A road runs through Kings Park and it is open to the public. Driving into the park reveals a vast substantial space. It has a mood to it, like entering into a surreal painting. Or a chilling dream. There is also, a sense of going back in time.
Sophie and I drive up to a parking area. The abandoned Building 93 looms directly ahead of us. We get out. It is cold, around 29 degrees. Nonetheless, there are people out and about. We see some folks hiking the trails. There is even a couple having a picnic on a grassy knoll overlooking Building 93.
A jogger runs by and, pointing to the sky, warns us to “watch out for those ravens flying there, they can swoop down and snatch your little dog.”
We look up and sure enough, a dozen or so big black birds of prey are circling over a group of abandoned buildings by the entrance.
We thank her for her advice and proceed with a certain apprehension.
What draws me to such a place, one might wonder?
Horror. Yes, horror. Sure, I’m a fan of horror movies, as is any other red blooded American. But, the most visceral, blatant, and yes, horrible, lies not in fiction but in Reality.
We don’t need some Freddie Krueger character to jump out of our dreams and scare us. Real horror takes place all the time, all around us.
Kings Park is a case in point and I found some interesting information while researching this article. A documentary on the area, by Lucy Winter, a former patient of Kings Park, describes a “harrowing” and “terrifying” stay at the hospital during the 1960s.
She speaks of the general fear people had of the place. She interviews a former ward attendant who said people were randomly picked up off the streets on vagrancy charges and placed in the asylum. She said, “It was hard to determine why they were here. But they were here.”
Apparently, people were committed at Kings Park for being mentally ill, homeless, orphaned, unassimilated immigrants, or even if their families could not care for them.
In the documentary, Lucy Winter tells us she was placed in the female violent ward and patients there were permitted only one shower per week, and the stalls had no doors, saying “The day room was filled with the bodies of drugged women. It was the violent ward but it was the quietest place on earth.”
Another staff psychiatrist describes how attendants would beat patients, recalling one particularly tragic incident. There was one patient, she said, who was prescribed a low dose of medication for a mental illness, becoming disturbed on various occasions.
While eating lunch one afternoon, she received a call from the hospital to check on her patient. She found the patient dead, suffocated by a pillowcase. According to the psychiatrist, one attendant was known to “tie pillowcases around patients’ necks to asphyxiate them without leaving evidence.”
One former patient tells of his time at Kings Park. He was committed as a child, after escaping foster care. He was, for some reason, sent to the ward for disturbed adult men. Everyone in there, he says, was “screaming, walking in circles, throwing things.”
Because this patient was small, he was able to escape out of his straight jacket, and often did. His punishment was to be put back in a straightjacket then hung on a hook off the floor, like a “piece of meat in a butcher shop, hanging from the ceiling.” The attendants would then inflict whatever kind of punishment on him because “there was no one to see what was happening and prevent it.”
This was some shady shit for sure, taking place in the background. But up front and center, there were some questionable practices happening in the light of day, for all the world to see. I am referring to psychiatry, in general, especially during the 1930s-1960s, regarding treatments like lobotomy and shock therapy, all of which took place right here at Kings Park.
What exactly is a ‘lobotomy’?
The procedure was invented in 1935 by Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz who, in 1949, won the Nobel Prize for his troubles. Basically, what Moniz did was drill holes in the patients’ skull, then severe most of the connections in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.
The procedure undoubtedly changed many of the patient’s behaviors, for obvious reasons. Some were said to have been ‘improved’ and indeed, many were alleviated of some grave psychological problems, for instance, psychosis. But at what cost?
The cost, in many cases, meant the patient was rendered a hapless inert zombie. After all, a large portion of the brain function had been removed, permanently. No pain, no gain, as they say.
In the following year, 1946, American psychiatrist Walter Freeman took the lobotomy to the next level, performing the first-ever transorbital, or “ice-pick” lobotomy, on a patient in Washington, D.C.
The procedure begins with a dose of electroshock, rendering the patient unconscious. Then a sharp ice-pick like instrument is inserted beneath an eyelid and into the patient’s eyeball through the orbit of the eye until it rested on the thin bony structure. A light tap with a hammer breaks through the bone into the frontal lobes of the brain. Wiggling the pick back and forth, the instrument was then withdrawn and inserted into the other eyeball. Repeat and rinse.
Freeman applied an assembly-line approach to the lobotomy allowing him to do up to 20 lobotomies a day. Freeman boasted that his technique took only 20 minutes and was so simple even a damned fool could do it.
Tens of thousands of these lobotomies would be performed on patients well into the 1950s.
The use of lobotomy and shock therapy fell out of favor when new and more powerful drugs, such as thorazine, were introduced by the late 1950s. This also led to the downsizing of many state hospitals around the country by the 1970s, including Kings Park. Ironically, this led to a different kind of tragedy.
Before the closing of Kings Park in 1996, its executive director described the deinstitutionalization of the state mental hospitals a “failed policy,” because it led to increased homelessness, the incarceration of the mentally ill in prisons, and a general environment of neglect for the mentally ill.