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     Ghost story:  A story having supernatural or frightening elements, especially one involving ghosts. – Your Dictionary

A cold, overcast day greeted me on leaving the newspaper office in October, 1986, with a threat of mizzling rain and a promise of snow by early evening.

Red and gold maple leaves swirled on the sidewalk as I buttoned my coat and felt an involuntary shiver. Not an optimum time for a tour of the state’s mental hospital, I thought, though much of the walk would be underground through nearly three miles of darkened tunnels, damp with dripping pipes and sweating duct work.

I had requested the outing because of a long fascination with the campus and its large, imposing but now abandoned buildings of red quartzite built in neoclassical style. Begun in 1879, the Dakota Hospital for the Insane later was renamed the Yankton State Hospital, largely because some thought the original name conveyed a negative image.

Though constructed to last an eternity, the buildings fell victim not to the elements, but “progress,” when the state determined they would be too expensive to upgrade.

Now empty, the darkened structures awaited with grim resignation their fate, perhaps foreshadowed as early as 1899, when one of the State Insane Asylum cottages burned to the ground and killed 17 inmates. It was an early but not isolated incident.

Of the many buildings connected by the underground labyrinth, I was particularly interested in seeing Ordway, originally named the Building for Disturbed Men when erected in 1915 with its rows of macabre cells and treatment rooms for the criminally insane. Hannibal Lecter would have been comfortable there.

In early years, before more humane and scientific treatments were discovered, some patients at Ordway lived in cages. Primitive treatment underscored the lack of understanding of mental illness. Violent inmates were physically restrained, hosed down, or tied to a gurney.  A department of Insulin and Metrazol Therapy opened in 1937, along with electro-surgical treatments.

“This is it,” my guide advised, bringing me back to the present, and pointing toward the stairway that would take us up to Ordway.

With a sense of foreboding, I entered a long hallway, dimly lit, my shoes clicking on the terrazzo floor.

The walls closed in around us, and the little daylight that remained barely penetrated the bar-covered windows.

Suddenly, a high-pitched scream filled the wing. I jumped, bumping into my guide, who pressed his hand against my back to ensure my balance.

“Don’t worry,” he said sardonically.  “Just an unhappy old boiler, letting off some steam.”

Then why did his smile say otherwise?

Oct. 26, 2016