The Beechworth Asylum was originally called Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum and is located in Beechworth, Victoria. My best friend Tarni and I have a little obsession with visiting asylums and other haunted locations. We’ve previously spent a wonderful and insightful day at J Ward in Ararat which is where the housed the criminally insane until the Aradale Asylum was built. We’ve also visited the Sunbury Asylum but they no longer have tours anymore. The Victorian University owns the site now.
We set off on our three and a half hour journey to the George Kerford Hotel which is situated on the 88 hectare site of the asylum. It was previously staff quarters turned into a lovely little hotel.
The Beechworth Lunatic Asylum was opened in 1867 and operated for 128 years until 1995 when it was closed for business. Part of the site is owned by the original owner and part is owned by La Trobe University. There seems to be a theme of universities taking over old asylums like the Victorian University taking over the Sunbury site for a time.
The asylum was pretty much self-sufficient, having on site a piggery, orchards, kitchen gardens, stables and barns. It also had a tennis court, oval and a cricket field.
Back in the days of these asylums such Kew, Aradale, Sunbury and Beechworth, it took only two signatures to lock you up and eight to get you released. Odds are, once you crossed the threshold, you were never leaving. There were many reasons why you could be committed such as hysteria in women, drunkenness, vagrancy, hanging the wash out on a Sunday, masturbation, grief, just to name a few (and the list is very long).
Ghost tours are held at nights and we decided to do one (of course we did).Our tour guide was called Craig but he introduced himself as John James Dempsey, the name of a doctor who worked at the asylum and who conducted experiments on both the men and the women incarcerated there. Tarni and some of the other guests were given small lanterns to light the way through the dark and deserted hallways.
Dr Dempsey took us down to the cellar (basement) underneath where the kitchen stored their food. It was also the back door to the asylum which dead bodies were taken through. As the good doctor said ‘it didn’t take them long to realise those two things didn’t mix.’ Incidentally, the man who removed the dead bodies from the morgue also worked in the kitchen.
We were taken to a small room with a single bed in it. We were told to cram in then to turn out the lanterns. I was sitting next to Tarni on the bed while the good doctor was recounting a story about a radio station that held a competition in that very room. The contestants were asked to stay inside the dark room, with the door closed for 45 minutes. If they could do that, they won a prize. The doctor told us that one woman felt her hair being braided, pats on her shoulders and eventually a pair of hands trying to pull her under the bed. While he was recounting this I began to feel funny. First I felt an insurmountable wave of sadness then my body began to heat up. It started in my toes and went all the way into my head. I felt like I had hot pins and needles in my head and I thought I was going to pass out right there on the bed, in the dark, in front of 20 strangers. This went on for about 2 minutes until the lights finally came back on. Doctor Dempsey later said that cold chills, poking, nausea and fainting were proof that ghosts were around. All I know is that there’s no way I could handle solitary confinement in the dark. I really would go crazy!
We were taken to another room that held an autopsy table and what looked to be a dentist’s chair with stirrups. A man got up on the table while the doctor explained how an autopsy worked in graphic detail. He even showed us the attached hose used to clean the body of liquids. He said that he (his character) kept many of the body parts suspended in formaldehyde in his office. Rows and rows of them lined up on a bookcase. In the 1950s when the asylum underwent a renovation, these jars were removed and never seen again. Doctor Dempsey believes that they are behind a brick wall in the small cellar room. He told us that they couldn’t check as each brick was heritage listed (as they came from the original Ha Ha wall) and damaging them came at a cost of more than $10000. The doctor liked to perform experiments to both sexes but performed gynaecological experiments on the women who were strapped down in the chair. I felt a wave of sadness when I thought about all the women who would have suffered for the experiments of that man. The men were also subjected to torture. If they bit a nurse, their top two front teeth were removed, in the chair with no anaesthetic. If it happened a second time, their two bottom teeth were removed. If it happened a third time, all of their teeth were removed and they subsisted on bread and tea for up to 12 weeks or until they could eat prison food again.
We heard about one interesting case of a man who disappeared. He could not be found anywhere. The asylum had 4 large water tanks buried on the property and as it rain a lot, always had plenty for their needs. During a drought, the town of Beechworth needed to use the water the asylum had stored up, so pipes were laid to run down to town (the asylum sat on a rise). During this time, no one knew that the escaped man hadn’t really escaped, he had become caught in a drain and slowly disintegrated into the water. So for the period of several months, the good folk of Beechworth drank, bathed and washed their clothes in water that had a decomposing corpse in it. Eventually his bones washed into the reservoir and he was scooped out and buried.
The following day I wanted to go back to the asylum to take some photos of the outside as I hadn’t been able to get many good ones from the night tour. We drove up the winding road and parked in the carpark. We were the only ones there, only chirping birds to keep us company. We walked around the building, chatting, laughing and taking photos when we came to a building that hadn’t been on the tour the night before. Tarni noticed that the door was open. I wanted to go in and what ensued was a hushed conversation about why it was bad to go inside because there might be an axe murderer in there. I wanted to go in although I was reminded that every horror movie I had ever seen saw the heroine do something stupid like go into an unlocked building in a deserted asylum where no one knew where you were. So we didn’t go inside after all. I took a photo of the door open as proof and we decided to call the operator of the ghost tour to tell them that a door was open.
We went back into the garden near a decrepit old pond full of mouldy leaves and small rocks and talked over what to do. Then we looked up to the second storey window and saw that a light was on. It looked like a chandelier. As we stared hard at the window, Tarni saw someone run from one window to the next, then suddenly another light came on three windows over. We began to get a little worried when suddenly the first light went out. As we watched, the window began to fog up from the inside yet we could see no person behind the fog. I looked towards the other window with the light still on and I clearly saw a woman with short brown hair cut in an old fashioned style turn the light off the walk down the stairs and disappear.
After that, we walked rather quickly, got back in the car and locked the doors. Tarni called the tour guide company and they said they’d send someone out. So we waited, a little nervous after our other-worldly encounter but determined to wait it out. Soon after a man pulled in beside us and said he was from the tour company. He informed us that this building wasn’t one of theirs and was owned by George who owned most of the buildings on the site. He went through the door and naturally we followed. It was like stepping into another world. While the rest of the asylum building were run down inside, with peeling paint and the smell of mildew, this building had a fine green Persian-looking hall runner, a chandelier in the hall and Queen Anne-looking chairs in the sitting room. There wasn’t power to the building as he explained but we showed him the photo we took of the light on. After a quick check of the downstairs area for prowlers (or ghosts), we exited the building and closed the door with a resounding bang.
We wondered if it was a person, where had they gone? Where was there car? We decided, despite the gloom beginning to set in, that we would drive round the back of the building and see where her car could have been. As we drove we spoke about our ghostly encounter. It seems that we are more prone to see ghosts during the day than we are at night. It happened on the last tour that we did too.
We tried to find the back of the building, but we couldn’t before we knew it, we had come upon a restaurant and quickly realised that it was the restaurant attached to our hotel. The hotel was a good ten minute drive from the asylum, yet we made it back there in under two minutes, driving slowly. We felt like we had been led back to the hotel, something didn’t want us to investigate further. As it was getting dark and we didn’t want to tempt fate, we called it a night and went back to our room.