Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
Publisher’s Note: This story is the second part of a two-part series. To read the earlier chronological installment of this series, please click here.
A couple of months ago, I found a diary written by a young girl, Florence Blackwell, who was a patient at the Kings Park Psychiatric Hospital on Long Island. Without telling the entirety of the story over again, there was one person who was instrumental in Florence’s survival of inhumane treatment at the hospital; a nurse named Mary.
After doing some digging, Mary Baker seemed to be who Florence was talking about in her diary, and while that is a semi-common name, I was able to do a little bit of digging into the local genealogies, and in working with local historians, it looks like Mary baker was aged 20 in 1918 when Florence was first admitted to Kings Park. She was fresh out of nursing school, and still at an age where she should have been naive and optimistic about the world ahead of her.
Mary Baker, however, at the age of 20, began killing juvenile patients at the Kings Park Psychiatric Center, as an “Angel of Death”. According to online sites and sources, an Angel of Death is a caregiver, who abuses their power in such a way as to kill those they were charged with looking over. In the past few years, there have been a couple of cases in the news where nurses would assist in euthanizing elderly or terminally ill patients over and over again. If a nurse or doctor helped in the death of a patient more than once, they’re officially classified as a serial killer in the eyes of the law, and due to their angelic profession, normally dedicated to saving lives, they’re dubbed an Angel of Death, keeping the angelic moniker, but exposing them to what they really were doing.
20-year-old Mary Baker, would steal away in the middle of the night, and kill child patients of the psychiatric hospital who were next on the list for an experimental lobotomy. At this time, the pioneer of the modern lobotomy, Dr. Walter Freeman, was still in medical school, and therefore not even medically cleared to be performing these operations. The children recognized the pattern of Mary’s visits, and knew every night to expect her presence, in her ghostly white nurse’s uniform, sneaking among them looking for her next “victim”. Mary ultimately stole away into the night with Florence in tow; they were going to make a life for themselves elsewhere.
Thanks to the Internet, the story of Florence and Mary was able to spread farther than I had even imagined. I’m thankful that thousands of people were able to read and learn about Florence’s life in the hospital, because if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it. Since the story spread so quickly, I received a message from another user named Allie. I won’t expose any of her personal information other than that. Allie actually didn’t live too far from me, in a county of New York just north of New York City. She said that she had read and sympathized with Florence’s story, and was talking to a group of friends and family members, when her grandmother stopped and her face went ghostly white.
She asked Allie to clarify those dates, and that hospital at least three times, and on the third time, after asking if her grandmother was okay, her grandmother, Adrienne, told the following story. I’ve copied and pasted this exactly as Allie had transcribed the conversation for me:
“My mother had a younger brother growing up, and he was always so bright she said. She said that he could solve any math problem in just a couple of seconds. He did well in school, and was so smart, but he was a little slow. I don’t know if it was autism or what they’d call it these days, but all my mom told me, was that he was slow and that was fine. We knew the gist of what she was getting at. But one day, her brother Joseph just up and stopped talking. No one could get him to speak a word, and after months of trying to get Joseph to speak to them, and to go about his life, they gave up and put him into a mental hospital because, you know, that’s what they did back then. They were living in Brooklyn at the time, you know, running the restaurant, and he was put into Kings Park hospital. The one from that story. Now I don’t know what time that was, I was born in God, the mid-40s, so I’m thinking this is probably right around that same time, it was probably the early 20s that all of this took place.”
Allie was stunned into silence, and for good reason. She sent me all of this over text message, once we finally realized we had to be speaking somewhere other than online forums, and she actually invited me to meet her and her grandmother up in their town. She said that there was a story from her Grandma that I needed to hear.
So, I shared my location with my family, and all my friends, and I geared up the car to head to upstate New York, to meet with Allie and her Grandma.
The location where Allie had me meet her and her Grandma was quaint, albeit a little interesting. It was a small town right by the Hudson River, and it was adorable. Cute little homes, all on a main street, and they were even having a farmer’s market the day we decided to meet. But right outside of the heart of this town was a little park named “Salesian Park”. I got closer to my destination, and noticed that it definitely was a town park, but in certain sections of the park, there were bricks and other posts that looked like from a building. There were mounds of unusually high dirt that just didn’t seem to fit in with the park at all, but I figured maybe it was just a quaint feature of this town.
I eventually met up with Allie and her grandma, and we sat on a bench facing those mounds of dirt and exposed structural columns. I was the first one to break from the awkward pleasantries, and I asked what exactly this park was. Allie looked to her grandma, and her grandma Adrienne nodded and said “I’ll tell her, don’t worry”
She took a deep breath, and started:
“So you probably know this is called Salesian Park, right? You put it into your GPS on your phone to get here. So what you probably didn’t know is that up until about 3 years ago, this actually was a giant abandoned building sitting smack dab in the middle of town. Everyone saw it, everyone passed by it on their way to work, and yet no one really did anything about it. It was just kind of there, as if invisible. Now I don’t know all the history here, but I do know that I had an uncle, my mother’s older brother, Anthony who went to school here. It was probably the mid-20s or early 30s, and Anthony got sent up here out of the city to go to school. He was always a bit of a troublemaker, so they put him into a catholic school. One of those schools you sleep away at, and where the goal is to make you a priest one day.
“Now, my mom and her brother passed away right when Allie was a baby, so that was probably… how old are you again? Oh, 19 years ago.
“Uncle Anthony passed away first, and gave something special to my mom. When she passed away, she gave it to me. I read through it once, but it never really meant anything to me, so I tucked it away in a drawer, as something to look at when I missed my mom.
“After Allie told me about your story and those people. Something hit me as familiar. I pulled out the journal from my sock drawer, and I think your Mary worked at the Salesian school with my brother.”
I was speechless. If what Adrienne was saying was correct, this would be a couple of years after Mary and Florence had left Kings Park in the middle of the night. This would be absolutely the correct timeline for their escape. It would make sense that they hadn’t gone far. They were a single woman and a young girl in the early 20s, and they wouldn’t have gotten far without getting puzzled looks.
“I think you should borrow this. For your research.” Adrienne followed up. She had tears in her eyes, and I had goosebumps on my skin when she said her last sentence before excusing herself to the car: “This story deserves to be told.”
I exchanged some pleasantries with Allie once her grandma left, but I ran back to my car cradling the journal like a baby. This couldn’t be real. Had Mary actually written and kept a journal of her life outside of Kings Park?
I told myself I was going to wait until I got home to read it, but I had a four-hour drive ahead of me without factoring in NYC traffic, so I sat right there in my car, in the shadows of the abandoned Salesian School, and began reading. I’ll post and update the other entries as I read them later on.
August 31st, 1925
Florence and I got incredibly lucky securing this job at this new school. I’m told this was a private residence before turning into the school as it is now, but that doesn’t much matter to me. Florence and I aren’t allowed most places, as they’re spaces reserved only for men, or men within the Catholic Church. But that doesn’t much matter to me either. What matters is that Florence and I are safe, and we’ve made it this far in our journey. My last journal I’ve left behind as a memento of our time there, and I plan to do the same thing here. If I don’t take them with us and I leave no hint of where we’re going; we’re untraceable.
I am now the cook for the boys and teachers of the Salesian School here. Florence, masquerading as my daughter was allowed to board with me in the basement of the school, as long as she agrees to attend mass regularly. If that was the only stipulation to our safe harbor, Florence would go to mass three times a day if needed. She whines and cries almost every night for her mama, and I have to constantly remind her that I am her mama now. There won’t be anyone else; not now, not ever.
September 3rd, 1925
Florence came running and crying into my arms today while I was fixing lunch for the boys.
“My friend! My friend James!” she cried, “He’s gone! They found him in his bed this morning and his neck was turned all the way around! The priests say it has to be the devil coming to punish him, but James was the best boy I had ever met. He even said we might get married once he graduated from this school!”
I pet her head softly, and let her cry into my dress, much as she had the first day I met her. I stroked her auburn ringlets, and tilted her head up so that her blue eyes met mine directly. I told her that God and the Devil work in mysterious ways, and we mustn’t question what the priests are saying is true. We owe the priests our lives, and we do what they say.
She sniffled, but nodded her head, and with permission, excused herself to the bedroom to almost undoubtedly, continue her tears.
I have to keep working with that girl. She has to understand; I am her caretaker. I am the only one looking out for her. No one will get in the way of me and my Florence.
Credit: Alyssa Gallo
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