The cemeteries of Athens’ Lunatic Asylum
It was a beautiful sunny day in December as we started out on our journey for dark history, and we found it, boy.did we find it. The grandiose Athens Lunatic Asylum sits impressively on top of a small knoll overlooking the winding Hocking River. Below the mammoth and sprawling building sits Athens, Ohio, a college town full of history all its own.
At the Athens Lunatic Asylum, also known as The Ridges, the design of the buildings and grounds were influenced by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. He was a 19th-Century physician who authored an influential book on hospital design called “On the Construction, Organization and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane.” Kirkbride Plan asylums are most recognizably characterized by the staggered “bat-wing” floor plan of their wards, sprawling grounds and High Victorian Gothic architecture with much land, gardens and fresh air. The idea behind a design such as these was with the hope that the patients would improve even if they might not be cured.
Originally named The Athens Lunatic Asylum, the institution featured grandiose buildings surrounded by elaborate landscaping with ponds, fountains, and parks and went through an array of name changes including: the Athens Asylum for the Insane, the Athens State Hospital, the Southeastern Ohio Mental Health Center and the Athens Mental Health Center.
Athens Lunatic Asylum began operation on January 9, 1874. Like any large psychiatric institution, it was full of patients suffering from psychotic disorders, disease and death. When patients passed away and no family or friends claimed their bodies, they were buried in one of three hospital cemeteries.
The hospital cemetery was official opened in the 1870s on Tower Drive to provide a final resting place for patients whose families did not claim them. In 1913, the last 26 women were buried across a small ravine just north of the Tower Cemetery. In 1914, more bodies were added there and then the move was initiated. All burials were to be moved on to the top of a western slope across from the Dairy Barn on Dairy Lane. In 1951, the New Cemetery was opened and received burials until 1972. The hospital closed in 1991 and unclaimed bodies were taken to cemeteries in Albany, Ohio.
From the 1870s to 1943, most graves were marked with small, sequentially numbered marble stones, with no names or dates. Of the thousands of numbered stones, only a handful of newer headstones have been purchased by family and bear the names and dates on them.
In 1984, Ohio University purchased the Ridges and after acquiring the land, the OU agreed to provide groundskeeping for the cemeteries. This was a big undertaking. Thousands of graves stood neglected, some tumbled, crumbling under time and the elements. Uprooted headstones could be seen, broken stones were plentiful and the general demise of the cemeteries gave way to ghost stories and urban legends.
By the late 20th century, it was a popular destination for ghosthunters, Fox Family Channel featured the Ghosts of Athens in one of its “World’s Scariest Places.” Investigators have seen, felt, heard and smelled various oddities while strolling the cemeteries. Orbs have been captured in photographs, glowing like a full moon and hovering above headstones. Unexplained voices (EVPs) have been captured on digital voice recorders and an occasional whiff of rose or lilac perfume can be smelled, even in winter when nothing is blooming.
By 2000, the disrepair and neglect of these cemeteries came to the forefront and a special committee was formed to oversee and address the various issues.
When I visited in December of 2019, the cemeteries appeared clean and well-taken care of with a Nature Walk implemented so that people can walk the grounds and explore the beauty and solitary peace of these grounds. We hope the souls buried here are resting and at peace.
Sherri Brake is a paranormal researcher, author and Haunted Heartland Tour owner. You may email her at SherriBrake@gmail.com or visit her website at www.HauntedHistory.net