Thursday, May 3, 2007

City of the Insane

I suppose you could say that we have odd hobbies and adventures - for example, one year, Flo was closely following a local murder case and voiced an interest in writing true crime, so for her birthday, I um… procured press passes. We joined the press pool, and Flo attended the trial while I took photos outside, and managed to get a good shot of the manacled murderess while she was being led out of the courthouse for lunch. Flo's feature article, along with my photos, appeared in "True Police" magazine.

Last year, Flo said she would like to visit the Medical History Museum on the grounds of the abandoned Central State Mental Hospital, here on the west side of Indianapolis. That sounded like another unique birthday adventure, so off we went. The experience was so fascinating that we returned twice more for all-day photo shoots.

We chose brilliant, cerulean days for the best lighting, to shoot digital and video. I would love to stalk those grounds on an oppressive, foggy morning, but this was the best for imaging.

First, we took the tour of the Medical Museum, visiting the teaching arena where students from all over the world would learn from autopsies of the mentally ill. We learned that, for generations, syphilis provided the greatest population of the severely mentally ill, and was treated experimentally - with malaria. The extreme fever of malaria could kill enough of the syphilis for significant remissions.

We saw sectioned brains in jars of formaldehyde; disease, injury, genetic defects. We studied the preserved brains of the elderly, of children, of murderers. We were told the spotted history of Central State; a smattering of the hopes and success stories, the scandals and tragedies spread out over 146 years of operation.

The monstrous Gothic dormitories, once know as the "Seven Gables," are long gone; razed in the early 1970's, to be replaced by sterile brick "Borg" cubes, situated elsewhere on the compound. However, when you stroll across the well-groomed commons where the dorms once stood, the sensation is something akin to walking a deceptively peaceful Civil War battlefield, like Chickamauga. Just behind the adult eye, the imagination spins tableaus of the tales one has heard, intermixed with information from one's senses, as well as one's intuition.

Once a self-sufficient community, inmates worked and maintained the compound, even growing their own food and preparing it on site.

The ground is firm - you don't feel any physical sense of the five miles of underground tunnels beneath your feet, though you know that homicidal maniacs were once chained to the tunnel walls, never again to see daylight.

Down a gently sloping hill across from the administration buildings, a few trees remain of a grove where an inmate was savagely murdered by his peers.

And the tunnels, again… once shuttled the dead from the dorms or the hospital, to the pathology lab for autopsy, unseen by the general population.

The most foreboding structure left standing is the old steam power house, which went online in 1930, providing steam heat through the underground tunnels to all of the buildings on the 160-acre compound. It is easy to imagine the mechanical drones clanks and hisses from the building - it's something out of a Tim Burton nightmare. Generations of savage heat, and a decade of neglect have weakened the walls - as I snapped photos, bricks dislodged from two stories above me and crashed to my feet. Fleeting shadows darted around inside the power house, which I attributed to shattered windows and passing clouds.

Padlocked chains deter but do not prevent entry to this death trap - where I photographed some of the rotting industrial entrails of the building, and "Insanity, Please" scrawled in huge letters on one of the inside walls.

A pair of corroded iron doors to the power house became my current signature piece "Asylum Door," once I added my Shadow Man.

Central State was referred to in newspapers of the Civil War era, as "the country asylum," before the urban sprawl completely surrounded it. Still enclosed by tall fencing, it is now flanked by cheerless, shabby housing and urban decay; excepted only by a couple of huge, ornate churches.

We were exhausted from walking the length and breadth of the compound and almost out of digital film, when we strolled in the open toward our car, for the last time. An almost cloudless day, we were stunned as a sharply defined birdlike shadow swept across the grass and passed over us, leaving us shuddering. Not a plane, nor bird, branch or cloud in sight from where we stood offered any rational explanation for what we both saw - and felt.

For those of you who are interested, "Asylum Door" first appeared on the back cover of issue #36 of "Not One of Us," and now represents me on this blog and our web site.

My four-page photo-essay on Central State is now available in issue #2 of Razar - you can find links to both publications on the main page of our web site,

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