The Jefferson Davis Hospital by Sameir Ibrahim

1101 Elder Street
Houston, TX 77007

April 2004–Built in 1924 on top of a confederate graveyard and abandoned in 1938, this Houston Hospital is known for being “one of the most haunted places in America (Houston Chronicle, 2002).” Designed by City Architect Wilkes Dowdy and built at a cost of $400,000, the hospital is an imposing four-story red brick structure in the Classical Revival style. It was the first city-owned hospital in Houston that accepted indigent patients. Houston Mayor Oscar Holcombe is said to have named the hospital after Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, to defuse the public outcry that erupted when it became widely known that the city was erecting its new hospital on Confederate graves. From time to time I have noticed spurts where I would hear a lot about particular locations.

Jefferson Davis Hospital has been in the news lately. I’ve spent a lot of time digging through articles to find out what I can. I was surprised to find that there are actually 2 Jefferson Davis Hospitals on the Harris County Hospital District’s list. The second was demolished some years ago, but the older of the 2 is still standing. This hospital was built in the area near White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou, which may have been an obscure English settlement in the 1600s. During some excavation work done in the area, approximately 60 “Black Earth Graves” were uncovered. About 60 of these earlier graves were excavated in a small portion of the Jeff Davis site. The common characteristics of these graves were the orientation of graves east to west (the head), and body was wrapped in a shroud and buried without a coffin. Because the graves were filled with fresh soil of high organic nature they are called ‘black earth graves.

These were used by the English from about the 1550s to bury plague victims. Ceramic pieces found in the black earth graves date from the 1600’s and they are a type of ceramics used by English colonists of that period. The black earth graves were mandated by a law of the City of London in 1563 (rescinded in 1685) for persons who died of disease. The nature of the burial was designed to accelerate decomposition and retard spread of disease. Further excavations found that the graves were aligned within an area bound by a moat ten feet wide and ten feet deep that is similar to a colonial pattern found in Charleston , South Carolina , and dating from the same period of English colonization. After Houston was founded in 1836, the land was deeded by one of the Allen Bros. companies to the city for the sum of $750.00.

In 1840, the first city cemetery was becoming too crowded. When the land was deeded in 1840, a 2nd public cemetery, called simply “City Cemetery” was designated. The cemetery was segregated, and some of the sections were designated for blacks, gunfighters/suicides/undesirables, Odd Fellows, Masons, and some lots for sale to the highest bidder. In 1867 Houston was hit by a plague of Yellow Fever, and many victims were buried in City Cemetery . The victims included Confederate soldiers, Union soldiers, and everyday people. In the late 1800s, the cemetery was so full that a third public cemetery was designated off of Allen Parkway . The third cemetery later ended up underneath Allen Parkway Village , a public housing project (I remember when that was re-discovered!). The City Cemetery received its last interment in 1904 and was de-certified soon afterward due to neglect. It is estimated that there are 5,000-6,000 people buried there, with 3,000 under the Elder St. location of Jefferson Davis Hospital . Houston ’s rapid growth soon rendered the hospital inadequate, and in 1938 a new Jefferson Davis Hospital (demolished in 1999) replaced it. At various times over the years, the Old Jefferson Davis, as it became known, housed a psychiatric hospital, a juvenile detention ward, and a food stamp distribution center. It also served as a records storage facility for the Harris County Hospital District. It has stood vacant for 20 years.

The Hospital, like I said earlier, has gone through several incarnations including a stint as a psychiatric hospital, and has lately stood abandoned for many years. It is on private property, and trespassing is not allowed, but people do it anyway. Even if the area isn’t haunted, the eeriness of its past is enough to send a shiver down your spine. There have been reports in the past of ghostly doctors and nurses still attending to long forgotten patients. A howling seems to pass through the structure, and screams have been heard on the wind. Strange shadowy figures have been spotted; quickly darting past, and countless orbs and other unusual phenomena have been captured on film. The Houston Chronicle reports that more than 100 separate entities may haunt the old hospital, making this, one of the most haunted in America .

Over the years, a number of groups wanted to buy the building. One wanted to convert it into high-priced loft apartments. Another thinks it should have become low-income housing. A third wanted to turn it into a museum. And a fourth would have like to raze it and have it replaced with an open field. These graves were dug from the 1840’s to the 1890’s and are the final resting places for Confederate soldiers, former slaves, and city officials. In front there are several low rock walls in squares that might mark grave plots, or were possibly once flowerbeds. In the end, the artist loft idea prevailed, and even got Federal funding to start the renovation. When completed, the building will provide 35 units of affordable living and working spaces for artists and their families. Although the building has seriously deteriorated, it is structurally sound, and the project will involve a minimum of excavation. Nevertheless, they expect to update basic utility services such as electricity, water, and sewer.

The day I visited the hospital, was probably one of the worst days of my life. It was a Friday night around 3 in the morning. A lot of my friends told me about it and we just left a nightclub so we decided to roam around the area. Our destination: Jefferson Davis Hospital , one of the most infamous hospitals in America . There have been reports of ghostly doctors, nurses and patients in the old building. I have received a first-hand report that some ghostly activity may have followed the descendent of a Confederate hero home from the site. An apparition of a man has been seen on the third floor and most people avoid going down to the basement.

This hospital looks much better from the freeway at 70 mph than it does up close and in person. While not exactly reliable sources, some of my friends who occasionally visit this place say they’ve seen unexplained shadowy figures in the front yard and in the hallways. Whether they’re seeing the spirits of the thousands buried here or just each other through a drug-induced haze is unclear. It is appropriate that the building is now home to various junkies and vagrants’, considering it was featured in the film Robocop 2 as the location where the fictitious drug “Nuke” was made.

I noticed the Jefferson Davis Hospital from the freeway heading down town one day. For many years the old hospital has been empty and neglected, even though it is a noteworthy historical landmark for Houston in its own right and the building sits on a parcel of land that resonates with the history of this dynamic city from its earliest times. Yet, the succession of governing bodies of this City have wished the Jefferson Davis Hospital and its controversies would simply go away. I think it needs to go back to what it was. People began life in those halls and for some it was the last stop. I’ve only been to the Jeff Davis once, and although I don’t believe in the supernatural really – I do think the building could be haunted. The first time I went, I was too scared to actually go inside. I stood outside the building, and it felt like 100 people were watching me.

After I came home, weird things happened in my apartment. For instance, glass items kept breaking on their own — right in half without anyone being near them! I’ve also taken photographs in and around the building, and strange faces and orbs have showed up in the photos. This building used to be filled with old, strange medical equipment — most of which has been carried off by now.

If you want a good scare, and a bit of history, you should go check it out (not that I’m advocating doing any illegal activity!) before it’s converted, demolished or whatever. I don’t know if it is haunted, but after seeing all the graffiti on the wall I would say Jefferson Davis is definitely a gathering place for people who have problems with basic writing skills. We can only wait until the City decides that it needs to further improve on the Fire Department facilities in the area. The opportunity to excavate the land during an archeological assessment of the property around the old Jeff Davis Hospital may provide clues to a history of the City that has patiently lain hidden for over 300 years.

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