Friday, March 12, 2010

Highland Hospital Haunts, Pt. I


A 15-acre complex stands on the northern end of Asheville's historic Montford district. A complex once known as Highland Hospital and run by the nationally-known psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Carroll. Highland Hospital functioned as a psychiatric facility for over 70 years. Here, the rich and famous came to be treated for a variety of nervous and mental disorders. Zelda Fitgerald, wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, was a long-time patient.

Among Dr. Carroll's questionable practices of electroshock and insulin therapy was his hiring of former, "cured", patients. On March 10, 1948, Night Supervisor Willie Mae Hall -- one of these former patients -- systematically gave a double sedative to those patients she did not like, locking their bedroom doors in the Central Hall dormitory. She then set a fire in the kitchen. Quickly spreading to the building's dumbwaiter shaft, the fire reached all three floors in record speed.


There were bars on the patents' windows. The fire escape was wooden. Willie Mae Hall had cut the telephone lines. By the time the fire department was contacted and arrived over 30 minutes later, the place was ablaze. One thousand citizens watched helplessly. A nurse later said, "All we could do was watch, hear the screams and smell the flesh burning."

Nine women died in the fire, including Zelda Fitzgerald. She was first identified by her charred slipper found underneath her body.

Next up: An incredible tour photo captured at the fire's site.

24 comments:

Jennifer said...

Please tell me where these facts came from. Thanks! ninnytwin@gmail.com

Ghost Lady Deb said...

Among others, the books on Zelda by Nancy Milford and Sally Cline, Duke University archives, Asheville-Citizen Times articles, an interview with a long-time maintenance man at the complex who told me of his conversation with the Duke University nurse, UNCA records including Jane Craig's oral history and a book on Hildegard Peplau, a nurse who worked there at the time.

After all that reading, I know much more than this(!) but try to keep the blogs short. What was most frustrating is that there are discrepancies in the number of women who died. Some sources say 7, some say 9.

Thanks for asking. I really do research the information for our tours!

Deb

Jennifer said...

Thanks so much Deb. Interesting for sure. I hadn't done much more than scrape the surface on the Zelda story and I too had bumped into differing accounts on the number deceased.

Anonymous said...

9 died,7 in the fire, 2 later

Ghost Lady Deb said...

Thanks for that piece of info. That helps clear up the many many historical sources that refute each other.

Anonymous said...

Hello Deb~

I too, have read quite a bit about Zelda and I believe you're very right about the night supervisor, Willie Mae Hall. I would love to learn more and I so wish you would post what you know about the night of the fire.

Thanks,
Isabella

Ghost Lady Deb said...

Will do! I'm in the process of bringing the blog back. I'm finishing the section on Shadow People than will start about the HH fire. Thanks for your interest! Deb

Dean said...

Deb: I am not sure my last comment made it through, so I will give you a little background. My mother's name was Adene Ellen Yelvingon (maiden name Nims) and was a very close friend of Zelda's. She was hospitalized at HH after her first husband battered her on several occasions in Micanopy, Florida. She arrived at HH from the Chattahoochee hospital sometime in 1946 or 1947. She saved several woman that night and was rescued by a firefighter as she ascended the stairwell to the tower. The remaining family members would very much like to exchange information with you. Planning a trip next year for more research. My email is catsnorth@aol.com. D.S. DeSoto

Anonymous said...

I was actually a patient there 2 different times in my teenage year. I lived in the Brower bldg and the Carroll Potter bldg and went to school at Homewood. I just had typical teenage problems, but in the late 80's early 90's it was the "in" thing to send your child off.

Anonymous said...

I have just begun studying Zelda Fitzgerald's life and tragic death. The account of the fire at HH being a case of pre-meditated arson is the first I've read. Most accounts I have read (again, just starting my preliminary investigation)cite an electircal fire which started in the kitchen. What is your source for the arson story?
Thanks,
aas

Anonymous said...

My mother, Helen Kuykendall who passed away in 1972, was a nurse at Highland Hospital at the time of the fire. She lived in the nurses' residence, across the street. She told me that she accompanied Willie Mae on the train when they took her to Duke to be examined there after it was clear she had set the fire. Mother said Willie Maer had been an aide, not a night supervisor, and never mentioned sedating the patients. Over the years, I have also read a lot about the fire. Until about ten years or so ago, everything I found about it mentioned its suspicious nature; at that point, more details began to appear in internet accounts. It is interesting how long pertinent details are kept out of the public record.

Dean DeSoto said...

Little more research on Willie Mae indicates that she was raised as an orphan and set some fires at one or two of the orphanages. Also she was later jailed in Raliegh, although I have not located any of the jail reports on the reason she was jailed, etc. I am planning a trip to Asheville in 2014 to continue research on this boook I am writing about my mom, Adene Ellen Nims Yelvington. Any surving family members, friends, or those in touch with the spiritual side are most welcome to contact me at catsnorth@sbcglobal.net. My office number is 210-681-8655. Thank you!

laca said...

Strange to come across this. My parents met here at Highland Hospital about a year after the fire.

My mother was a student nurse, and my father was Dr. Carroll's grandson.

Anonymous said...

Wow, i was a patient at Highland Hospital in 1977. They still locked us in our rooms and yes we were heavily sedated. I was only 14 yrs old. I heard about the fires back then. Dr. Shamblen was running it them. Such an evil place

Anonymous said...

Yes it was the thing to send a child off. I was also in the brower building. I was there in 1977 as a patint. They spoke of the fires as a way to threaten us back then. I am 49 yrs old now and HH still haunts me

Anonymous said...

Can you provide an address to the site? I'm going to Asheville tomorrow and I can't find an address to the site anywhere.

JJoplin said...

WOW, I was a 14yo living at Brower Hall in 1977 also. I bet I know some of you. Dr. Shamblin was a jackass that kept everyone sedated. I'm 50 now and like the other person said, "the place still haunts me"

JJoplin said...

WOW, I was a 14yo living at Brower Hall in 1977 also. I bet I know some of you. Dr. Shamblin was a jackass that kept everyone sedated. I'm 50 now and like the other person said, "the place still haunts me"

Sherrie Childs said...

For some reason, I always come back to this. I was a teenager who got into trouble and was sent to Highland Hospital. Brower Hall and DR. Shambling haunt me in my dreams. He kept me so sedated I was a zombie. I started stashing my meds instead of taking them. It was absolutely horrifying.

Sherrie Childs said...

I was at Highland Hospital in 77.. Brower Hall. Dr Shamblin kept me so sedated that I started stashing my meds instead of taking them. I will never forget that place. It still haunts my dreams 36 years later.

Anonymous said...

I was there also Oct. 76-march 77 I too was in brower hall it still haunts me Dr Shamblen was the one kept us all drugged wish I could get my records I'd love to see what they say my parents sent me for see a guy older than me and we married 30 some yrs later im angie I remember julie blair a guy named haverty the youngest was 11 yrs old the oldest was 20 I also remember Nathaniel (Nat) email me at sadiebear62@gmail.com

Dean DeSoto said...

Hello again! Dean S. DeSoto, son of Adene Ellen Nims - Yelvington who was a survivor from the fire. Mom lived on the fourth floor and had developed a relationship with Zelda. Mom's story was very dramatic about her escape. Currently I am writing a book about mom's life and her formative experiences with Zelda. Indeed she was a phoenix from that fire. Have researched the North Carolina Medical Board's records regarding a conviction of Dr. Carroll for "grossly immoral conduct with patients or nurses of Highland Hospital" with some of his nurses and patients on July 20, 1926. The conviction was overturned January 13, 1928. For some unknown reason the North Carolina Medical Board did not reinstate him until July 22, 1948. Very odd to say the least. Probably very political, as the story continues to unfold. Wish all of you well in 2015. Will probably visit North Carolina sometime this year and would very much like to talk to anyone who may information from grandparents, parents, victims of the tragedies. Any family members, people with information about this event please contact me at catsnorth@sbcglobal.net.

Dean DeSoto said...

The research continues about my mom's time at Highland before and after the fire. I have had four descendants contact me regarding my research and wish to thank you Deb and the site very much. I will be traveling to Montgomery in late May to meet with the Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald museum folks, and to meander about Mississippi to seek out any more clues on Willie Mae Hall. Any descendants of Willie Mae are also most welcome to contact me to help me unravel this mystery. Somehow and someway I will travel to Asheville this year to view the sight and get a ground's eye view of where things were. I do hope the souls of those who passed will help me unlock some of the decades old mystery that surrounds this tragedy that transcended into the apogee of mom's life. After the fire mom lived until she was 51, coping with her more than difficult mother, marrying my father (later divorcing), and finally marrying my stepfather (an alcoholic and batterer). Yet mom thrived on raising her two sons on her own, working six days a week, and sadly dying of an enormous brain tumor probably caused by the 151 ECT treatments and corresponding ICT treatments. Mom's story is one of tragedy transcending into a steel willed resolve of strength refined at Highland, tested and trued that night at the hospital. Simple to find me:

Dean S. DeSoto
(son of Adene Ellen Nims Yelvington)
catsnorth@aol.com
210-681-8655

Many thanks to all.

Dean

Dean DeSoto said...

Hello again! By the courtesy of University of North Carolina - Duke, and the Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald museum of Montgomery, Alabama (Photo is courtesy of Archives, University of South Carolina), I have located a picture of my mother and Zelda Scott Fitzgerald probably taken between 1945 - 1948. I would like permission to post these photographs on this site and request anyone who can help identify the other patients and the staff to contact me at Dean S. DeSoto, catsnorth@sbcglobal.net, telephone 210-681-8655. Many thanks! Dean