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Towering over Brattleboro: Hauntings at the asylum

In this present-day photo, Brian Post operates a winch, which is dragging a concrete cap 150 feet up a slope to the base of the Retreat Tower. Kristopher Radder — Vermont Country

By Lex Merrell
Vermont Country

Overlooking the town of Brattleboro is a stone tower on the grounds of the Brattleboro Retreat, formerly known as the Vermont Asylum for the Insane. The asylum was built in 1834 and is still a mental health facility today.

The Brattleboro Retreat was a leader of humane practices for the mentally unwell in the 19th century. Even entertainment, like musical groups and theater troops, would come to the Retreat and perform for the staff and 450 patients to enhance their quality of life.

An 1895 image of the Brattleboro Retreat and tower in the Windham County Reformer.

While the Retreat’s therapies included practices that are now widely considered barbaric, like antiquated electroshock therapy, the editor of the Vermont Phoenix, a weekly Vermont newspaper, wrote in March of 1894, “All patients are kindly treated, and those in need of extra attention receive it.” He said this after visiting the Retreat almost every day for three months.

Although the asylum’s good deeds were widely reported on, the facility could not escape its bad luck. In 1893 and 1897, lighting struck the facility and caused damage to the buildings. In 1900 and 1901, parts of the property succumbed to fire. These incidents caused no deaths, but they do raise the question of the facility’s fate.

The Retreat Tower was built between 1887 and 1894. The tower was built by patients of the asylum under the instruction of doctors who believed hard labor could improve mental health. Brick by brick, patients created the 65-foot cylindrical tower.

Staff at the Retreat believed the fresh air at the top of the tower, as they overlooked the grounds, would be good for the patient’s mental health.

By 1985, the Retreat Tower was a hot spot in Brattleboro. There would be hikes, church services and various other events based around the tower. It was listed as an attraction of Brattleboro and featured in “Picturesque Brattleboro” postcards.

A 1905 Brattleboro Reformer clipping about the Brattleboro Retreat.

The infamous spot had its first strange, yet mundane, occurrence in June of 1913. Mrs. B. E. Leitsinger was taking a walk by the tower when she saw what she described as a very tame deer. She followed the deer to the tower until it abruptly disappeared. The next day, she took the same walk and saw the same deer — in the exact same spot. The account was reported in the local news section of the Brattleboro Reformer.

A 1907 Brattleboro Reformer clipping about the Brattleboro Retreat.

Almost exactly 10 years later, on June 1, 1923, the strange occurrences became less mundane when a body was found near the tower. Carl W. Dodge was a lead cello player at the New York Metropolitan Opera House. He was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his right temple.

Gunfire was a common occurrence around the tower. The next year, the Reformer reported on the “careless shooting by local youths” by the tower. While the juveniles were shooting their rifles all over town, the tower was a “favorite rendezvous” for the young men. It’s also where they shot a dog, owned by a Retreat doctor, in the leg.

A 1923 Brattleboro Reformer clipping about the Retreat Tower.

These official incidents gave the Retreat a reason to brick up the entrance to the tower. In 1938, the entrance was officially closed to supposedly prevent children from being injured in the tower.

The unofficial reason for the Retreat Tower’s closure is because patients would allegedly jump to their death when they got to the top. While the Retreat keeps the actual number of these deaths close to the vest, the ghosts refuse to be ignored.

People who visit the tower have reported an eerie and unsettling feeling when nearing the structure. The dark energy is complemented by the ghost of a patient jumping from the top of the tower, but never making it to the ground, or so the stories go.

If someone visits the Retreat Tower today, they’ll be able to visit the tower and a cemetery close by. The cemetery holds gravestones that date back to the 1800s. Some are only marked with numbers, or the corpses’ identities are listed as “Unknown.”

The spot has become a popular ghost hunting excursion. It’s known as one of the most haunted spots in Vermont, and doesn’t disappoint its visitors — at least, those who are brave enough to make the trip.

Lex Lecce — spends most of her time working, but any of her free time is spent with her family — mostly her new husband and cats. Her search history worries her therapist.

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