Sunland Hospital in Memoriam: The Last Days of Florida’s Hospital of Horrors
”Sunland is not a place that takes kindly to strangers…When it became a mental hospital; it was one of the first to use electro-shock therapy in the area…They used a metal tub, water and electricity on the patients, where they received jolts to curb their fits of rage…Then, they were placed in a place called the pit, where they were herded and left screaming and laughing for days…And children and babies were left in metal cages all alone throughout the day and night…It was medieval.”
– Ex-employee, 1996
An auspicious beginning – An unfortunate end
If there is one location in the state of Florida to have resonated an equal amount of dread and excitement, with just the right amount of psychic impressions of regret and destitution, and finally to culminate in a nefarious notoriety, it will most likely be the late, Sunland Hospital in Tallahassee, Florida. Although originally a noble and active hospital within a chain of caring, state-of-the-art hospitals, it would decline to a place of great disappointment and impiety, and in the end, harbor a reputation of pure evil.
Sunland Hospital; also referred to as “Sunnyland” by many Floridian ghost hunters and psychical researchers, has been one of the most mysterious, and downright formidable locations for anyone interested in ghost lore and the supernatural. As it was one of the now defunct hospitals to hold the elusive name of Sunland, its final demolition in 2006 marks the end of a time-honored tradition of ghostly legends and haunted folklore that had inspired Florida researchers for decades. Since its closing and abandonment in 1983, the hospital’s massive decaying hulk, which for more than 20 years sat almost virtually forgotten and shunned, began to take on an almost unhealthy feel to it, as if it just did not want to die.
The Sunland hospital system had a long and rather illustrious history. One of the first hospitals to eventually merge, and become part of the Sunland Hospital Training Centers was constructed in Gainesville, Florida around 1921, formally known as the Florida Farm Colony for the Epileptic and Feeble-Minded. Though much of that structure still exists today, now known as the Tacachale Training Center, operated by the Department of Children and Families, the primary hospitals were to be situated in Tallahassee, Orlando, Tampa, Lantana and Miami Florida. They would become the beacons of a soon to-be medical empire that would go down in history.
The Tallahassee hospital was constructed in 1954 to serve as a testing and convalescent home for TB patients, as well as those with polio and developmental deformities. The massive building was christened the W.T. Edwards Tuberculosis Hospital, and cost close to 4 million dollars to complete. The hospital held over 400 beds, had a large surgical and recovery room center, and was complete with public and private suites, day rooms for activities and family visits, and was situated on a man-made hill in order to get constant sun and wind-flow, which was essential for this patient population.
This structure catered to hundreds of north Florida residents, as well as those from around the state with a better than average history, but with the advancement in treatment and therapy for TB patients, and finally inoculations for the dreaded polio, the W.T. Edwards Tuberculosis Hospital had to consider other patient options in order to continue. So, in March 1967, the Sunland facility in Orlando, another facility that had originally operated as a TB center, devised a plan to save her sister hospital to the north. Though the Orlando Sunland had operated for close to 35 years, it too had make changes like many hospitals across the land in order to survive. In addition to this, it wanted to expand its empire, so after careful review and debate, the Tallahassee hospital was to receive 18 current patients from Orlando in order to make the change of command official.
The newly christened Sunland Hospital in Tallahassee underwent many internal changes, received a much-needed facelift, and formally adopted its new patient population. From that day onward, Sunland would cater to the state’s child welfare system, helping thousands of physically and mentally disabled children and adolescents for years to come, thus making for itself a lot of money and an honorable reputation at the same time. Sunland soon became an excellent example of how a hospital should be run, and was recognized and honored by state governors and senators, fostering respect for all who came to know of it. Why then, would such a large and powerful state hospital close its doors seemingly overnight is indeed a mystery – a mystery that had lasted for years.
Reports of heinous crimes and hideous sins too ghastly to hide
This was the common method for hygiene hour. The children were supervised by a nurse or orderly if they were at least partially ambulatory. Here’s a fun factoid: The tables these children are brushing their teeth in were originally used in coroner’s morgues and funeral homes as a drainage slab for removing blood and body fluids from cadavers. These tables are made of porcelain, so it’s easy to clean and practical due to the situation of the patients. Yet, one can’t help seeing the horror in it all.
Though there were many rumors as to why all the Sunland Hospitals would close after an excellent work history; the most common beliefs ranged from a lack of money and state funding, to the possibility that the resident staff and patients were contracting “mesothelioma,” a form of lung cancer due to the asbestos insulation. Other possibilities pointed to fire hazards that existed throughout the building, as well as aged construction that would make working there dangerous. And, though all these theories seemed logical by most respects, the last theory is the most disturbing – the gross mistreatment, medical neglect and unnecessary death of the patients by the doctors and staff. Sadly, it would turn out to be a culmination of each and every one of these theories, as state and national inspections identified every one of these quandaries individually. After state and county records listed the reasons for closing all the Sunland Hospitals throughout Florida as a result of these accusations, primarily from the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and the Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC), the hospitals were to be immediately closed, locked and abandoned until further notice. They never re-opened.
Having worked in the medical and mental health fields since the 1980s, and having seen my share of sad and terrible things, I can personally acknowledge the fact that incidents like neglect and mistreatment do indeed take place. However, when I researched the allegations and state’s findings of Sunland’s indiscretions, I was utterly horrified. As I dug deeper into otherwise closed files and patient histories; which detailed such gross neglect and causes of death too graphic to list here, I found myself completely sickened to find that such mistreatment and inhumane experimentation did take place. Moreover, after finding records detailing the death of over 100 child patients in the 1970s only lead me to believe that the abuse was going on all along. If this wasn’t wounding enough, the fact that the majority of these children were buried in the nearby woodlands behind the massive hospital only added to my dismay about the whole terrible affair. Apparently, the psychic memories of these horrible events had left something behind, long after the death of the patient and the abandonment of the once bustling hospital – something truly haunting.
Tales of ghostly children, spook lights and dreadful screams in the dead of night
From that fateful day in 1983 until the day of its destruction in 2006, Sunland Hospital held an almost surreal quality about it. The tall, barbwire fence draped around the rotting building certainly created a foreboding air, as did the un-kept grass, and the broken shards of glass that were scattered about, leaving only blank window openings that would loom down fitfully on the bystander. Without a doubt, the whole place just felt wrong, as if the living were just not welcome there. Although finding a precise history on Sunland is close to impossible, the legends and folklore appear to follow a common course, which seem to have become typical over the years. Of those people I had interviewed, people from all former occupations there, and from other local eye-witnesses, almost everyone claimed to have had various uncanny experiences that seemed to coincide with each other. The primary feelings sensed at Sunland, upon seeing the huge structure was one of excitement and exhilaration. Once an intrepid explorer went inside however, those feelings soon turned to dread, as if they were being watched. Some actually told me that they heard voices telling them to “Get Out!” or to “Go Away!” And, for those who were actually foolish enough to go beyond the barbwire fence, thus challenging the authorities, and risking exposure to asbestos, many would come back claiming to have experienced countless strange and unexplainable things while exploring within the darkened rooms and corridors – things that had some people running for safety.
From the outside, if someone stood in the adjacent parking lots, they might have heard sounds of moaning and whimpering, or even an audible scream from a distant part of the hospital. As the witness surveyed the premises, he would eventually find the remains of an old rusted hospital bed. When the old bed was discovered, many would claim that it shivered and shook as soon as they approached it, almost as if some unseen patient was still in it, responding in fear, like some unfortunate patient might have done so many years ago. In addition to this, there had been many reports of cold spots throughout the area, and in all seasons. This of course is believed to be evidence of a classic haunting, where a spirit entity has crossed from its dimension to ours, the cold spot can appear virtually anywhere, and acts as if a door opens or closes. This paranormal singularity apparently occurred throughout the corridors of the old building, as one of my informants had confessed. Also, when walking on the second and third floors, past the old, totally enclosed steel cages that lined the walls, there seemed to be coldness all its own emitting form them, as if someone had opened a freezer door. As these cages were used to keep unruly babies and children confined, and oftentimes left all alone for hours at a time, it would seem logical that such tormenting would leave something behind.
In addition to the many reports of cold spots, the occasional phantom scream being heard from otherwise inexplicable places would surely frighten and unnerve the hapless explorer. In addition to screams heard from both the inside and outside of the structure, the sounds of muffled crying were also reported. From the darkened shambles of once-occupied office spaces, bathrooms or emitting from the broken windows, these screams have been heard from countless ghost hunters, and some even being recorded on audio and video equipment. Additionally, what was conveyed as sounds of an unseen dog whimpering, and its tags or chains jingling together as if running down the deserted corridors, was also a popular incident experienced by ghost hunters. This would seem to make sense too as historical documents have shown that the hospital once used dogs and other animals in “pet therapy” sessions with the children. As the animals would have created a very special bond with them, such might explain many of the creepy sounds reported over the years. Adjunct to the odd sounds and other strange noises heard around Sunland, ghost lights were sometimes seen streaking through the corridors late at night. Naturally, passer-byes might have thought these lights were nothing more than vagrants, teenagers or transients running through the empty hallways, but when the police would investigate, they would find nothing — Just the dead and decaying hulk of a once vigorous hospital.
Orbs, orbs, and more orbs! This unusual phenomenon has in recent years become one of the quintessential foundations of modern ghost hunting, as well as becoming the staple of related research into the alleged photographic evidence of ghosts and apparitions. Though this is a highly speculative concept for most serious researchers, these small, translucent balls of what is believed to be a form of ectoplasm energy, has been observed and reported in reputedly haunted locations since the formal use of photography. Though researchers have only recently noticed orbs on much older photographs, the debate as to the authenticity of this phenomena being paranormal remains steadfast in psychical academia. Whether or not this phenomenon is in fact related to paranormal activity is indeed the question.
As people drove by Sunland in the early morning hours, or as dusk would set, faces of people would sometimes be seen staring out the broken windows, complete with sad demeanors and sullen expressions. What many considered “shadow people” as they have come to be known, were sometimes reported flirting through the hallways and open doors, evaporating before the witness could get a well-focused look. Historically, though the witness might observe such an entity, they might simply think they are watching a genuine living person creeping through the corridors, or walking by the windows. They would soon learn otherwise, however, when the deceptive shadows would vanish right before their eyes. Indeed, with all the many oral traditions, as well as the growing folklore about Sunland and its ghostly reputation, I felt it necessary to give the haunted hospital my full attention. Although Sunland retained the added reputation of being a dangerous place, and far off the beaten path, I decided to take the challenge — in the end, the Sunland expedition was quite educational from a paranormal point of view, and well worth the effort.
The 2004 Sunland Hospital Investigation
After much forethought and planning, two of my associates with the Florida Psychical Research Group and I arrived at the gates of the old Sunland Hospital on an early October morning in 2004. It was a bright morning with a gentle breeze in the air. The birds were singing and all appeared peaceful, even though the building; that immense decaying structure that had been abandoned 22 years earlier, just sat there like something that should not be there at all. The feeling was of shear amazement, though we all knew the dangers there were very real. The chance of experiencing hostile vandals or transients was certainly on our minds, but also the state of the building itself was of great concern. As the hospital was locked up and abandoned for such a long time, we understood it had a lot of time to decompose and wither away, so precaution would have to be paramount in order to evade injury.
The first order of business was to walk around the perimeter of the complex, and scope out the grounds and layout of the building. Then, we began taking photographs of every angle with digital and 35 millimeters cameras, as well as video taping the entire process. The purpose here was to create a control and experimental database of photos and video, meaning that we test the differences between what we find on both types of film used, and what we had physically experienced. We recorded our actions, as well as made a voice tape of what each investigator was doing any that particular time.
The odd sounds began almost immediately. The sounds of things falling, such as thuds and glass breaking was apparent to everyone and from time to time, a door would slam, echoing throughout the hollow corridors. After a while of this, we decided that the wind may have been responsible, and continued our survey. As we walked completely around the complex, we found a series of intricate sidewalks, half buried under years of dirt and overgrown grass and weeds. These labyrinths of sidewalks lead out to the wooded area, deep within the forgotten thickets. Here, we stumbled upon the remains of the old therapeutic wading pool, used for the physically disabled. This pool was completely filled with dirt and covered with a heavy moss, minus the gnarled handhold bars, jutting out of the earth. We also found the remains of a playground, which resembled something right out of a ghost town, twisted and rusted, with the swings eerily swaying back and forth. As we continued, we came upon a slightly raised patch of land, overgrown with tall weeds and vines. As we looked closer, we discovered small metal plates with small numbers and letters embossed on them, all of them darkened with years of weathering. It didn’t take long to figure out that these were the graves of Sunland’s dead – forgotten and lost under nature’s growth.
As we found our way out of the thickets, we came upon the rear entrance of the building, apparently used for disembarking patients to ambulances and visa versa. The true threat of the old hospital became clear when we found gapping manholes, half filled with trash and rancid water collected over the many years. Some of these manholes were clearly 15 to 20 feet deep, which might have proven deadly if someone would have fallen into it. As we continued, I found the two side entrances open. One was the doorway to a boiler room, the other an old fire escape. As we looked in, only darkness peered out, except for the occasional flash of daylight emitting from one of the many broken windows. Once inside the main corridor, it was apparent that traveling through the entire building was out of the question, as the ceiling panels were now nothing more than hanging tatters, with broken pipes and electrical wires everywhere. In the corridors, the remains of desks, chairs and ripped out doors lay all around, as if a tornado went through. Moreover, with the occasional sound of a door slamming, or a pane of glass falling to the ground in the distance, it was easy to see why so many before us left in apprehension.
As we approached the elevators, we decided to start taking photographs. The empty rooms and debris all over the floor only added to our excitement, but when we heard a loud thud coming from down the darkened hallway, the excitement quickly turned to fear. Cautiously, we started to head back down the next section, which appeared to have once been a cafeteria, complete with tin food trays spewed all about, and a thick mold growing over the counter tops and tables, as if the people who once occupied this place just got up and left. The entire area had an eerie glow to it, due to the sunlight beaming through the moldy, half broken skylights. The smell of musty, decaying plaster and stagnant water filled the air, adding to the already surreal atmosphere of the place.
The hallways seemed to sprawl in all directions, leading to abandoned offices and darkened receptionist areas, where old files and decomposing medical records were found all about the floor as if a hurricane had blown through. With the constant dripping of water, which had been rippling down the now slimy walls from the pooled water atop the building for at least the last 22 years, the whole scene was incredible. To say the least, our hopes for finding a potentially haunted location came to be with what followed. As we continued to walk throughout the first floor, taking in all the sights, we started to hear what seemed to be a low muttering coming from the back section of the lower half of the building. Armed only with our flash lights and video recorders, we started toward the back section, only to stop dead in our tracks when we heard the sound of movement coming from behind a large half-way opened metal door. Our flashlights were strong enough to penetrate some of the darkness, which lead down a smooth, tiled path, so we slowly walked in. Not knowing what to find, we were naturally on alert, and ready to run out of there in a moments notice if we saw anything even remotely dangerous. Thankfully however, there was no one in there, just bare tile walls and stainless steal racks affixed to the walls, leading to the ceiling, and a few black vinyl-looking bags staked haphazardly to one end. It did not take me long to realize that I was standing in the hospital’s morgue. And, with this revelation, we turned to walk out. As I did so, however, with the lighted room now turning back to darkness, we once again started to hear what sounded like muffled mumbling coming from no where else than the room we had just left. After a moment, we heard what sounded like a man’s low, guttural moan, as if in horrible pain slowly uttering from the now thoroughly blackened morgue – finding the exit was the first thing on our minds.
Although we all knew there was no one in that room, and the rest of that section of the building, which was completely barren, finding a logical explanation was just not possible. Needless to say, we all decided to end our most successful investigation that day and return home to review our tapes and photographs. I can honestly say that that incident had the hairs standing up on my neck, as well as enticing me to look over my shoulder the entire time we were walking up the ramp and out to the main corridor.
As our mission came to a close, and we departed the hospital’s wreckage, we took time to stand in the deserted parking lot and reflect on our experiences. We had seen the remains of a once active and honored hospital that unfortunately took a slow and despairing avenue of deceit and ambivalence. Nonetheless, even with Sunland’s eventual fall from grace, it was an important institution to have served in the state of Florida. When we returned home, we took the time to research the state’s newspaper and historical archives, specifically the Florida Memory State Archives of Florida. This excellent resource supplied a photo collection of Sunland’s past, which will be eternally saved for historical prosperity. These photos showed us just how important this hospital once was, exposing its history in black and white for all to see. Some photos displayed nurses helping patients brush their teeth, or reading to children in an activity room. Others showed tuberculosis patients getting their hair done in the hospital’s salon and even of Woodsy the Owl paying a visit to the children on a summer’s day. Some photos joyfully exhibited Sunland’s children being sworn in as Boy Scouts and even an adult patient getting married to her husband-to-be on hospital property – there were indeed some good times recorded at Sunland Hospital.
Sadly however, some of these photos also showed what might have been the beginning stages of psychological and emotional neglect, as we found several images displaying lone babies sitting in cage-covered cribs in massive, empty rooms, or of distraught demeanors on children while undergoing therapy. Although such things are the very nature of my profession; where I have personally experienced many sad and soulfully dejected patients in my practice over the years, I also have seen hope for those who had a chance. With Sunland Hospital however, the majority went there to die, rejected by their families and expunged from society. So, experiencing a sad face would have been commonplace.
In the end, our exploration of the once powerful Sunland Hospital proved rewarding on several levels. Firstly, the experience of several odd or otherwise unexplainable things, such as the shuffling footsteps and moaning, the jiggling sounds like that from a dog’s collar heard in the hallways, and the electromagnetic frequency readings found in places where no electricity or microwaves were established, all constituted a possible paranormal relationship. Secondly, the historic value of the place itself, which details a lot of pain and suffering may also be related to psychic soundings of the past, as such things tend to store in a structure in the form of psychic residue. If this is indeed true, it would stand to reason that Sunland Hospital would harbor quite a bit of such a residue, due largely to the many negative experiences recorded there. Finally, after reviewing the many documented reports and eye-witnesses accounts collected by the Florida Psychical Research Group and other research societies over the last 22 years, we have found that something was indeed going on there. Although there are countless stories to have been born out of Sunland’s reputation alone, we have at the very least, created a scholarly foundation and collection of evidence for other interested parties and paranormal investigators for years to come. In the end, Sunland Hospital had proven to be an intriguing and quite educational landmark that will forever go down in Florida’s history, and remain in the annals of famous haunted places world-wide.
Post Mortem: The Sunland enigma in review
In retrospect, Sunland Hospital certainly had an interesting past, and one far more secretive than we could ever have known. The fact that there had been so many strange occurrences only made us ask why? For the number of infant, and child patients who have lived here, some for the duration of their lives, or died in the fever of their madness, there was only a life of sadness and in some cases torment, never to find peace. Without a doubt, the lives that dwelled there were full of strong emotions, which may have psychically etched themselves to the old building and its surroundings. The building may have become a canvas of sorts, painted with the emotions of rage and sorrow, and then to culminate in a horrific reminder of what should never have happened.
Was Sunland Hospital haunted? Most believe it was. Even though the entire building, along with the old therapeutic pool and all the abandoned sidewalks were finally torn down in November of 2006, and the land was churned and new grass put down for possible buyers, the whole place just looks unnatural. If you’re in the Tallahassee area, pay your respects to the site of Florida’s hospital of horrors, where unbelievable things had taken place both during and after its closing more than 2 decades ago. Though you may not recognize the landscape, where once the massive building loomed over the old Phillips and Miccosukee Roads, you’ll now find a huge vacant field lined by a newly constructed highway – The Sunland legacy has ended.
It would be impossible to say whether or not the land itself will be haunted now that the building is gone, but one must keep in mind that the unbelievable hardships that had occurred there and the lost tormented souls said to reside in the Sunland’s once decaying walls and water-filled innards, may run much deeper than we might imagine. Try to remember all the lost dreams and shattered hopes that once lived there, and died there. Remember also that within the nearby woods and thorny thickets exists a rather large pauper’s graveyard filled with the bodies of forgotten men, women and children, forever to remain in obscurity. This is all that remains of Sunland Hospital today. Therefore, remember the exploits of this once famous and infamous hospital of yesteryear, and reflect on what may become of the new structures that are built over its old foundation and forgotten cemetery – For without a doubt, they just might remember us.
Rest in Peace
Examiner.com (2010) Sunland Hospital. http://www.examiner.com/haunted-places-in-
Florida Memory Project: Division of Library & Information Services
Jenkins, Greg (2005) Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore Vol. 2. Pineapple Press