The Huntington State Hospital Fire. Huntington, West Virginia 1952. (Mildred Mitchell Bateman Hospital)

bateman hospital

Photo Courtesy of WVDHR

Huntington’s Home for Incurables

Posted by Medical History Staff Writer Sherry Michaels Perry

In 1897 the WV Legislature designated a building and 30 acres of land on Norway Ave as the “Home for the Incurables”. The name has changed a few more times since then from the “WV Asylum” to Huntington State Hospital and finally Margaret Mitchell Bateman Hospital. It suffered the same fate as the other states institutions, overcrowding, poor conditions, lackluster staffing. It is much better now but this article is mainly concerned about one dark aspect of its past.

In the 1950’s there were approximately 1800 patients segregated by sex, not diagnosis. There had been some concern about the old buildings, they knew they were not fireproof and although other facilities in the state had been fireproofed the Huntington State Hospital sadly had not been yet. They were just weeks away from moving into a newer, safer building. Unfortunately  for seventeen  lost souls, the move would come too little, too late.

According to an unnamed doctor quoted in the Herald-Dispatch, at times patients were known to go down into the basement of building 3 and sneak a smoke. The patients longed to have some semblance of freedom in their lives, and their nightly smokes were a way to escape the torture of being locked in an insane asylum.

Sometime on the night of November 26th, 1952, the night before Thanksgiving, a fire broke out in the basement. The fire spread quickly and by the time firefighters arrived the entrance to the building was engulfed in flames. They were then forced to cut through heavy wire mesh with acetylene torches; they then had to carry the screaming patients down a wrought iron circular staircase.  There were 275 patients in the building that night with the children being on the 3rd floor. Nine women and 5 young girls were killed that night, the oldest being 89 and the youngest 11. Two more elderly women were badly burned and later died. It is heartbreaking to imagine the terror that they felt being trapped in the inferno, and then being pulled out in the night and moved to a safe area. They were sure to be disoriented and frightened.  There is some speculation that the fired burned a long while before it was discovered. There are reports that the firefighters were heartbroken hearing the screams and being unable to reach all of the patients.

herald dispatch fire 2

Courtesy of Herald Dispatch, Huntington, West Virginia

My heart breaks because this tragedy affected the two most vulnerable populations, the elderly and children. I have to wonder about the poor 11 year old child, what had she done to be there in the first place? Had she been born there? Was she perhaps developmentally delayed and just abandoned there by her family? As I have discussed in my other articles being “unteachable” or what they called then an “idiot” was a reason to be admitted to a psychiatric facility. If a baby was born with Downs Syndrome parents were encouraged at that time to institutionalize the child. And I feel it is safe to assume many of the elderly patients were suffering from some form of dementia. Hardly a reason to be locked away in a mental hospital.

fire5

Courtesy of Herald Dispatch, Huntington, West Virginia

It is no wonder that there are rumors that it is haunted. Staff has told tales about hearing footsteps in the tunnel between buildings and others have claimed to hear disembodied voices.  It sad to think that those tortured in life may still be walking those halls.

Courtesy of Herald Dispatch, Huntington, West Virginia

fire aftermatch

Courtesy of Herald Dispatch, Huntington, West Virginia

Sources

Gendisaster.com Old Associated Press Story

Herald-dispatch 11/26/17

Wvencyclopedia.com

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