America is full of weird and spooky places, and what better time to highlight some of them than Halloween! The Library’s collections have a wealth of materials on all kinds of topics, so it wasn’t hard to find places worthy of a frightful road trip!
Zzyzx (pronounced zye-zex), located in San Bernadino County, California, was once the site of a health spa in the early 20th century. Founded by evangelist and self-proclaimed medical doctor Curtis Howe Springer in 1944, the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa was to be known as the “last word in health.”
Here’s where it gets a bit shady. Springer acquired the 12,000 acres of federal land, located in the Mojave Desert, by filing a mining claim, which the government later invalidated. He made a fortune selling his useless medicines and cures. In addition, Springer’s “natural” hot springs were completely fake – they were heated by hidden boilers.
Regardless, the health spa was a success for decades, expanding to a 60-room hotel, church, private airstrip and even a castle. In 1974, the government finally caught on to the “King of the Quacks” (as designated by the American Medical Association), and shut his enterprise down claiming Springer had no true claim to the land. He spent 49 days in jail for selling bogus meds and ended up retiring to Las Vegas. Zzyzx was taken over by the Bureau of Land Management and is now the site of California State University’s Desert Studies Center.
Also in California is the town of Bodie, a once glorious mining town located about 75 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe. A great example of a genuine ghost town, what’s left today is preserved in a state of “arrested decay,” with buildings and interiors remaining as they were left.
William S. Bodey discovered gold here in July 1859. It was not until 1874 that the great potential wealth of the district became promising. Bodie reached its pinnacle by 1879-80 when the population was estimated at 10-12,000 and when the production from the mines on Bodie Bluff was at its peak. “Highgrading,” or taking gold, was done so openly that the town was a magnet for criminals, and the “The Bad Man From Bodie” became synonymous for the lawless inhabitants.
By 1883, Bodie’s glory days were on the decline. Two major fires destroyed a good bit of the town, mines were closing and residents were feeling the effects of Prohibition and the Depression. With the onset of World War II, the school and post office were closed, and the last residents left town.
The town became a state historic park in 1962 and has been designated as a California Historic Site, as well as a National Historic Site.
Speaking of abandoned places, there’s nothing spookier than an abandoned castle. And, for some reason, castles and heartbreak go hand-in-hand.
Situated in the famed 1000 Islands region of New York sits Boldt Castle, a 120-room estate complete with tunnels, Italian gardens and a drawbridge. The castle’s history, however, is shrouded in tragedy. George C. Boldt, rich proprietor of the famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel, began building the grand chateau for his beloved wife Louise. Sadly, in 1904, Louise passed away suddenly, and Boldt immediately ceased construction. He never returned to the island, leaving the structures as a decaying monument to his lost love. In 1977, Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property and restored it for public use.
Another such castle is Coral Castle, located in Homestead, Florida. After Edward Leedskalnin was jilted by his fiancée, he left his home country of Latvia for America. Settling in Florida, he began a decades-long task of single-handedly building a massive rock castle. Allegedly he never let anyone watch him while he worked, but several teenagers reported they saw the short-statured and thin man move massive pounds of stone “like hydrogen balloons.”
Legend had it that the castle was built using magic, psychic energy or even alien technology, although that was refuted by Leedskalnin’s friend, Orval Irwin, who also wrote a book about Coral Castle.
According to an article from LiveScience, more than 1,000 tons of oolite limestone was quarried and sculpted into a variety of shapes, including slab walls, tables, chairs, a crescent moon, a water fountain and a sundial. In addition, the property featured a perfectly balanced stone gate that was easily opened despite its weight.
Leedskalnin opened the property in 1923 for tours, and he worked on the castle until his death in 1951. The place remains open for tourists and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Derelict insane asylums and penitentiaries are often popular places for the ghost adventurers. The East Coast has a number of them.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, located in Weston, West Virgina, served as a sanctuary for the mentally ill from 1864 to 1994. Initially, the facility was intended to house only 250 patients, but at its peak in the 1950s, some 2,400 lived within its walls.
In the early days of medicine, mental health was largely misunderstood and mistreated. Stories are rampant with barbaric practices and treatments, and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum had a reputation for being a very violent place. And, as such, the facility is reported to be haunted. A National Historic Landmark, the asylum is open for regular and ghost tours.
Also reportedly haunted is Eastern State Penitentiary, located in Philadelphia. The facility was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world but stands in ruins today.
Opened in 1829, Eastern State was a technological marvel. Inmates lived in complete isolation, but their cells were centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet and a skylight. Adjacent to each cell was a private outdoor exercise yard contained by a 10-foot wall. Inmates were hooded whenever they were outside of their cells to further their isolation and penitence. The menacing façade of the prison implied that physical punishment took place behind the walls.
And, for some prisoners who broke the rules, there were harsh punishments indeed. According to this NPR article, inmates were subjected to water baths, in which inmates were dunked then hung out on a wall in winter until ice formed on the skin; the mad chair, which bound an inmate so tightly that circulation was cut off; or even the iron gag, in which an inmate’s hands were tied behind the back and strapped to an iron collar in the mouth.
This system was abandoned in the early 1900s, and Eastern State invoked a more integrated system with prisoners sharing cells and working together.
Notable prisoners included gangster Al Capone and bank robber William Francis Sutton.
The prison closed in 1971, after it became too costly to repair and operate. In 1994, it opened to the public with daily tours. Since then it’s been the site of exhibitions, movies and even a haunted house.
Sources: Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), roadtrippers.com, roadsideamerica.com, bodie.com, boldtcastle.com, trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com, easternstate.org.