The Mystery of the Ghostly Stain in the Attic of the Athens Lunatic Asylum 

In Depth

I’ve heard that Margaret Shilling was deaf. I’ve heard that she was unable to speak, to call for help. I’ve heard that she was playing hide-and-go-seek, and I’ve heard that she just wanted to die. She has been called Ohio’s most notorious ghost, the lost lady. Teenagers have prayed to her, broken into a building for her, lit candles to her, and lay down on the spot where her body did that famous thing—where it vanished, reportedly, and then reappeared, leaving a stain.

In 1978, Margaret Shilling (sometimes spelled Schilling) was a patient at the mental hospital in my Ohio town. Opened in 1874 as The Athens Lunatic Asylum, the hospital boasted expansive landscaped grounds, lakes and woods, even a Lovers’ Lane. It would later have a flourishing farm and orchard. It’s a beautiful campus, then and today, with a famous Kirkbride design. The main building, five stories high, had “bat wings,” as a staff member called them, flanking the sides, and scalloped porches. The campus perches on top of a hill that overlooks town, and is bordered on all sides by dark trees.

The hospital in its heyday treated thousands of patients. But by the 1970s, the patient population of the asylum in Athens had dwindled, as it had in most state mental hospitals. General hospitals were starting to admit more and more mental health patients, and those who went to state institutions like the one in Athens were often poor, unable to afford private care. As a staff member told me: “Anything could get you sent here back then.” Many patients would just stay. And stay.

One of those patients was Margaret Shilling. Patient records are sealed, inaccessible to non-family members, but this much is known of her: She was likely a long-term patient. And in December 1978, the harshest winter in years, Margaret Shilling disappeared.

Before her disappearance, Shilling had gone to the attic. The unused attic, off at the end of one of the “bat wings,” had a peaked roof and exposed rafters. Maintenance was going on at the time—more than a century old by then, the asylum needed constant upkeep—and the doors to the attic, usually closed, may have been propped open by workers who were laying down insulation. Rumors have Shilling playing a game, hiding from an orderly. Much more likely, she simply saw an open door and went through it.

And then the door closed and locked behind her.

In the 70s, many patients at the asylum had grounds privileges, coming and going freely during daylight hours. Occasionally patients would not come back on time, and they would have to be retrieved from the woods. Often, according to staff, you could see patients sleeping on and under benches on the asylum grounds. They felt comfortable there.

Shilling was reportedly one of the ones in an “open ward,” with permission to come and go, though newspaper reports claimed she had dementia. But that night in December, Shilling didn’t come back. Staff searched the hospital. They searched the woods. They searched the attic. They searched it twice. They called her name. She never answered.

This is the point where a staffer tells me some at the asylum believed Shilling might have been suicidal; she just didn’t come out. She just didn’t want to be found.

And she wasn’t, for more than six weeks. Newspaper accounts list her discoverer as a maintenance worker. Other reports claim several employees found her together; they were sent to find her, and the staff knew where she was by this time, because of the smell.

Shilling was dead in the middle of the floor in the attic room, which had reportedly been searched twice. She was naked, her clothes stacked neatly on the windowsill. It was early January of 1979, in one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record, with an unprecedented 34 inches of snow that month alone.

It took awhile to move the body—the state highway patrol had to be called, the coroner—and after the body was removed, something remained.

Workers scrubbed at the concrete floor. At a certain point, they gave up. You can see in the stain where they gave up. The whiskered marks of a brush just stop, mid-sweep. You can see this because it’s still there, almost 40 years later. The stain—a white, chalky image of a torso: head, back, the beginnings of arms and thighs—is still on the concrete floor of the attic, as obvious today as it was in 1979, when they could not, did not, clean it off.

“What’s the worst rumor you’ve heard about the stain?” I was asked by staff, when I visited in September, 2015.

Easy. That it’s haunted. That a college student broke into the then-abandoned asylum (it closed in 1993), touched the stain, then, plagued by a ghost, went home and killed himself. Or herself. That was a rumor I heard repeated all over town, mostly by the college students.

There are rumors about the stain—and then there are rumors about Shilling, much worse because of their personal, exploitive nature. There were strangulation marks found on the body. She was a chain smoker. She was getting cigarettes from the orderlies in exchange for sex. Staff disputes this particular rumor, saying “she wasn’t like that”—though I am never told what she was like—besides, cigarettes were for sale at the asylum commissary.

When I search archives for newspaper coverage of Shilling’s case, there is nothing on the month of her disappearance. Really, nothing. December 1978 is gone, exercised from the microfilm in multiple copies. The librarian assisting me calls this a “more exciting workday than is typical.”

Articles in the archives do cover the discovery of Shilling’s body. It is front page news on the Ohio University student paper The Post: “Missing Patient Discovered Dead.” The article from January 12, 1979, describes “three days of intensive search of the building and grounds and weekly follow-up searches” since the December 1 disappearance. It also discusses the curfew of patients like Shilling, who could come and go from the hospital, and quotes from Sue Foster, then the hospital superintendent. “It isn’t very often we can’t track down a missing patient,” Foster says. And then she says: “Normally a discharged or AWOL patient’s records are held for only 14 days after they are gone.”

This statement raises the question: Were other patients going AWOL? How many? What was happening at the hospital in 1979? Just a few months after Shilling was found dead, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees picketed at Ohio mental health hospitals, including the one in Athens. Foster was quoted in another article about the understaffed hospital: “We’re barely making it at the moment.”

But the story about Shilling is dropped. The last article on her is dated January 16, 1979. “Still Looking” is the title. The report says there’s been “little progress,” though an autopsy is being conducted and the attic has been sealed off while the town sheriff considers his own investigation. Foster says in this article, “She was alive when she was up there. That means to me that she wanted to be up there.”

Foster doesn’t mention how the doors in the attic supposedly locked automatically from the outside.

Did the sheriff conduct an investigation? Were the autopsy findings ever released? There’s no follow-up. Because Shilling’s death occurred on state hospital grounds, the Ohio state highway patrol was required by law to investigate—but their office was unable to find the file.

Here’s what I know of Shilling, without being family, without seeing the lost or missing records: She was 53 years-old. She was married. According to one local historian, she was a mother. She was not a young, beautiful dead girl, the type that attracts journalistic attention. She died in a locked room. She died and was left alone.

Her death certificate lists natural causes, yet she was only 53. Exposure to the cold, not listed, also seems likely. Ice storms had crippled the town in the weeks before Shilling was found. The power went out. Students went sledding on cafeteria trays.

Shilling is buried, not on the asylum grounds, where many patients are interred under numbered, nameless stones, but in a small cemetery in a Southern Ohio county. When I tell a staffer, he looks sad and says he’s not surprised. “That’s where we got a lot of people from then.”

Here’s what I know of the stain, without being a scientist: In 2008, chemistry graduate students analyzed it, publishing their findings in the Journal of Forensic Science. The stain is a mixture of chemicals, human tissue. And soap. The ghost impression of Shilling’s body etched itself into the attic floor because the stain was cleaned with toxic products, much harsher than the cleaning products used today. Tissue and soap were found in the stain because a combination of factors—temperature, humidity, and the physical chemistry of her body—caused saponification, a mundane process which means that, rather than decaying, some of the fat in her body simply turned to soap. The ghostly stain in the attic ward is simply cleaning products…and soap.

It’s not exciting. It’s not scary. It’s not even that uncommon. But it’s still there, the stain in the attic ward. It’s a reminder—and the stain has its own life now. It attracts ghost hunting TV shows. It’s featured on website after website, many of the stories inflammatory and inaccurate. People still break into the asylum, wanting to see or touch it (the main hospital building houses classrooms, studio space, and a small art gallery now, but many wards, including the attic, are closed off). A staff member suggested just cutting the damn thing out, and displaying the chunk of concrete in the lobby, in a glass case.

In October 2015, Ohio University, who came into possession of the hospital campus in the late 1980s, announced future plans to demolish several asylum buildings, which they claim are “non-contributing buildings.”

But Ward 20, like it or not, is an accidental memorial. To raze that building, to destroy the stain, would be to deny whatever happened to Margaret Shilling—and the negligence and stigma that allowed her to be lost in the first place.

I have always been drawn to Shilling because of one of the rumors about her, although not the salacious ones. What drew me in was her rumored deafness. I am deaf, born with a profound hearing loss. The deaf filled many asylums, including the one in Athens (as did “shellshock” veterans and women with what we now call postpartum depression). In a different time, with a different family, would I have been sent to an asylum?

And is it possible Shilling didn’t come out of hiding not because she wanted to die, but because she didn’t hear the searchers? I am told there was something different about Shilling’s speech. She had a speech impediment of sorts; she whispered everything. Did she not hear the searchers? Did they not hear her? Did she not come out because she was suicidal, or simply ill or afraid?

Or was she too medicated? This was the age of Thorazine, the first generation of anti-psychotic drugs, which were extremely strong and sometimes had devastating side effects. Many patients were heavily drugged, shuffling around in a fog. Was Shilling?

“She was a relatively quiet patient,” Foster, the superintendent at the time, said.

Here’s what I know, what I know for sure: You don’t need to see the stain in the attic ward. You don’t need to touch it. If you want to feel something, don’t even bother going up the old hospital steps.

Turn to the back of the campus. Stay on the grounds. Go to the graveyards. There are five cemeteries holding the graves of hundreds of people who died in the asylum, most identified only by numbers. If you want to feel afraid, feel sadness for those lives, those lost lives: people whose deaths weren’t investigated, who don’t get newspaper articles written about them, or tours led to them, or stories (even lies) told about them.

These are the people who were left. People who spent their whole lives in an asylum. People who were misunderstood and sometimes, misdiagnosed. If you want to touch something, touch one of their numbers. Leave flowers, light candles for them, the ones nobody came back for, the ones no one will claim.

Alison Stine’s first YA novel SUPERVISION was published by HarperVoyager. Also the author of three books of poetry, she lives in the Appalachian foothills.

Illustration by Bobby Finger, source image via Sarah Hina/Flickr

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