Inspiration Post #20: The Asylum

My newest novel, The Tin Box, takes place in the Jelley’s Valley State Insane Asylum. Although that institution is fictional, it was inspired by a very real place: the Insane Asylum of California at Stockton. The Stockton facility was built in 1853 and was once the largest mental hospital in California. It closed in 1996 and is now used for a variety of purposes, including a university campus.

You can see some historic images here. Here’s a recent photo of one of the main buildings:

 Here’s a side entrance to that same building:

This is the house where the superintendents lived:

Some people find the place kind of spooky. There are stories that it’s haunted. I’ve been there at night when I was almost alone (and I was once briefly locked in the morgue!), but I find it more sad than scary. The corridors are very long. This blurry photo gives a vague concept of what I mean:

There are numerous courtyards. These courtyards have trees and decorative tile, and recently patio furniture has been added. But you can still see the bars on the windows and they still seem lonely to me.

Thousands of people passed through this facility over the decades. Some had family who loved them, and some were eventually able to return home. But thousands died and were buried there. Some of the graves were marked, but many weren’t. During a construction project several years ago, bodies were accidentally exhumed. It’s impossible to know who is buried there, and where, because records were poorly kept or lost. There’s a memorial there today.

When I’ve walked the corridors in Stockton, I couldn’t help but think of how many lives were wasted–spent in misery and deprivation–because people suffered from illnesses with no effective treatments. There are still a great many problems with the way mental illness is dealt with in our society, but we’ve come a long way from the days of hopelessness.

Here are some more links on the Stockton facility:

Next week: historic treatments

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