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"Childhood Memories of Medfield State Hospital," by Harry (Wally) Gardiner

The author's father was a psychiatrist at Medfield State Hospital where he lived among the residents, some often babysitting him. Here are some memories of his very young years on campus.

The following article was submitted by Harry "Wally" Gardiner spent many of his young years on the campus of Medfield State Hospital where his father was a psychiatrist. Gardiner, 75, now lives in Minnesota. This is his story as written for Medfield Patch.

Childhood Memories of Medfield State Hospital

By Harry (Wally) Gardiner

Many years ago, when I was teaching college, I learned that one of my colleagues had told his abnormal psychology class that “Harry Gardiner spent six years in a mental institution, did you know that?” Of course they didn’t – and he “forgot” to mention that it was when I was a young child and my father, a psychiatrist, was the Assistant Superintendent at the Medfield State Hospital!

I first lived at the hospital when I was 2-3 years old (1940-1941), when my father, Dr. Harry M. Gardiner,  left to enter the service in World War II and we lived in Ayer, MA. He moved our family back to the MSH in 1946, when I was 8, and we lived there until he passed away in 1951.

My best friends at the hospital were David and Darel Nowers (known to those who couldn’t tell them apart as “the twins”), whose father was the head farmer. They both grew up to become head farmers at two other state hospitals in MA. At this time there were over 2,000 patients and about 500 staff at the hospital. We were never afraid of the patients and didn’t question their often very unusual behavior. That’s just the way it was.

It was an unusual childhood but one filled with many memorable experiences. For example, there were patients my father knew could be “trusted” and were allowed to babysit me while my parents were out. One was Olive, a woman who had once been a teacher of the blind. When she babysat, she would bring her Braille materials and teach me the alphabet and words. By the age of nine, I was reading simple children’s books in Braille. Unfortunately, I didn’t maintain the skill as I grew older.

Miller was another patient. He took care of the garden and grass around our house. His best friend was my collie, Sandy. When I was about 10, I was in the kitchen eating lunch one day when Miller came in and told my mother that Sandy had “told” him she didn’t give him enough food to eat. Naturally, my young ears perked up when I heard this. My mother said she was sorry to hear that and promised to take care of it. After he left, I asked her why Sandy talked to Miller but not to me? After all, he was my dog. She tried to explain that he didn’t really talk and Miller was just hallucinating (a term I didn’t really understand). 

During the next several days I tried talking to Sandy but he just kept staring at me, not uttering a single word. I was quite annoyed. I began following Miller and Sandy around the yard being careful to hide behind bushes or trees so I could listen to their “conversations”. One day, I watched as Miller said to Sandy, “How’s the food these days?” Although I didn’t hear Sandy reply, I heard Miller say, “That’s good to hear because I talked with Mrs. Gardiner about it.” I continued to try to get Sandy to talk to me, even telling him, “You talked to Miller. Why don’t you talk to me?” He never did.

One of the activities at the hospital to keep patients busy was playing baseball – among themselves and with the hospital attendants. Every so often I would be allowed to play too. One day, while choosing sides, an argument started when one of the attendants pointed at a patient and said, “I’ll take Napoleon” (the persona the patient had apparently adopted and everyone accepted). The problem arose when three patients stepped forward – all claiming to be the “real Napoleon” and claiming the others were “imposters.” Punches were thrown, names were called, and eventually the dispute was settled when the two “fake” Napoleons were persuaded by the attendants to accept secret identities - “Babe Ruth” and “Abe Lincoln.” I met lots of “famous” and interesting people at these ballgames. 

One final story.

One summer, David, Darel and I spent weeks building a raft on the Charles River near the hospital’s power plant. Every day, a patient sat under the same tree, in the shade, watching us and offering suggestions but never helping. On the last day, when we finished, he congratulated us and left. About an hour or so later, he returned followed by our fathers. He had gone to tell them that he wasn’t sure the raft was safe for us to launch the next day. Our fathers inspected it and pronounced it safe and told the patient he shouldn’t worry because we would be fine. We all left and headed home.

The following morning, the three of us met and excitedly headed to the raft with our fishing poles ready to spend a day like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on the river. You can imagine our surprise, disappointment, and even anger when we found the raft – GONE! We looked for it everywhere without success. Where could it have gone?

We rode our bikes to my father’s office to tell him what had happened. He thought about it for a moment and made a phone call. When he hung up, he smiled and told us he was sure he knew where the raft had gone. Not only was the raft missing but so was the patient who had been watching us build it. Once our fathers said it was safe, he was off to freedom, headed down the Charles River towards Boston. Within hours, the state police found our raft and the “patient” patient several miles down stream. Our raft was returned, the patient was placed on a secure ward, and we finally had the chance to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Editor's Note: Gardiner would very much like to touch base with anyone who might know him from his time at the State Hospital, people like Peter Stagg, Janet Mezzanotte, Tom Sweeney, and others. If you would like to contact him, please leave a note in the Comment box below. 

Ann Wallace May 21, 2013 at 12:53 PM
Great memories, Harry. We had an amazing childhood growing up in rural Medfield. Reading this, I can't help but think of those patients living in a protected environment. The state hospitals had their share of horror stories, but for many they provided a secure home. As I pass the mentally ill homeless on the streets of Boston and Hyannis, I wonder if there couldn't have been a better solution.
David Temple May 21, 2013 at 03:34 PM
Great stories, Wally! We'll print this article and put it in the archives of the Medfield Historical Society, of which I'm president. I hope others with memories of the hospital will also share them with the Patch and the society. http://medfieldhistoricalsociety.org/
Harry Gardiner May 21, 2013 at 03:50 PM
Hi Ann: Yes, as I've said many times, living in Medfield during those years and having all of you as classmates and friends were some of the best times. I agree with your comments. Guess I came to have a different perspective from many people due to my experiences. Take care.
Harry Gardiner May 21, 2013 at 03:51 PM
Dear David: Thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the stories and appreciate you putting it in the archives. My best, Wally
Harry Gardiner May 22, 2013 at 02:22 AM
David: When you archive the article, please note that the "tractor" photo is courtesy of David and Darel Nowers and was taken on the MSH farm. Wally (Harry)
Marsha Blair Hartung June 02, 2013 at 05:25 PM
So interesting to read your MSH 'memoir'! I grew up not far from the hospital, on the Millis side of the Charles River (born in 1948 and moved away to Kansas in 1962) near the railroad trestle. Although I never stepped foot on the hospital grounds, at certain times of the year, I could see a couple of hospital buildings. I often wondered what went on there. After reading your story, I now have a better picture of what it must have been like. Thank you!
Harry Gardiner June 02, 2013 at 05:44 PM
Hello Marsha: Thank you for your comment on my "memoir" about the MSH. It was certainly a "different" childhood but one I would not want to exchange for a more "normal" one. I made a lot of friends and had great times and am left with wonderful memories, which I often think about.
Marsha Blair Hartung June 02, 2013 at 06:12 PM
I forgot to mention that, at some point in time, I came into possession of a piece of silverware, a spoon, that is stamped 'MEDFIELD S.H.' and '5-37'. I've held on to it all this time. I'm not sure how I came to possess it, but it's a small momento to me.
Harry Gardiner June 02, 2013 at 07:31 PM
Marsha - interesting, especially since you don't know how you came to possess it and it is 76 years old. I believe when we moved my mother kept a couple of dish towels inscribed "MSH." Hope you have not been affected by the recent tornadoes in Kansas area.
Hope Joy Allen July 06, 2013 at 02:36 PM
Hi Wally, My name is Hope. I have recently received a lot of documents on my grandmother Anne Wojciechowski. My father ( her son) was in foster care his entire life until 18. My grandmother lived in medfeild hospital from feb 14th 1949 till her death ( post lobotomy) in oct 31 1961. She was under the care of physicians Charles Sullivan and Nathan Garrick. I have no photos, I don't know where she was buried, I'm saddened at her treatment. This place sounded scary. Did you know her? Do you know where I can find any records? Looking forward to hearing from you. Hope Allen

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