Josh Shaffer

Don’t let Dix Hill’s mentally ill patients be forgotten

Directional signage greets visitors to the Dorothea Dix campus at an entrance off of Lake Wheeler Road on Tuesday, May 5, 2015 in Raleigh, N.C.
Directional signage greets visitors to the Dorothea Dix campus at an entrance off of Lake Wheeler Road on Tuesday, May 5, 2015 in Raleigh, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

For a century and a half, Dorothea Dix Hospital sheltered and treated some of the state’s most mentally ill patients, tormented by melancholy or “fits,” dying from exhaustion and “constant mania.”

They’re buried on the property. Retta Huffman, who suffered a seizure in 1939 and hit her head on the hospital fireplace. Sophia Ann Coltrane, whose epitaph at age 39 read, “Welcome life’s expected close. Sink in permanent repose.”

Whatever happens to the Dix campus, whether Raleigh turns it into a racetrack, a casino or a Southern version of Central Park, these souls demand to be remembered. The history of their treatment on Dix Hill, groundbreaking for the 19th century, will last beyond whatever brand the city slaps on top of it.

And it should.

To people who grew up in North Carolina, the word “Dix” carried a heavy symbolism, seldom pretty. Raleigh natives often joked, “You belong on Dix Hill,” about people they meant to scorn. Ghost stories long circulated about the place.

“One of the worst things you could say about a person was that he or she had a family member at Dix Hill,” David Sedaris wrote in his “Naked” collection. “Designed by the same people who brought you Dreary Orphanage of Forsaken Children and Gabled House Haunted by Ghost of Hatchet Murderer, Dorothea Dix was a bleak colony of Gothic buildings perched on a hilltop near the outskirts of town.”

The first time I ever heard the hospital’s name, in 1996, Keturah Reese of Harnett County had just been committed there after strangling her 8-year-old boy, claiming that the devil had urged her on. I covered that murder as a young reporter, spoke to Reese in her kitchen and saw her throw herself on her son’s casket. The idea of a building intended for such patients haunted me.

But in 1848, when Dorothea Dix first toured the state, she found the mentally ill stuck in poorhouses and jails. She requested $100,000 from the legislature to care for the patients so often tossed aside. She won a sliver of that sum only by her doggedness.

Once it was established, Dix recommended light work and exercise for the mentally ill who had previously been confined, and she sent them Bibles, prayer books and pictures. The first patient arrived in 1856, diagnosed with suicidal mania. The patients made mattresses, rugs, baskets and brooms.

During the Civil War, the Union Army camped on the grounds while Gen. William T. Sherman took a tour.

Two new mental hospitals opened in the 1880s, segregated by race. For many years around the turn of the 20th century, Dix received patients with epilepsy, which was poorly understood at the time. Such patients were housed in their own colony.

To hear advocates tell it, care for the mentally ill has sunk far since the last patients left Dix in 2012, many of them transferred to Central Regional Hospital in Butner. A 2014 report to the legislature said too many mentally ill patients get sent to emergency rooms, which are often ill-equipped to treat them. The most recent figures from the state also show an average wait time of 88.9 hours – more than 3.5 days – to go from an emergency room to an available bed in a state hospital.

“It’s just not enough,” said Ann Akland, who has served on the state board for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “There’s no place for people to go, except a little Band-Aid, and then they get out.”

Another mental health advocate, Martha Brock of Cary, said her own treatment has taken her to Ahoskie and Hickory. “If you go into an emergency room,” she said, “you have no idea where you’re going to end up. I’ve been 150 miles east and 150 miles west.”

Brock has started a petition on the website change.org asking President Barack Obama to create a national monument on the hospital land honoring Dix and her legacy. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had 492 supporters.

I’m not asking for the Dix land to be frozen in time, preserved as a 19th-century relic. But in all the excitement over what comes next, let’s create some permanent reminder of the sufferers who passed through the property we now own. History is too eager to forget them.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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