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The story behind Brattleboro Retreat, with its tower, cemetery and ghosts

4 min read

Try to imagine rolling hills of emerald grass, pines, calm blue waters stretching out toward the horizon, and a commanding brick building with more history than meets the eye.
This magnificent view is actually very real.
Standing on a 600-acre lot on Vermont’s meadows, the Brattleboro Retreat was a pioneer in the field of mental health care in the United States.
Established in 1834, it was designed to provide humane care for patients suffering from mental illnesses.
Located just north of downtown Brattleboro, Vermont, United States, it is situated along the Retreat Meadows inlet of the West River, and it was literally the first facility for the care of the mentally ill in Vermont, as well as one of the first ten private psychiatric hospitals in the United States.

As with many facilities for mental health during that period, doctors believed fresh air and exercise would help treat ailing patients.
Taking its inspiration from the York Retreat in England, the retreat originated in fact as a humane alternative to the otherwise demeaning and sometimes dangerous treatment of people with mental disorders.
The focus was on “moral treatment” an idea derived from a Quaker concept introduced by English tradesman and philanthropist William Tuke in the late 18th century, which approaches mental disorders as diseases and not as character flaws or the results of sins.
For much of the 19th and 20th century, treatment methods emphasized fresh air, physical activity, educational enrichment, therapeutic farm and kitchen work, and supportive staff.
The Brattleboro Retreat has been known throughout its history for adhering to the concepts of moral treatment while integrating advanced methods of care, including patient-produced newspaper, bowling alley, chapel, theater, gymnasium, recreation fields, patient chorus, book discussion groups, outing club, working hospital dairy farm, patient-managed enterprises, and even the first swimming pool at a U.S. psychiatric hospital.
Patients enjoyed frequent outings and the community would often join them for events.
Not by chance, many of these aspects have been adopted by hospitals around the world.
However they still cautiously approached treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (“ECT”), although they were utilized in a fairly limited capacity.
Today the Retreat’s ECT clinic is closed.

In 1887, construction began on Retreat Tower, which stands still today with elegant authority on the main campus.
Patients were designated to construct the tower as it was believed the physical activity would help their treatment.
Upon completion, it provided patients with breathtaking views of the surrounding area.
It sounds good but, although meant to aid their health, the tower proved detrimental.
The reason?
It’s believed several patients ended their lives by leaping from the tower itself.
The number of suicides here is a closely guarded secret.
Not by chance the site is now home to various paranormal accounts, and there have been several reports of at least one ghostly figure jumping from the top of the tower, but the apparition always disappears before it hits the ground.

There is also a cemetery near Retreat Tower, and many of its graves date to the 1800s, some marked with numbers or the word “Unknown.”
Some have reported seeing fleeting shadow figures or images out of the corners of their eyes.
But, ghosts apart, interestingly, the count of deaths outnumbers the gravestones, signaling that this facility participated in the age-old practice of chipping off an older deceased person’s name, replacing it with a new one, and doubling up on residents in the plot, a timely ritual found in most cemeteries of the time in New England. Even Salem, Massachusetts, is known for this practice in their witch graveyards, including the infamous Burying Point Cemetery.

Today the Brattleboro Retreat is still a treatment center for mental health patients.
But the legends and stories of the old days, and perhaps even the ghosts, live on.

Images from web – Google Research

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