Some places aren't safe. Have never been safe. Some would say they're cursed. Such is the case with St. Albans Sanatorium in Virginia. With its complicated and horrific past, it sits now as a relic of proof that even the cursed still survive.
I’m about to take you to a place of horrors—where madness and mayhem roam the halls. This is a story you don't want to miss.
Promo: Boos and Spirits
The skies are vast, clouds looming and casting shadows on the massive structures that make up St. Albans Sanatorium. It’s clear to see that this is a place with more than a story—it’s a place of many, many stories tangled like wild vines and broken branches stretching over a century.
Radford and the land where the sanatorium sits has always been a valuable place, as it sits near the New River. But it was home to some horrific events throughout history.
Draper’s Meadow Massacre
In the summer of 1755, a group of Shawnee Indians attacked the village of Draper's Meadow which is near the present-day site of the sanatorium. You see, there had been rising tensions between settlers and natives. The French and Indian war exasperated relations and violence had escalated. On that fateful day, July 30th, the Shawnees killed at least five settlers, but one family suffered tremendously. Mary Draper Ingles watched as they ravaged through the home and smashed her sister-in-law's baby by bashing its head against the cabin wall. She also witnessed them reported scalp and killed her mother. She and her two sons were kidnapped and taken northwest of the New River, then the Ohio River, traveling for a month to Lower Shawneetown. When there, she and her sons, her sister in law and her son, were all split up and sent to other locations. She worked as a servant. She planned her escape in October with another woman. Their captors believed them to be harvesting berries, but the two ran away. When they didn't return, they believed wild animals had eaten the women. They traveled for almost two months, but they were starving. They even reportedly drew lots, trying to decide who would eat the other, but that proved too horrific. Mary was eventually forced to leave her friend after the woman had made two attempts to kill her.
Draper’s Meadow was soon abandoned after the attack. The bloodshed at the massacre would taint the land and history forever.
Shelli Sprouse Meade who wrote A Repository of Souls: The History of St. Albans Sanatorium, recounts how in 1865, Union forces defeated Confederate troops at the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain, thus destroying the last connection between Tennessee and Virginia. The battle did not last long, but it was a savage one with much of it fought hand-to-hand. In a little over an hour, 1226 lives were lost. Although the Confederates had fewer casualties, it was a victory for the Union.
More blood on an already haunted land.
Even with its tumultuous history, there was hope when in 1892, Professor George Miles opened a private preparatory high school in hopes of raising young men to be fine and educated citizens. St. Albans was the shining star of the community, and in its early years, it had no trouble keeping its 50 student capacity full. Radford was growing, having hit 5,000 in population that year because of the railroad and industry.
One thing that Professor George Miles looked for in his students was exceptional athletic abilities. After all, they had a prestigious competitive reputation to keep. They were known for their sporting skills.
According to Ms. Meade, one of the many things that made St. Albans unique from other boarding schools was that the students were considered part of Professor George Miles’ family, even sharing meals with him and his family.
But the school—with all its accolades—did have one dark side to it. It’s been stated that bullying was unchecked and encouraged. In a 1904 yearbook, the editor explains one such example: “E. Blackburn Runyon did not return after Christmas, much to our sorrow, as it put a stop to the football games on the terrace in which he figured prominently as the football.”
When outside interests took Professor Miles away from St. Albans, the school began to fade. It seemed that no one could tend to it like he did, and attendance suffered, causing the school to close in September of 1904.
Though there were no deaths reported by boys during those years, rumors say otherwise. And Professor George Miles died of liver cancer shortly thereafter in 1905. He was only in his early forties.
In 1916, the school was purchased by Dr. JC King with the goal of turning it into a sanatorium.
During St. Albans time of operation, treatment of mental illness was crude and what we would consider inhumane today, and many patients suffered tremendously. The Southwest Times documented one loss: “Mrs. Susan Jane Sayers, wife of W.B. Sayers, died Saturday night at the St. Albans Sanatorium, Radford, where she had been under treatment. Her condition had been in extremis for some days and the end not unexpected, it being realized there was no hope.”
Another woman, who had lost her child, supposedly kept it in a jar in her closet—always close. Death always in the room with her.
With as many as thousands of people passing through St. Albans, there's a shockingly low number of recorded deaths. Ten were found by the local historian, featured on the Dead Files episode, called House of Horrors.
Methods of Treatment:
One of the many types of treatment administered at St. Albans was insulin shock therapy. Staff would inject large amounts of insulin into a patient, which would put them in a coma. It was first introduced into practice by Austrian-American psychiatrist Manfred Sakal and used a lot in the 40-50s.
Commonly referred to as the water cure, hydrotherapy was also used. The way it was used during this time was by inducing a crisis in the patient. People believed that the water could heal by invading any cracks or spaces within the skin that were tainted or sick and rid the patient of any impurities. These impurities would rise to the surface of the skin in the form of pus. This was achieved by sweating, the plunging bath, the half bath, the head bath, and others. The doctors would expose patients to cold water until they were purified.
One of the most common treatments was electroshock therapy. It became popular in the 1940s. It was believed to improve mood and relieve patients from severe forms of depression. St. Albans even had a machine they wheeled around from room to room called Mickey Mouse.
This type of therapy is still used today. In 2001, it was estimated that about one million people receive it every year.
Perhaps nothing is more horrific than a lobotomy, though. Made popular in the 40s and 50s, as well, this violent treatment involved severing connections in the brain's prefrontal cortex to make patients more passive. Unfortunately, many suffered horrific consequences. It wasn't uncommon for patients to die from the procedure, while others committed suicide after. Severe brain damage was always a risk, and so were a number of impairments such as losing parts of their personality, self-control, and even intellect.
Trepanning sounds equally as horrific. It's a process of drilling a hole into the head, exposing the dura mater to relieve excess pressure on the brain. This was done to people who were not behaving normally. Another thought was that the hole would release evil spirits that may have been plaguing the patient. This practice goes back as far as 12,000 years. Back then, it's believed that people kept the bored out portion of the skull as a charm to protect themselves from evil spirits.
In modern times, this method is used for epidural and subdural hematomas and intracranial pressure monitoring.
A lot of physical pain was inflicted by probably well-intentioned medical personal in hopes of relieving these patients of what tormented them. With such extreme physical and mental torment within the walls of St. Albans, it should be no surprise that some consider it as the "most active location on the east coast.”
Many patients still haven’t found rest beyond the grave. In the book, The Ghosts of St. Albans Sanatorium, Pat Bussard O’Keefe includes a list of ghosts that still roam the halls—searching, always searching for a way to break free.
The story of Jacob is one of the saddest of them. Jacob was about eight years old when it’s believed that he was murdered by a staff member by the name of Donald in the 1970s. He doesn’t like for people to get too close, so he’s known to give you a shove if he thinks you’re invading his space. He haunts Donald’s room, which is just up the grand staircase and to the right. He’s often been caught on EVPs.
Rebecca is another of the active ghosts. She was young (in her 20s-30s) and believed to have hung herself in what is dubbed the “suicide bathroom” on the third floor.
The Tall Man is an ominous presence on the grand staircase. After hearing Amy Allan's investigation of the sanatorium on the Dead Files, I wonder if he is actually who she called Uncle—a dominating presence that is known to attack guests by pushing and throwing them physically.
Another one often seen is the Tongue Man, a ghost whose tongue hangs grotesquely from his mouth, causing him to look terrifying. It’s believed that this is because of heavy psychiatric medication. Despite his initial appearance, he seems to be friendly and has even communicated with a member of an investigation group according to the book, claiming that he knew the way he looked was scary, but he doesn't mean to scare people.
In addition to apparitions, strange sounds and are often heard throughout the buildings—people talking, laughing, screaming, crying, and banging.
What experiences have people reported?
Paranormal Researchers have seen black shadows, been pushed and thrown, and have even been put into a trance-like state, having been jumped by something paranormal. They've had to physically fight unseen things, and they've heard their names whispered by whoever haunts St. Albans, promising to kill them.
One of the most unique things I've read about the place is how hallways and doors disappear, leaving guests feeling lost and disoriented. Almost as if the place and its history of madness is infecting those who come through its doors.
Gina Renee Hall:
One of the saddest stories about the land where St. Albans is located is the disappearance of 18-year-old Gina Renee Hall. On a summer night in June of 1980, Gina went to a nightclub. Her car was found on a road very close to St. Albans and the New River in Radford. Blood and hair were found in her trunk, but no body. The investigation led them to a small cabin at Claytor Lake where there appeared to have been an attack. It’s believed it was there that Gina lost her life. Former Virginia Tech football star, Stephen Epperly was charged and convicted of her murder. He was the first person in the state of Virginia to be convicted without a body, confession, or witness.
Stephen had a reputation of being a smooth talker with the ladies and had been accused of sexual assault twice before Gina's murder, but he was acquitted. He admitted that he met her in the club, convinced her to go out to the cabin, but claims the two parted ways after. But investigators believe he made his move on Gina while at the cabin, and when he wanted to go farther than she did, he killed her. Investigators also believe that he used her car to haul her body and after disposing of it, left it near St. Albans.
Epperly has been in prison since his conviction, but he still claims his innocence.
Gina’s remains have never been found. Police believe that her body was either left in the river or is buried somewhere on the property of St. Albans.
What is it used for today?
After being saved from the wrecking ball in 2007, St. Albans now stands as a testament of survival despite massive amounts of tragedy. It's aged walls, and broken windows whisper memories of its hardships. With crumbling plaster walls, its insides open and exposed—it's not difficult to feel the emotion in the place, even if only in photographs. It's haunting and sad yet mesmerizing and terrifying. It's full of bright rooms and dark corridors—a complex architecture that mimics its complex past.
Today, St. Albans is available for tours and events—ranging from marriages to history tours. It's become a popular haunted destination during Halloween. These events help to keep the structure sound and the doors open. The staff hopes to turn it into a museum in the future, forever keeping the history alive.
But it's the dead that's very much alive there now. While researching, I realized how much of what's happened on that land has been a battle of both mind and will. From the massacre—battling of wills on who controlled the land, to the boy's school that hoped to shape the minds and strength of future men, to the sanatorium hoping to heal the minds of those afflicted. People are always striving to shape and to altar. If there's anything I've learned from all of this, it's that time may heal, but it doesn't forget. Places become more and more haunted, with layers of past—thick and murky.
St. Albans is a place of terrors. Enter at your own risk.
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Music by Epidemic Sound.