Miriam Posner; Miserable woman, Scott Griessel; Danvers Mental Hospital interior, Weburbanist; Endicott Family Cemetery; Alexis; Witch hanging, Public Domain; Parsonage site, Malcolm Logan; Salem Witch Trials Memorial, Malcolm Logan; Sarah Good marker, Malcolm Logan; Rebecca Nurse House; Daderot; Accused of Witchcraft by Douglas Volk, Public Domain; Bloody hammer, Skeats; Danver’s State Hospital at night, Public Domain