Monday, December 15, 2014

Bryce Asylum - Tuscaloosa and Northport Alabama

State Asylum - Bryce Hospital - Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Prior to the Civil War, the Jemison family settled near Tuscaloosa, Alabama and became one of Alabama’s most successful and wealthiest families. Robert Jemison Jr. was a business man, owning six plantations with hundreds of slaves. He also owned foundries, mills, toll roads, and coal mines. During the Civil War, Mims Jemison (Robert’s brother), was killed and his family farm and land was then given to the state of Alabama in order to build an asylum for the mentally ill.

In 1861 the Alabama State Hospital for the Insane was opened. The first superintendent was Peter Bryce, a 27-year student of psychology.  The asylum was equip to house 268 patients. An additional one hundred beds for the inpatient care of elderly men and woman were located at the Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Hospital, which is now located on the campus at the University of Alabama. The purpose of the hospital was originally to house mentally ill and physically handicapped boys. Bryce’s concept of humane treatment for patients required the staff to treat all patients with dignity and respect. Tortuous and inhumane methods of treatment were common in mental hospitals all over the United States during the early parts of the 19th and 20th centuries. The use of shackles, restraints and straitjackets were common and invasive therapies like Hydro and Shock therapy made life in early asylums a living hell. Those methods were prohibited at the Bryce asylum. In 1882, the Bryce hospital used programs to implement useful skills such as farming, sewing, and machinery maintenance. Crafts like pottery, painting, and drawing were also encouraged. There was a bakery, a laundry, and dairy located on the hospital grounds as well, making the facility almost 100% self-sustaining.

Coffin making was part of the curriculum at Bryce that helped patients through hands-on therapies. 
The humane and decent treatment of patients was always the intention to maintain at Bryce. However, it didn't stay that way. In 1967, Lurleen Wallace (the wife of Alabama governor George Wallace) visited the state hospital and found that people hospitalized at Bryce were living in appalling and indescribably horrid conditions. Budget cuts to the state had caused a severe shortage in hospital staff and many state workers were laid off as a result. Patients slept on the floor, urine soaked and stained the few mattresses and blankets patients had and death seemed to emanate from every pore in the building. Treatment of patients had rapidly declined and horrible abuses and neglect came as a result of trying to make patients more “manageable”. The deplorable state of the hospital, and its patients, were more like a Nazi Concentration Camp, according to an article written in the Montgomery Advertiser.

In 1976, the S.D. Allen Intermediate Care Facility was built in Northport, Alabama to accommodate the overflow of geriatric patients from Bryce. The same property was already occupied by a facility that was an expansion of the Bryce Asylum for black patients during the segregation era. This is known today as “Old Bryce”. The S.D. Allen nursing home housed 138 patients when it was opened, but when it closed in 2003, it only had 36. The neighboring building, Old Bryce, was already abandoned and dilapidated at that time. Little is known about Old Bryce other than it was a facility much like the state hospital (Bryce) located on campus. After the emancipation proclamation, many black men and women could not find work and living conditions were harsh. Many blacks, living at the Old Bryce facility, after the Civil War, were not insane at all. They found the conditions at the hospital accommodating and many stayed on as skilled workers and farmers as a result.

Even before the S.D. Allen facility closed, reports of paranormal phenomenon at both hospitals and the nursing home have been circulating. Decades of ghost stories have made both locations some of Alabama’s most popular haunt spots. Perhaps the most disturbing report from the Bryce hospital in Tuscaloosa came from a south Alabama Baptist preacher in 2014. According to his story, his son worked for a funeral home in Tuscaloosa that picked up the deceased at Bryce for burial. During a routine pick-up, he was informed by the staff at the facility to stay away from one particular room which was located down a hall he needed to walk down in order to reach the corpse.

He curiously asked why he needed to avoid the room since he had picked up the dead often at Bryce and was never given a warning like this before. He was informed that a woman who was being housed on that floor was allegedly “possessed” and to avoid her at all cost. The orderly warned, “I don’t care what you hear, or what you see, stay away from her room!” The young funeral director wasn’t swayed by the orderly’s warning. In fact, it only drove the man’s curiosity, but he agreed he’d stay away from the patient’s room and proceeded down the hall with his associate to pick up the body.

Inside the Bryce Asylum at Tuscaloosa.

As he made his way down the hall he could hear the faint sounds of groans and what he described as animalistic sounds. The hollow halls seemed to resonate the sounds and they began to grow louder. His heart began to beat faster, and he quickly made his way down the hallway. Just as he neared the end of the hall, he turned his eyes toward a small room at the corner. He couldn't see through the small glass window in the door but he could hear the animal-like sounds coming from inside. He thought about what the patient orderly had just told him but before his better judgment could deter him from approaching the window to satisfy his curiosity, he saw the woman inside. As he stared at her in a moment of disbelief, his mouth dropped open and his lungs began to tighten as he watched her. He observed the young woman running around the room. Only she wasn’t running on the floor, she was running along the walls; two feet off the ground and horizontal with the floor. He was petrified and couldn't believe what he was seeing. Just as he began to close his eyes and walk away, she suddenly made eye contact with him and immediately thrust herself to the tiny window in an awkward jerking motion.

Her dark, stringy hair partially covered her pale, gaunt, face. She was covered in strange markings and scars. Her dark eyes felt as if they had pierced a hole through the young man’s soul; anchoring his feet, he was frozen with fear. As she looked at the young man through the window, she spoke, “I know you.” She said. “I know your father as well.” She went on. She began to name his family and relatives and she spit and cursed, letting out a cackling hiss as she spoke. The seconds he stood there listening to her seemed like an eternity. Just then, his associate came around the corner and motioned for his friend. He looked at him and then back at the window at the face of the strange woman. She began to contort and convulse as if something enormous was about to burst out of her. Somehow the funeral director was jarred from the evil grip that had previously immobilized him and he screamed for help. As the orderly’s came rushing down the hallway, the man’s associate grabbed his shoulders to move him away from the door. The orderlies rushed in an immediately began to physically restrain the woman who was literally manhandling the 4 grown men like rag dolls.

After the ordeal was over, the two men picked up the corpse and went straight to the funeral home. The young preacher’s son was visibly shaken and haunted for decades by what he had seen. Many years after the event, the son told his father about his experience at Bryce. His father, being a man of God and great faith, told him that there are some forces in this world that are not meant to be here and no man should ever constitute the evils of the universe. Leaving the identity of the possessed woman at the Bryce hospital a mystery.

Reports of paranormal phenomenon are not limited to the campus facilities. They are also widely known as part of the Old Bryce location and the former S.D. Allen nursing home in Northport, Alabama. These neighboring buildings, just a few miles off the main highway are now gated and closed off. For many years’ high school and college students would venture to the location in search of a thrill or fright, essentially leading to the arrest of many for trespassing.

The S.D. Allen nursing home is riddled with debris from the failing structure and it is unstable and dangerous. However, people who come to this location for paranormal adventures have reported numerous experiences over the years. The rusty metallic smell of blood and antiseptic is common in the surgical room. People have been scratched by unseen forces and even though no power connects to the building what-so-ever, the sounds of intercom calls to doctors have been recorded by ghost hunters and shifting energy fields are regularly detected by investigators using EMF detectors.

"Old Bryce" - Northport, Alabama
Next to the S.D. Allen facility is the foreboding and impressive “old Bryce”. Approaching the location, ancient Oaks line the drive way leading to the hospital. In the cooler months, the bare branches resemble twisted skeletons, and on moonless nights, the light pollution from Northport outlines the old hospital as if it were meant to be in the dark and unseen. The sheer scale of the building is intimating but what lurks inside is even more ominous. Many stories have been told about the Old Bryce building over the years. Some seem to follow the lines of a common ghost story but a few are a bit more detailed and are as terrifying as the campus stories. One story about a small boy’s ghost has been told over and over again. His name may be forgotten but his manner of death is still part of this urban legend.

According to this story, the boy was a patient at Bryce in the early years and was given hydro-therapy in order to calm his hyperactivity. During a routine treatment, which required the boy to be submerged in freezing water for several minutes, he started to become combative and fight the nurses who were administering the treatment. As the boy struggled, one of them held his head under the water until he drown, killing him. Sightings of his spirit seem to be common on the upper floors. He’s described as being about 7-8 years old with sandy blonde hair, wearing pants with suspenders, and a short coat. Often, small toys are left for him on those floors. A macabre sort of shrine to what is most likely more legend than truth.   

The building resembling Bryce in Northport is known today as "old Bryce" and is widely known
for the paranormal activity that occurs here. 

Still, the paranormal activity at old Bryce continues and has become a part of the supernatural fabric that weaves the shroud of urban legend in Northport, Alabama. College students, thrill seekers and paranormal enthusiast venture out to the location today but most often find an arrest for trespassing instead of a ghostly sighting. The years of wild and unusual ghost stories from Bryce still circulate among many Alabamians who have been brave enough to go looking for the spirits. It’s debatable; the amount of truth that exist in legend, but, what isn't, is the amount of truth that is legend.