Dixmont Asylum for the Insane: Sanity & Insanity in the Oil Region

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Towering on a hilltop near Pittsburgh sat Dixmont Asylum for the Insane, later renamed Dixmont State Hospital. Active from 1862 through 1984, Dixmont State Hospital was demolished in 2005, leaving a grassy field and a forgotten graveyard in its wake. Though Dixmont no longer looms in the minds of Northwestern Pennsylvanians today, it was both lauded and feared by residents in the late 1800s.

Dixmont State Hospital before demolition. Source: wikipedia

More than a few residents of Erie, Crawford, Warren, and Venango Counties were sent to Dixmont at some point in their lives for alleged insanity. Though the institution undoubtedly aided many people who desperately needed intervention for their mental health, there were also many who were sent there for social infractions instead of mental illness. For example, in the November 21, 1874 Titusville Herald, an article describes how the wife of G.W. Baldwin was taken to Dixmont because she was a victim of “religious frenzy” and was “deranged” due to her participation in a revival. She was the second person from the area in a span of only two months to be admitted to Dixmont for religious frenzy.

A doctor from Erie, referred to in the Titusville Herald as Dr. Sevin, was an “inmate” at Dixmont for eight years and in 1883 accused the institution of a litany of abuses. He explained that he had gone to Dixmont “of his own accord, but was afterwards unable to get out.” He claimed that he wrote numerous letters to friends, but that none had received his letters. Dr. Sevin went on to say that he was thrown down numerous times and punched by attendants. He also knew people who were completely sane and not allowed to leave the asylum.

Dixmont Drawing
Drawing of Dixmont. Credit: Dixmont State Hospital by Mark Berton

After Dr. Sevin accused Dixmont of abuse, other patients came forward. A.P. Hopkins of Rochester, Pennsylvania was kept at Dixmont for six months in 1882. The Titusville Herald recounted his testimony: “during his stay he had been subjected to cruel treatment on several occasions. One time he rebelled against being placed in a straight jacket and was struck by the attendant. He was thrown down, choked, and jumped upon with his knees, breaking two of his ribs. On another occasion he was tied to a bedstand two days, the pinions around his arms being so tight that circulation stopped.” He went on to testify that he witnessed other patients being choked out and similarly abused as well.

Dixmont Above
Dixmont Aerial View. Source: Dixmont State Hospital by Mark Berton.

Though the State of Pennsylvania “investigated” these alleged abuses, it ultimately chose to believe the testimony of two doctors who discounted all patients’ testimony on the account that no sane person can trust someone in an insane asylum. Dixmont administration denied all allegations and were found to be innocent. Though Dr. Sevins eventually recanted his testimony, Dixmont patients were stuck between a rock and a hard place: accuse the institution of abuse and be discredited because of the improbability of a sane person in an insane asylum, or withstand the abuse and possibly be harmed or worse.

Dixmont Morgue
Dixmont Morgue. Source: Dixmont State Hospital by Mark Berton.

Were the people in Dixmont mentally ill? Some certainly were, but not all. Did abuses occur? Knowing the history of mental health in the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s, its extremely likely that at least some of the accusations were rooted in truth.

Women Dixmont Patients
Dixmont Patients. Source: Dixmont State Hospital by Mark Berton.

In 1880, Dixmont patients who hailed from the tri-country area began being transported to the new asylum in Warren County: The State Hospital for the Insane at Warren, now Warren State Hospital. Both asylums were built in the Kirkbride Model, which was intended to pull air through the building for air conditioning and circulation, as it was posed that fresh air and natural light were essential to mental healing.

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Above Photos: 1) Main Hall — 2) Dining Hall 1 — 3) Dining Hall 2 — 4) Graveyard

While Dixmont ceased operation in 1984 and was demolished in 2005, Warren State Hospital is still in operation. A developer attempted to build a Wal-Mart on the former Dixmont property, but repeated landslides made it impossible, and the land is still empty. A graveyard exists on the property, long forgotten. It is the final resting place for more than 1,300 former patients. Though the asylum no longer exists, its history still lives in old newspapers and family histories across the Oil Region.

4 thoughts on “Dixmont Asylum for the Insane: Sanity & Insanity in the Oil Region

  1. Mary Ann Crissey

    I just found this potential record of my ancestor:
    Pittsburg dispatch Saturday, Sep 21, 1889 Pittsburgh, PA Vol: FORTY-FOURTH YEAR Page: 5
    “Deaths of a Day
    James Martin, the recording Secretary of L A 8890(?) Knights of Labor Steel, died early yesterday morning at the West Penn Hospital, Dixmont. About eight months ago, while working in Brown, Howe & Co.’s mill, he was accidently hit on the head with a piece of iron. The injury affecting his brain, and a short time after he was removed to the insame asylum. He is an ex-master workman of his assembly, and one of the best known steel workers in the city. The funeral will take place tomorrow from his late home on Rebecca Street, Allegheny.”

    Unfortunately it does not list his wife and 7 children to prove this was my elusive ancestor. Anna Martin appeared as the widow of James in the 1890 Pittsburgh City Directory running a grocery store at 56 Rebecca Street .

    I was wondering if some archive had records of inmates to find more proof?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jessica Hilburn

      Hi Mary Ann – It seems like many of the pieces fit together and that it likely was your ancestor. PHMC has Dixmont records at the state level. I will give you some links here that might help you. You’ll want to talk to them before making a trip to Harrisburg to look at the records to make sure they are able to be publicly viewed.

      Dixmont Admission Records: https://archon.klnpa.org/psa/?p=collections/findingaid&id=3339&q=
      Other Dixmont Records: https://archon.klnpa.org/psa/?p=collections/classifications&id=581

      I hope that helps with your search! Best of luck!


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