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SHIRLEY — New England was once home to a handful of state asylums that housed hundreds of people being treated for mental illness.

For some, their confinement lasted for years.

They were part of a bygone therapeutic theory known as “moral treatment,” that was part and parcel of the Kirkbride Buildings, built for the purpose in the latter half of the 19th century in secluded settings with expansive grounds.

The exteriors resembled palaces. But funding dried up. State-of-the-art jewels in one era became derelict in the next. The asylums became menacing, neglected places, barely maintained and poorly staffed.

They went by the names of MacLean, Worcester and North Hampton State Hospitals and counterparts in Grafton, Gardner, Danvers and Medfield; The Fernald School, Belchertown State School, The Seaside Regional Center, Gaebler Children’s Center.

Now, most of those institutions are gone, but the sheltered world and dysfunctional dreams they embodied echo enticingly in Katherine Anderson’s new book, “Behind the Walls, Shadows of New England Asylums.”

Some empty buildings still stand, architectural treasures with ivy-covered brick walls, imposing granite sills and Gothic towers, recycled as luxury condos or offices. The old Gardner State Hospital is a prison. Others were torn down or slated for the wrecking ball.

Anderson visited them all, researching her book.

She traced the genesis of her project in a recent interview after school at the Shirley Middle School, where she has been a special-education teacher for the past year.

Four years ago, a friend told Anderson that New Hampshire State Hospital was being torn down. Did she want to go see it? Fenced off during demolition, the group gained access via tunnels. At the time, she was honing her skills as a photographer and took some “really bad pictures” in the ravaged interior, she said.

It was an unforgettable experience.

“It was cold, dark, I was in awe,” she said. “I needed to know … what went on in there?”

She started a “short list” of state hospitals and found that this one was once one of 30 across the country, and that most were also closed and empty.

She was hooked. “My quest went to the system and how it worked,” she said.

She researched the Department of Mental Health, National Archives, interviewed former staff, even a former patient who lives in the Netherlands. Other interviews included psychiatric professor Harry Gardiner. He once lived on the campus of Medfield State Hospital, where his father worked. After his dad died, the family moved to Ayer, but he cherished fond memories of Medfield. “It was a happy time for him,” Anderson said.

As she dug into the hospitals’ histories, “I learned things that surprised me,” she said.” Positive angles, for example. “You only heard of abuse, neglect, misery” that became the signature of the asylum. But she uncovered heartwarming stories, too, such as hospital staff who bought Christmas presents for the patients and took them on sleigh rides.

Her book is full of telling details like this, beautiful photographs, images that linger.

One photo is so ordinary it hurts, a grade school class picture of a boy who was a state hospital patient and who committed suicide as an adult, years later. Anderson interviewed his sister, who gave her the picture. But by the time the book came out, the sister had “disappeared,” she said, and might never see it.

Anderson said she’s deeply interested in “buildings that create history,” places like Ellis Island, where immigrants’ journeys left an imprint. She wonders, too, if history will repeat, perhaps reprising institutional settings that shut down decades ago, leaving many former patients to shift for themselves outside the walls.

“Even today, Worcester is building a new psychiatric facility,” she said, the first in 50 years. “I thought it would never happen again.”

“Behind the Walls” may be purchased from the author at

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