St Albans Sanitorium was both a boys school and a hospital for the mentally ill. Famous for being one of the most haunted locations in the mid-Atlantic region, this creepy facility, originally built in 1892 as two separate buildings on a bluff overlooking the New River, had been on MY paranormal bucket list for several years.
With such a haunting reputation, St Albans Sanitorium is considered one of the best places to investigate within the paranormal community. Numerous private groups have investigated, as have several made-for-TV ghost hunting teams, including Ghost Asylum, Destination Fear and Ghost Hunters.
In 1911, St Albans Preparatory School for Boys closed. Five years later, the two buildings were joined by a corridor and the 56-acre property was operated by physician J.C. King as St. Albans Sanatorium to treat patients with “mental and nervous disorders.” It later was relabeled a “hospital” in the 1940s. In 1965, a corporation purchased the business and added a rear addition in 1969.
Recently, three friends and I had the opportunity to join Spirits of the Southeast and Carrie Hopper of History of a Haunting Podcast on an all night ghost-hunt. Although they all bravely made it until 4 a.m., we only lasted until 2 a.m. It was a thrill to investigate such a famous location and with such a fun group.
The physical conditions inside St. Albans Sanatorium are a mix of good and bad, of current and repaired damage. The elegant front stairwell is in the midst of a restoration, but other stairwells are shored up by two-by-fours and rough, homemade (but sturdy) railing. Walls that have not been destroyed either by the elements and current roof leaks or police training exercises (which occurred at the buildings for years) are often decorated in graffiti, gratuitously graphic or profane, from folks who have trespassed in search of cheap thrills. (Trespassing isn’t recommended: police actively patrol the outside of the facility; inside and outside is peppered with security cameras recording 24/7.)
The first thing you’ll notice in the cooler months is the cold. It was a warm day for March after a week of similarly warm days in southern Virginia — 60 degrees and definitely springlike. But inside, the cold was bone-numbing — much colder than the outside temperature and it saturated the walls, the floor, the chairs we sat on and by the end of the evening, no matter how many layers of jackets we put on and hats and gloves, the cold aggressively saturated our bones.
You can find a few rooms with authentic antique furniture, but you’ll also find broken wheelchairs and rusted gurneys in old operation rooms; built in cabinetry are either ripped out and missing or warped by years of water damage and exposure to humidity. Patient rooms are dingy and dirty and bleak. Rooms in which staff lived in are just as creepy and bleak. Some stairwells are barely wide enough for a normal-sized human to pass through comfortably and in many rooms, the tile ceilings and the more recent drop tile ceiling systems are falling down. I wondered just how much asbestos and lead paint dust I breathed in during the ghost hunt!
But there is evidence of new dry wall replacing holes and patched walls, signs that although progress may be slow, the building is slowly being restored and taken care of — let’s hope the progress is fast enough to save the historically significant building.
All three floors in all three buildings — a maze of stairwells and halls that don’t always connect logically — have paranormal hot spots. I never did form a head map of the place, so had to follow behind others as we sought specific locations. Like Dr. Who’s Tardis, it definitely seems bigger on the inside than outside, a characteristic that is disorienting, to say the least, and enhances the overall mystery of the place.
We focused our investigation on Rebecca’s room, the “suicide bathroom,” the bowling alley and boiler room in the basement, the electroshock therapy room, Donald’s room and the front stairwell.
Throughout the evening, we took photos, recorded for EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) and used two spirit-box-type phone apps: Ghost Tube and Paravox. We had a brief session with the dowsing rods — but it didn’t seem like a dowsing rod kind of place, and we quickly put them away and they stayed put away. Other tools we used for the investigation were EMF (electro-magnetic field) readers and light up cat balls.
When we were in the basement, we didn’t detect anything negative unlike literally EVERY OTHER GROUP EVER DOWN THERE. We did apparently detect one or possibly 2 male entities — one each in the boiler room and the bowling alley. A standout and hilarious moment in the bowling alley was when the Paravox app stated “deep vagina” simultaneous to the Ghost Tube app stating “lady of the night” when we asked, “did you bring girls down here?”
In the boiler room we said something we found funny, and everyone laughed — and then the EMF reader on the floor and the one on the chair lit up to red. So we told a knock knock joke. Same thing occurred. We told a dozen or so jokes — some pretty lame. Each time, the entity — through the EMF — seemed DELIGHTED, lighting up as if it were laughing along with us! That was really cool — and didn’t seem like a coincidence, since we repeated it so many times.
But the group that went down to the basement next — Spirits of the Southeast’s Connie Broadwell and Donna Anen — experienced something much darker. I’m still not sure how to process that. Connie experienced a light tough to her neck at first and then a more pressured touch to her back. We encountered her as she was coming up the stairs from the basement, and she seemed genuinely upset.
I asked Carrie about her take was on this. She wondered whether the entities were having so much fun with our impromptu comedy routine that when the next group went down and took a different approach, the entities became annoyed with them. There’s no way to know, but that seemed as reasonable an explanation as any.
We caught a few EVPs in the attic — Rebecca’s room in particular — just heavy, wordless sighs. As we were asking questions and recording, the corners and hallway rustled as if people were moving about, and I wondered if those rustling sounds were residual (a haunting that is more like a memory than a ghost that can/will interact with the living).
The story around Rebecca’s room is that she was a patient who was likely raped, resulting in a pregnancy, which then was either deliberately aborted by staff or accidentally miscarried. Either way, somehow she got hold of the fetus and placed the poor thing into a jar, which she would take out of its hiding place and rock, singing to it into the night. Her room has a number of baby dolls donated by other ghost hunters as trigger objects or simply as objects that might offer Rebecca’s spirit some measure of comfort denied her during her life.
Throughout the evening, both of the ghost voice apps revealed a number of names: Kelly, Rich, Jacob (there is an entity known as Jacob, a little boy who died of unknown injuries), Janice, Randy, Bobby and Nathan.
Overall, ghost hunting at St Albans Sanitorium both lived up to its reputation as a highly active location and disappointed. There was definitely activity there, and we experienced a few moments of it. But spirits aren’t performing seals and there’s no guarantee you’ll encounter activity at every location. Our experiences at St Albans Sanitorium for the most part were far more subtle and to me, genuine than those the ghost hunting shows put into their St Albans episodes. It made me wonder how many nights the ghost hunting shows had to film there to get all that evidence they found — or whether they faked any of it in the interests of good entertainment.
Don’t let that stop you from experiencing St Albans for yourself — it’s a good place for a paranormal investigation and if you’re serious about exploring the paranormal, belongs on your bucket list.
Getting there: 6248 University Park Drive, Radford, VA
Website: St Albans Sanitorium
Be sure to check out History of a Haunting’s podcast about their experiences!
Looking for more ghost hunts and paranormal investigations? Check out the places MidAtlantic DayTrips has already investigated!