Indiana Medical History Museum


On this adventure, Rooster and I started out on a motorcycle ride and took a left turn into the macabre on our visit to the Indiana Medical History Museum. #autopsy #Central State #Mental illness #pathology #Indiana Medical History Museum #Safety and Awareness Ride

Indiana Medical History Museum

Central State Hospital was closed in 1994. The pathology building became a museum f thirty years prior. The facility constructed in 1896,  served as a morgue for Central State Hospital for the Insane. It became a place to study and research the physical causes of mental illness. The grounds spread across 150 acres on Indianapolis’s west side.

The hospital went through several transformations during its existence. In the early year’s buildings known as the seven steeples housed female patients.  Yet other structures were used to house the men. The old buildings were eventually demolished. A more institutional block style building was erected to take their place. Central State Hospital was famous for being the most haunted spot in Indiana until the buildings were demolished.


These days there is little evidence of the asylum’s existence. Urban development is taking place on the 150-acre grounds surrounded by a rundown area to the east and north. New housing is being built where the old hospital once stood. Kids play football on a newly constructed field. Several old buildings remain with advertisements suggesting they need new owners. The new construction is based on the village concept.

The grizzly in the middle of Urban development.

If the city can get people to buy into the idea, the grounds might become an oasis in the middle of all the urban blight. The Old Pathology Building is the one piece of evidence Central State Hospital existed.  When the staff locked the doors to the building in the 1960s, they in effect sealed a time capsule for future generations of what a medical teaching facility was like in the eighteen and nineteen centuries making the Indiana Medical History Museum the best-preserved example in the country.


Cut the Motorcycle Safety and Awareness Ride short.

It turned rainy and damp Saturday morning, which meant my adventure plans fell apart. May is Motorcycle Safety and Awareness Month across the nation. It’s the time when bikers pull their motorcycles out of the garage and hit the road. We wanted to let motorists know we’d come out of hibernation and to keep their eyes peeled for us. It’s also a time where everyone shares safety tips. You’ll hear the bikers gathered at the courthouse steps say stuff like, “Have you checked the tread on your tires yet or watch out for the potholes.

The first adventure plan called because of rain.

They are bad this year.” My idea was to finish out the ride before we explored several interesting spots in the city where it would end. The rain and the cold destroyed my plans. I told Rooster I had nothing to contribute to our Saturday morning adventure. Like a white knight riding in to rescue the day, he got online and came up with a strategy. His idea was to meet up with The Safety and Awareness Ride on the courthouse square.

We’d make a few stops with them before we came home and picked up the Sunshine Mobile. Our destination for the day would be the Indiana Medical History Museum. I’d never heard of the place before, but I had to admit it sounded interesting.

Courthouse Square.

We met our fellow riders on the courthouse square. A representative from the city read the motorcycle proclamation before we climbed back on our bikes. We started the police escorted ride when Rooster realized he forgot to make the required stop at a gas station. (He’s getting forgetful in his old age, but what can you do with a senile rooster?)

Put the motorcycle away and get on with plan #2.

We put the Indian away and headed for Indianapolis. It was dark and gloomy by the time we rounded Interstate 465 on the west side of the city. We took the Tenth Street exit which would land us in the Speedway neighborhood of Indianapolis. Every Hoosier in the state of Indiana past the age of ten knows the last place you want to be in May is anywhere near ‘The Brickyard.’ There are always traffic issues this time of year, and the neighborhood surrounding the 500 Racetrack is seedy. I’ve lived in Indiana most of my life and have never attended the Indy 500.  It is a fact I take pride in.


Entry denied

We followed the GPS directions and pulled down a lane to what appeared to be abandoned property then discovered a sign in the grass, which let us know we were in the right place. A man was standing outside the museum door with his son. Rooster and I crossed the street to join them. The guy was in the process of ringing the doorbell when we took our place next to them on the steps. We all waited for someone to come to the door. The man chuckled. “Look here. They’ve given us directions on how we should wait,” he said. Our group of museum enthusiasts determined we had about an hour before someone would answer the door for the next tour.


We go on an exploration.

Rooster and I decided to explore the area. Since we’ve been searching for unique adventure destinations, we’ve found ourselves exploring neighborhoods in Indianapolis where few people have dared to travel.

The neighborhood surrounding The Indiana Medical History Museum was one of those locations. The urban blight of Speedway bled into Indianapolis’s west side. We traveled past several blocks of rundown housing before we found ourselves cruising Washington Street.  We drove the four-lane avenue lined and storefronts displaying signs in Spanish.

What we discovered on this side of Indianapolis.

We discovered we were driving through a Hispanic neighborhood we weren’t aware existed before this trip. The vibrant colors of the Mexican flag were displayed everywhere.  It would be easy to imagine we were visiting a California neighborhood if it weren’t for the cold and the Indianapolis skyline off in the distance. We stopped at a restaurant and enjoyed a soft drink until it was time for us to make our way back to the museum.

When we turned off Washington Street, we noticed new construction on the Central State grounds. Single-family homes and an apartment building were in the process of being erected. We drove past a football field where kids and their parents were enjoying a game. The museum was now for the next tour to start. We paid our fee and walked into a large room where skeletons and body parts were displayed in glass cabinetry.

Pathology Department of Central State Hospital.

Before the tour began, there were about ten of us studying the macabre exhibition. our guide entered the room. She escorted our group to the old teaching amphitheater. This space functioned as a classroom for the medical school before it closed. After we were seated in the old, rickety wooden chairs, the woman conducting the tour explained what role the pathology department played at Central State Hospital.

The facility was designed to study the physical causes of mental illness. It was also a teaching facility for future physicians. The room we were sitting in was where the lectures were given, and many autopsies were performed to educate medical students. She gave a brief history of Central State Hospital and explained the rules for touring the museum.


The autopsy room.

Our next stop was the autopsy room. In the 1920s, the study of mental illness was in its infancy. There was a huge stigma for a family who had a relative with a mental disease. Patients sent to Central State often received no support from relatives. When they died, their bodies frequently went unclaimed.  Therefore, the state could give permission for the corpses use for research purposes.

The image of corpses kept on ice in the steel cage erected on the property to prevented body-snatching sent a chill up my spine. This was especially true in our section of the country. People seldom donated their bodies to medical research for religious reasons, so there was a market for cadavers in medical schools and labs. A morbid sensation prevailed in the autopsy room.

My reaction

My skin prickled a bit when I saw the tools used to dissect bodies spread out in a neat row. Astonishingly, we discovered patients got autopsied in the very spot where I was standing. The autopsy table in the middle of the room gleamed under the overhead lighting. Wooden wheelchairs sat to the side of an old white sink as if they were ready to retrieve their next victim. I noticed an eerie quietness settle over our group as we left the autopsy room.


We moved back into the waiting area. The lady conducting our tour told us the history of many of the artifacts exhibited in the room. Skeletons, such as the two hanging in one of the glass cases, could be purchased from a mail-order catalog. The shorter skeleton belonged to a man. They came without heads which indicates they probably went to a dental school for future tooth drillers to study. Specimens collected en from patients lined the room at the pathology building. There were tumors of various shapes and sizes preserved in formaldehyde for future study.


What we saw in the infectious disease laboratory

Our next stop was the infectious disease laboratory. This was the room where the effects of contagious diseases on the brain was studied. Over a third of the patients at Central State also had syphilis. This was before the days of antibiotics. People suffering from syphilis would eventually go insane as the disease ate away at the brain. Consequently. Quinine became an effective treatment in three percent of the cases.

The discovery of penicillin in the treatment of the disease was revolutionary. Our guide pointed out that once the disease damaged the brain. Thus, the harm deterioration the brain beyond repair. Drug treatment could only stop the process of the disease and not provide a cure. The patient would remain with diminished mental capacity for the rest of their lives.


Tour moves downstairs

The tour moved through the downstairs rooms until we came to a stairway. We climbed to the top of the landing and were led into various offices and through other laboratories. There were several interesting pieces of equipment on this floor. They used the still to purify water to make certain contaminants didn’t influence the procedures. Therefore, the still constructed in the 1920s during Prohibition became a necessary way to eliminate flaws and false readings.

The law required the stills inspection by state officials regularly to determine if it produced moonshine. Secondly, the large cylinder-shaped camera used to view slides attracted my attention. The only room where we couldn’t take pictures was the records room. Confidential patient information stored remained for a hospital employee’s eyes only.

Human beings

People institutionalized at Central State were living breathing human beings with families who still might be alive. Standing in the pathology department library we became acquainted with Baby Henry. Nobody is sure how old the infant was when he passed away. They aren’t even sure if he was a male.  Central State never treated Baby Henry. A local children’s hospital donated his skeleton. It’s believed Baby Henry was between birth to three months. His family donated his body to further the study of medicine.


By the time we ended our tour and made our exit from the Indiana Medical History Museum, a misty rain started to fall from the sky. It seemed like the perfect conclusion to our macabre Saturday morning adventure. I couldn’t help feeling sad for Baby Henry. The poor child never had a chance to live.

Baby Henry

The display of Baby Henryi n a glass cage made me cringe. I can understand why the Central State Hospital earned the reputation of being the most haunted place in Indiana. There was a spooky vibe hanging over the grounds. The methods used to treat mental illness seem primitive to us today, but I wonder how far we have come in advancing treatment.

Therefore, trial and error become a vehicle for many medical advancements. I found this adventure to be eerie but interesting. I would recommend a tour of this facility to writers and historians doing research into medical practices in the Nineteenth Century. If I gave my writer mind freedom to wander through the grotesque images I saw on this trip, I might come up with a ghoulish ghost story filled with the images I saw in the Indiana Medical History Museum.

My husband’s horror story ideas

Rooster didn’t help matters. My husband made numerous morbid story suggestions on the ride home. One idea involved a security guard stumbling across a relic hidden away in one of the abandoned laboratories. The discovery allows a plaque to escape into the world.  It was a sort of Indiana Jones meets the mummy on Indianapolis’s west side kind of story. I think I’ll give that storyline a rest, but I admit the concept has possibilities.

This ends our odyssey into the world of the grotesque and the macabre. It was an interesting way to spend a gloomy Saturday afternoon.


Who Is Molly Shea?

Molly Shea is an accomplished fictional short story writer from Indiana, who writes short stories and novels about a fictional town called Tecumseh.  To read more of her short stories and adventures click here.

Be sure to follow Molly on Twitter!

Published by henhouselady

I am the author of Saving the Hen House. I didn't know when I started it would turn into a series. I love to ride motorcycles, the blues, my family, and going on adventures. This old hen rocks.

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