A Hospital with History: Tewksbury Hospital, Public Health Museum, and Tewksbury State Cemetery


April 11, 2014 — If you like old hospitals and asylums—abandoned, closed, decrepit, repurposed, or otherwise—you could do worse than hang out in Massachusetts. I mean, with very little effort, I’ve found myself over the years at what remains of Danvers State Hospital, Metropolitan State Hospital, Medfield State Hospital, Worcester State Hospital…lots of 19th century places that once upon a time had the word “lunatic” or “insane” in their names.

On top of that, they’re easy to check out. I’m not the kind of guy to scrape my back crawling under barbed wire and “No Trespassing” signs nor the kind to jump through administrative hoops seeking official permission for access on the off chance it’ll be granted. I’m a bored-on-a-Saturday-morning-ever-since-they-took-The-Pirates-of-Dark-Water-off-TV kind of guy. Heck, I’ve taken my family to most of these sites. It’s just that simple to experience this stuff.

Last weekend I added another to my list…Tewksbury Hospital. Tewksbury Hospital dates back to 1854, when it was started as an almshouse for an indigent and mostly immigrant population. It was built for 500 people. Seven months later, it housed more than 2,000.


Over the years it served different populations, including the mentally unstable and those with infectious diseases like tuberculosis, smallpox, and typhoid fever. The place’s name changed a few times accordingly. It’s most famous resident was Anne Sullivan, who would go on to become Helen Keller’s teacher.

The unique thing about Tewksbury, though, is that it’s still a functioning hospital after all these years. It didn’t fall prey to bad economics or devolving care conditions or any of the situations that brought down so many of its sister institutions.

Oh, and it has its own museum on the grounds.

Most of modern-day Tewksbury Hospital is, well, modern-day, with many bland products of contemporary budget-conscious architecture on its campus. But the museum is located in an older, more out of the way section of the property, in what’s known as the Old Administration Building, which was built in 1894.

The exterior of that edifice illustrates well one of the many reasons these kinds of places fascinate us. The red brick building is stately in the right light and ominous in the wrong. Elegantly gabled and pleasingly towered in the day, evilly angled and sinisterly dominating in the night. Even down to its opening-shot-in-a-horror-movie front gates on East Street.


The Public Health Museum is only open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and on the first Saturday of every month, but there were plenty of signs pointing us in the right direction, up the front steps and through the main doors.

Inside, on the wall to our right was a buzzer and a notice instructing us to ring for admission into the museum. We did so, and out popped a girl who took our five bucks apiece and then handed us off to a tour guide.

Our tour guide was young, an intern from a local college who was studying history or museum arts or some intersection of the two. She also seemed new, judging by the fact she read the tour off a stack of cards held together by a metal ring. Honestly, though, she could have just pointed vaguely and grunted at things and it would have been a fascinating experience.


The museum includes about half a dozen small rooms, and is organized by about the same number of major topics. The infectious diseases section had artifacts that ranged from antique inoculation devices for tuberculosis to a child’s wooden wheelchair and leg braces for polio. There was a large cabinet full of hilariously labeled patent medicine bottles. A pair of old and terrifying dental chairs took up one room, one of which had a pedal-powered tooth drill. There were also plenty of antique administrative furniture and appliances.


My three favorite artifacts in the entire collection were: an iron lung, a set of old mail cabinets used in the 2010 movie Shutter Island, and a baseball uniform from the patient team at Danvers State Hospital.




It was a quick tour, about half an hour or so, and at the end we were encouraged to walk around at our leisure. We also walked around the campus a bit, but then it was off to the hospital graveyard. Because you can’t just care for the indigent and sick when they’re alive. You have to bury them when they’re dead.

At the beginning of our tour, sitting innocuously beside an ancient telephone switchboard desk and not at all brought up by our tour guide, were a couple of tall metal stakes and a some stubby stone cylinders the size of Pringles cans…grave markers, the mass-produced anonymous kind used for those in a state system without surviving family or the means for funeral arrangements.


It’s been estimated that at least 10,000 dead are buried in the woods around Tewksbury Hospital in a couple of hidden graveyards. The one with the stone cylinders is supposed to be located somewhere near the close-by baseball fields. I headed to one that was slightly better marked.

Heading west on East Road, about a third of a mile from the Old Administration Building gates, we saw a low stone wall on the other side of which was forest land. A green sign there seemed to label the entire forest as Tewksbury State Cemetery. Just past the sign was a dirt turnaround. We parked there, and headed off down a path of compressed leaves into the forest, hoping it was leading us in the same general direction as the sign.


If you look at the cemetery on Google Maps, it looks like a regular cemetery, with a nice grid of paths. But it’s a forest, sure enough. No paths are visible, all lost under decades of growth and leaf litter. As we walked into the forest we quickly started noticing little metal circles barely peeking out from under all the undergrowth. We got off the path and started walking among them. They were the tops of those stakes we saw in the Public Health Museum, shaped like laurel crowns surrounding crosses stamped with numbers.


Some were dark and rusted, others had been recently painted silver. Most seemed randomly arranged, although every once in a while a hint of a row would make itself evident. There were two or three actual headstones, with dates going back to the 1800s and early 1900s. But even with those familiar shapes, it never seemed like we were in a cemetery. More like the concrete foundation of the forest had eroded to its rebar innards.

Anyway, that’s the day I like to have. Start out inside an old building with a long past and lots of artifacts. End up in forest full of graves.

I still miss The Pirates of Dark Water, though.













26 comments:

  1. I miss Pirates of Darkwater too. Neat post!

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  2. They didn't even find that cemetery until 2003 (That's how inhumane State Hospitals were)--they did work to research which patients were buried there and then put in the markers in 2004. I wouldn't be surprised if there are more bodies in unmarked graves all over the grounds. I am a Tewksbury Native and State hospital enthusiast. Great post. If you have the time, check out the Tewksbury historical society website and read the old newspaper articles.. there is one about a little boy selling a tanned body on the side of the road!

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  3. I knew that cemetery was there when I was a kid riding my bike back there in the early 90's. The markers were there back then.

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  4. My first job back in the mid 70s in a nursing home involved feeding a patient in one of those iron lungs. I was only 16 and his plight left a life long impression on me. He was only in his early 30s and was a victim of polio. Today, you would not be condemned to a life like that. There are now portable respirators that allow you to live a fairly "normal" life.

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    1. I also was a personal assistant for a young man that slept in an iron lung. That thing was so loud and I don't know how he tolerated it for so many years. Eventually he got a c.pap machine and that was a lot better for him. Thank God for all this great technology to assist handicapped people.

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  5. Very interesting. Thank you for your post. It gives me an idea of what Tewksbury Hospital was like in 1890, exactly what I wanted to know for a history story I'm working on.

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  6. So much history there. I grew up right up the street from the Hospital grounds. All the older buildings were connected through tunnels. We used to go down there as kids and look around. The whole place was self contained at one time. They had their own power plant. Well water, piggery, cows, chickens and all the fields were used to grow produce. They were maintained by staff and people who lived on the grounds.There used to be a Snowmobile club by the name of Kodiak. They maintained the trails and bridges all over the property. I walk my dogs there now and see many people doing the same. Have seen deer and coyote in the area.
    very cool place.

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  7. i am looking for a man named Frank Consales who died there in 1943... i am looking for his birthday.. any info on how i would go about getting this information please.. thanks Brande

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    1. his death certificate would be at tewksbury town hall and that would list his bithdate.

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  8. I graduated from the LPN course in the early 1960's & the cemetery was cleaned once by the Boy Scouts which helped uncover a lot of the numbers. These are very, very old numbered lots & there is a set of cards that I believe have been carefully saved on computer. Ask at the Museum. The grounds history is interesting. It was totally self contained with harvested corn,vegetables, a greenhouse, pigs & cows. I remember the cows got loose one day & we had our class room door open...a cow looked in and mooed at us!! Many memories.

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  9. In the fall of 1992 I was brought there after my first Detox not having a place to go this served as a holding ground until one finds a Halfway house or further treatment ..There were 250 homeless men there at the time .
    I'd never seen nor heard anything like this place ..But Recovery I Administered to myself there .
    It gave off an uneasy isolating feeling .. But its there I learned how to pray and gained 23 years of Absents

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  10. Fascinating, I was born there in 1952, was it run by nuns? for some reason that is an image that I recall. Dr. Nils E. Svibergson M.D. was the doctor who delivered me. I believe that in 1952 the only thing there was this hospital.

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    1. I too, was born there november 14 1955 it was a white wooden structure...long since gone. According to my mother, they put her in with the framingham inmates who were pregnant. I was delivered by a female doctor. Years later I ended up in the Nicols program...detox/holding for substance abuse. I think it was 1999

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  11. Sorry I forgot for anyone to respond to me, the guy who was born there in 1952
    WILLSPY4MONEY@AOL.COM

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  12. I can tell you I lived near by as well, alot of patients walking the streets with mental problems and was scary as I was just a kid, yes there were tunnels, cows etc and all as said, but more than you know went on there to my dad was born there in 1934, we used to play on the airport runway nearby, it was ascary place believe me.

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  13. One thing that really bothered me, although I do respect the privacy of the patients and residents there - is that there are NO SIGNS warning anyone to NOT TAKE PICTURES while on the grounds ( without permission.) I was there and I was taking pictures of feral cats - and there were no patients around. A cop came by and told me that he might have to take my cell phone away. The person I was with had a camera and we had been taking pictures of an abandoned building. I know he was just doing his job, but we had no idea we were doing wrong. Someone called the DPH cops and the guy was okay but he tried to scare us and he actually hurt my feelings, to be honest. He made me feel stupid. I know all about privacy laws but they really need to post clear signs because people DO take pictures - and even int the woods - where the Cemetery is. It's 80 miles of STATE land. So, you mean to tell me that if I stand in the middle of the forest, I can't take a picture of the grave markers in the cemetery? No one is there, just dead souls! I love the grounds at Tewksbury State Hospital and have fed the feral cats for many years. Now, I don't even want to go back with permission - because they wanted to get my plate number and registration. I am not a criminal. A warning would have been enough. Luckily, after the big "scare" talk, the DPH police guy let us go - after making me feel STUPID for about 10 minutes. He was okay - but I was not.... I felt bad.

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  14. Oh, and great pictures, by the way. I loved this blog!

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  15. OMGoodness! I was born there also in 1958! Scary...very scary - it was a place for wayward mothers not married and had children out of wedlock! This is frightening!

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  16. I grew up in Tewksbury. South Tewksbury and then West Tewksbury when I was 16 and graduated from Tewksbury High. 1965
    My Brother played baseball and every week we would go to the baseball "bowl" across from the hospital. The male patients would sit on the wall and watch the games. Sometimes my Mom would bring snacks for them :)
    I remember my Dad saying that quite a few of the residents were WWII
    military men with PTSD. They were always nice to us. For me just being a kid it was a good memory. My brother was the pitcher and the men would shout out to him Strike Him Out Stan!!!!
    My parents are buried on 5th Avenue in the Tewksbury Cemetary.
    Just a little memory Marlene

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  17. can you still get to the tunnels? I stayed on the property for my 14 day program at the D.U.I.L. program there infront of the Tewksbury hospital; which use to be the old nurses house. we would walk the property and we found an old map of all the buildings that use to be there back in the 1800's and I found it so interesting. I would really like to go back and maybe get into some of the condemned buildings and if there is still access to the tunnels try and get in...some info would be awesome!! thank you!! -Krystle A.

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  18. Hey - back again. Met up with the security guard again a few weeks ago. He was actually pretty cool... Heh heh. :Love the blog.

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  19. My 3rd Great-Grandfather,Robert F.Laverty,December 9,1790-March 25,1873,84,debility,buried at this Cemetery.

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  20. I found both cemeteries the first, shown here completely by accident. The other I went looking for. They are both so cool.

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  21. I found both cemeteries the first, shown here completely by accident. The other I went looking for. They are both so cool.

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  22. I was born there in the mid 1930's. My mother was admitted to the Infirmary from Lancaster Industrial School. Have always wondered why?

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  23. I just came across this post because I found an infant ancestor that was buried here. I think, a troubled girl in my ancestry, gave birth in Hanover - the details all say unknown, the mother even didnt know her own maiden name and named the baby Eugene Brooks, Sept 15, 1918, but when he died here at this hospital of congenital syphilis May 28, 1920, the father was unknown and her real name appears on the death records. Someone above said that volunteer researchers marked the plots they could find - does anyone know how to access this research? - Heather Pascarelli - pascarellimom@aol.com

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