by Eden Smith
Illustration by Olivia Harter
Photos by Hayley Anderson
The air, like everything else in this place, feels heavy. With each breath I take, I can feel myself slowly and inexplicably losing energy, suddenly becoming exhausted. Still, I press on, following the guide into yet another room. This one has children’s toys, clothing, and other personal effects strewn about the floor, just like the one we saw before it. I find myself wondering if these objects were actually left there by the last person to inhabit this room in a desperate rush. Or if, more cynically, but also much more realistically, it was a staff member who scattered deflated rubber balls and porcelain dolls with chipped limbs on the floor of the outdated bedroom. Regardless of how these forlorn toys made their way here, they lend the room an immense sadness. Presumably, a child had lived here at some point. Judging by the toys and the clothing I see on the floor, it would have been a little girl. I think about her. About what could have possibly brought someone so young to a place like this. Was she born here, as many children of unwed mothers were? Or was she perhaps an orphan or an unwanted child, abandoned here by those meant to take care of her? I can picture her so clearly in my mind. Tears brimming from eyes far older than the child herself, a loneliness deeper than any she’d ever felt before radiating from her. She haunts me, this tragic little girl.
She’s not the only thing that does.
I’m touring Edinburgh Manor, a place widely regarded as one of the most haunted locations in the state of Iowa. Some would even go so far as to say it’s one of the most haunted places in the Midwest. Located in the tiny town of Scotch Grove, Iowa, the original structure known as Edinburgh Manor was built sometime in the 1850s. The county had originally intended for it to be a courthouse, but the building quickly became repurposed for use as a so-called “poor farm,” a place described as a home for those who willingly came to live on and farm the land in exchange for their room and board.
However, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. In reality, Edinburgh housed anyone deemed “undesirable” by society, including unwed mothers, the elderly, orphans, the mentally and physically disabled, and of course, anyone who could be considered “insane” by the standards of the time. The people who lived there received little in the way of treatment or care of any kind. Instead, those who were physically capable of working the farm were subjected to long days of grueling labor. Residents who weren’t able to work were often neglected by staff for long periods of time. For women at Edinburgh, rape and sexual abuse were common. Our tour guide tells us countless stories of female spirits who many believe have remained at the Manor -- ones who are known to scratch or attack men. Even a hundred years later, visitors are still fearful. Frozen in time, these women are never able to escape the pain they suffered in life, so they are forced to bear it in death forever.
After Edinburgh Manor was rebuilt in 1910, it continued to operate as a psychiatric ward, up until it was closed by the state in 2010. To see it now, the Manor is a place of extreme decay. Paint peels from the walls in large strips. Staircases creak under the weight of yet another tourist climbing them. The whole building feels as though it is rotting from the inside out. Perhaps this feeling is the result of Edinburgh’s age, but I suspect that a larger part of the cloud of depression and despair that instantly overpowers me when I step inside is the countless years of trauma Edinburgh Manor’s walls have seen. Regardless of whether or not you’re a believer in the supernatural, it’s difficult to deny that visitors to the Manor can feel the almost century-and-a-half’s pain and anguish that took place within the very building they’re exploring. A place can be haunted by ghosts, but it can also be haunted by trauma. The agony that stems from the systematic abuse of our society’s most vulnerable members is real and palpable. and When we give that agony over a century to stew, it is as capable as any otherworldly entity of haunting a place, forcing us to bear witness to the suffering that makes up its long, painful history.