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Crownsville: Turning a grim site from Maryland's past into a jewel

Crownsville State Hospital, an institution with a grisly past, has been closed since 2004. But it’s crumbling buildings barely a mile from the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds and near the site of the annual Renaissance Festival, are an eyesore that County Executive Steuart Pittman says he wants to turn into a garden spot.

He may get that chance. The state health department’s recently released 20-year master plan calls for divesting three closed mental health facilities, including Crownsville.

The site, where several agencies, including the Anne Arundel County police, the county food bank, two state agencies and two residential drug treatment centers operate in the usable buildings on the campus, will first have to go through the state’s lengthy property disposal process.

Even so, Pittman calls it an “exciting opportunity” to turn the 544 acre parcel into a “real jewel in the center of Anne Arundel County.” .

“I want to see that place as a center for healing, a place where mental health and, really, all health is promoted and encouraged,” he told WYPR. “Also a place where the community can go to, a regional park”

It would be done “in a way that is fiscally responsible and tears down the buildings that should come down and that preserves some of the beautiful architecture that’s there, some of the historic buildings,” he said.

There are the low-slung buildings fronting on Generals Highway that drivers can barely see for the overgrown trees and vines. Here and there a broken or boarded up window pokes through decay. On the side away from the road a sign on a weathered doorway warns in all caps “STATE PROPERTY NO PUBLIC ACCESS.”

Farther down Crownsville Road, once majestic four and five story Georgian buildings with pillars are roped off behind no trespassing signs and crumbling parking lots, suffering the same fate.

Pittman says getting the property will allow the county to “do what we do best, which is to engage the community, bring people together, make a plan, and move it forward.”

But it’s hard to move forward without looking back. Crownsville opened in 1911 as the Maryland Hospital for the Negro Insane on the grounds of a farm bought by the state.

Historian Janice Hayes-Williams, who has done extensive research on the hospital, says the patients built the structures, cared for the livestock, tended the crops and harvested willow wood to make furniture.

The superintendent at the time was impressed with how “hard work and being outdoors” helped the patients, she said.

Hayes-Williams says the hospital soon became a dumping ground for parents who could no longer cope with mentally ill children, for homeless Blacks and those arrested on charges like drunkenness or larceny.

She says Blacks warned each other, “Don't be caught by the night doctor.”

The night doctor was code for the doctors who conducted experiments on Crownsville patients, testing new therapies and treatments. One, called pneumoencephalography, involved drilling a hole in the skull, draining fluid from around the brain and replacing it with air, oxygen or helium to make the brain structure show up more clearly on an x-ray.

The reputation of the hospital was so widespread, Hayes-Williams said, that some Black families threatened unruly children with a trip to what was simply referred to as “Crownsville” if they didn’t straighten out.

“You know, whenever I would get into trouble, my uncle called my mother and said, ‘I can get $50 for having her incarcerated in Crownsville,” Hayes-Williams recalled. “She got so mad at him.”

Her uncle, George Phelps, was Anne Arundel’s first Black deputy sheriff. He was charged with taking African Americans convicted of crimes from the courthouse to the hospital’s wing for the criminally insane. On one trip she says he found himself behind locked doors and confronted a gruesome site.

“He saw some, you know, specimen jars. He happened to see specimens, body parts.”

Those who died at the hospital and had no family to claim their bodies were buried in graves marked only with numbers. Hayes-Williams says she and a group of volunteers have managed to put names to about 1,600 of those graves. Twice a year they conduct remembrance services there.

The hospital was integrated in the 1950s, which made the already overcrowded conditions worse, at one point cramming more than 2,100 people in a facility built for 1,000. It remained under-funded and understaffed and the clients were neglected.

Doug Struck, a reporter for the former Annapolis Evening Capital, voluntarily checked himself into the hospital as a suicide risk in 1975 as part of an investigation.

“And they opened their lock doors at Crownsville, invited me in and closed the locked doors with a loud bang and relocked them,” he recalled recently. “It was and remained a jail. It was not a hospital.”

Struck says he was immediately given a tranquilizer that made him lethargic, much like the other patients. In the six days he was there he says he received no treatment, no therapy. The hospital’s overriding operation, he says, was to keep the patients quiet.

“It kept its patients in the chains of drugs,” Struck said, “so that they were sleepy and drugged up all the time, and presented no demands of the staff that routinely just ignored them as though they were, you know, insects on the floor.” 

He says he didn’t see anyone physically abused in the time he was there. The abuse, he said, was in the neglect and the lack of basic human contact.

Later in his career, Struck, now on the journalism faculty at Emerson College in Boston, covered the prisons in Maryland, which he calls “pretty grim places.”

“But in many ways they were actually better than Crownsville because the men there had, for the most part, had their wits about them and they established a community of sorts within the prison.

“It may have been rough, it may have been violent, but it was a community of people,” he said. “In Crownsville there was no contact between the patients.”

Eventually, the population at Crownsville shrank to barely 200 patients as mental health professionals turned increasingly to different kinds of treatments and the state shuttered the institution in 2004, saving some $12 million a year in upkeep.

Now, Anne Arundel Executive Pittman is going to have to figure out what to do with those crumbling buildings.

“The state is leaving us with an eyesore and leaving us with buildings that are going to need to be torn down,” he said “And so we'll be asking our delegation to get us some help with that.”

He says he wants to create ball fields and space for passive recreation as well and do something that local community groups have suggested, turn the old spray fields into solar fields.

“We can do a number of those at that site and integrate it with some of the park like passive recreation and produce some electricity there as well as potentially some revenue.”

But the first step, he says, is to take responsibility to protect and preserve this green space at the center of Anne Arundel County, including that cemetery.