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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The Haunted Asylum
of Wichita Falls

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Before the advent of cognitive therapy or the development of psychotropic drugs designed to relieve or at least lessen the effects of many forms of mental illness, no wonder “crazy” people scared those who perceived themselves sane.

Well through the 1950s, Texans referred to facilities built to house people who today could probably live normal lives, as lunatic or insane asylums. The unfortunate folks relegated to these places were feared, and in the case of some of them, rightfully so. No question, bi-polar disease, untreated schizophrenia or outright psychosis can bring about real-life Halloween-like scenarios.

In addition to real world mental issues, which could be scary enough, popular culture added to the public perception that the best place for the mentally ill to be was tightly bound in a straightjacket behind locked doors and high fences. Movies, and even early television, portrayed the mentally ill as frightening-looking people with vacant stares, unkempt hair, and inappropriate grins and laughter. Any contact with such people was dreaded and avoided if possible.

An example from the mid-1970s is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” with Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. Though the patients in that film were portrayed sympathetically, the quality of care in mental institutions was not. Nurse Ratched was no Florence Nightingale. Anyone sitting uncomfortably through that Oscar-winning movie is not likely to forget the shock treatment scene. Following that, which was unsettling enough, came the ultimate horror, a lobotomy.

On top of everything else, those who were institutionalized for life sooner or later died. Mix mentally ill stereotypes with death and you have the ingredients for some pretty frightening ghosts stories.

Which brings us to an old two-story building on the far south side of Wichita Falls known as White Sanitarium or the “old insane asylum.”

The name of the place has nothing to do with the Jim Crow era, though it operated in that day. Rather, It honored the facility’s founder, Frank S. White, who opened it in 1926 back when the standard treatment for troubled people was to lock them up.

White had been head of what is now the Austin State Hospital before moving to Northwest Texas. When he was in the Capital City, of course, the institution he oversaw was more generally known simply as the State Lunatic Asylum.

Actually, White had a modern outlook on mental health. He believed that his sanitarium should be a home, not a prison. But he ran the place for only about five years before bad physical health forced him to retire.

After that, the sanitarium had a succession of operators until it closed at some point in the 1950s after a flood damaged it. Located in an isolated area south of the Wichita River, it stood empty for decades. And while its former residents were long gone, the local perception soon arose that, reminiscent of the Eagles’s hit song “Hotel California,” some of their spirits had not checked out. Ironically enough, the sanitarium is on California Street.

As the years passed, the former sanitarium morphed from vacant building to haunted old insane asylum. The empty building seemed to have a particular attraction to local teenagers, who found it a scary place to hang out and drink or take their girlfriends. Or both.

Local folklore included tales of floating glowing ends of cigarettes (everyone smoked back then, including ghosts), crazy looking apparitions in hospital gowns, a woman in white walking the grounds or staring out of a window, children’s voices, lights in the windows at night despite the lack of an electrical connection and even a ghostly stag poker game in the former recreation room.

Just as mental health care has progressed, so has the state of the art in investigating the paranormal. With the development of new technology, which includes everything from infrared cameras to instruments that detect energy fields and sounds imperceptible to the ear, ghost hunters found the vacant sanitarium to be fertile ground.

In 2008, several Wichita Falls ghost-hunting enthusiasts spent some time checking out the former sanitarium. They invited a local television journalist to document their adventure. One member of the expedition later reported on a legend- and ghost story-probing web site that the TV person’s video camera quickly lost power despite a fresh battery, as did the audio recorders they took inside the old building. The boo blogger said that during their visit they felt as if they were being watched, experienced occasional rushes of cold air and chills, as well as a general sense of “heaviness.” They also heard a child’s voice, but no children were present.

Not long before the amateur investigators got permission to visit the Jazz Age building, an investor bought it and had it remodeled, its various rooms transformed into apartment units. Since then, the former White Sanitarium has once again been a residence for the living, folks no more or less crazy than any of us.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October 30, 2013 column

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