Chapter 1: Catching a Sneak
My name is Andy Russell. I just graduated from State University with a degree in Psychology and will be going to graduate school there for the next few years on a research assistantship from a grant that my major professor has to study the development of psychiatric hospitals in the Midwest. As part of this grant, I spent the summer of 1955 working at the Elm Hill Psychiatric Hospital for Women in Osloville based on an agreement between my advisor and the hospital’s Director of Nursing, Miss Carol Mason. In the mornings I worked as a nurses’ aide in the Violent Ward and after lunch I worked for Miss Mason or conducted interviews for the research for the project. My first month at Elm Hill was quite dramatic and a little scary as Miss Mason had to unravel the mystery concerning the murder of Daniel Adams, a prominent judge, whose daughter Carrie was committed to the hospital when all the evidence seemed to point to her guilt. In the end, Miss Mason found the real murderer with the help of an informal team of “Black Angels” (named for the black rubber rainwear that several wore on the stormy night when Carrie was brought to the hospital). For almost two months after the murder was solved, things were tranquil at Elm Hill (or at least as tranquil as they could be in a mental hospital), as far as I could see.
On a Tuesday in early August, I took a bus into downtown Osloville to eat at a German restaurant and see Bad Day at Black Rock, a thriller set in the Southwest. I was slightly disappointed because I had finally worked up enough courage to ask out Rachel Weiss, a charge nurse on the Violent Ward with whom I’d shared some scary moments at the end of the murder investigation. Normally, a “black band” (as we called Registered Nurses or RNs for the black stripes on their caps) would be disdainful of lowly aides. She didn’t appear to be haughty, however; and I thought that our shared experience had brought us together. Initially, she had seemed a little interested but then demurred, saying that she didn’t want to get involved because I would be leaving for College City in a month. That allowed me to go in the middle of the week, though, rather than wait for the weekend when she would be off her 3-to-11 shift.
I got back to my room in the basement of the nurses’ dormitory, Brackman Hall, about 11 and was too keyed up to go to bed. Thus, I started to review the notes that I’d taken from several interviews that week. The highlight for memories, though not necessarily very intellectual ones, was a long disquisition by the switchboard operator Betty Hanson on the informal culture of Elm Hill. Suddenly, about 12:30, I thought I heard noises from out in the basement where nobody should have been. The atmosphere at a mental hospital, especially after the murder investigation, had made me more nervous and cautious than I normally would have been. Thus, I turned off my light, groped my way to the door, peered out, and saw the sweep of a flashlight coming up from the floor of the far side of the cellar. The flashlight rose as someone evidently climbed up stairs leading into the basement. I tiptoed to the light switch for the full basement and waited until the person was standing up before flicking them on. I saw the back of a bent-over blond woman holding a trapdoor with her right hand and a flashlight with her left. She froze, dropped the trapdoor and the flashlight, straightened up, put up both her hands, and asked in a frightened voice, “Are you the police?”
My heart leapt. She certainly was acting guiltily. I walked up behind her. She was wearing a nice maroon dress, a pretty purse on a shoulder strap, and, incongruously, a pair of workmen’s, not nurses’, black rubber knee boots, as well as a long plastic raincoat and a rain bonnet. I also noticed a pair of high heels at her feet, which she had presumably put down to close the trapdoor. I pulled her left arm down and grabbed it above the elbow with my right hand, just as we’d been trained to do when subduing an agitated patient. She didn’t resist, but when she saw my pajama arm, she quickly realized that it wasn’t a police uniform.
“Oh, my Lord. You’re Andy. What are you going to do with me?”
“I’ll let Miss Mason decide. Come on.”
I reached down for the flashlight and led her out of the basement and around to the front of the house. I had her ring the doorbell since she had the free hand. The door was opened by a freckled girl in a blue robe. Her initial good cheer turned to fear when she realized that I was on the porch as well.
“Hi, Nora. Lost your key again? Oh no! What have you two been doing? Andy, get away! If Miss Mason finds out you’ve been with one of our wild girls, there’ll be so much trouble!”
“It’s not what you think. Nora’s been doing something suspicious in the basement. Please get Miss Mason quickly.”
This may have frightened the poor nurse even more, as she turned and almost fled back into the house. Miss Mason, who was in her late 30s with wavy brown hair and a strong face, came within a minute. She was wearing a red robe and carrying her purse. She looked sternly at Nora, asked what she had been up to, and pulled her leather-padded handcuffs out of her purse
“I can’t tell you ma’am.”
“Well, let’s go and see. Peggy, go back to bed. You know what will happen if I hear of tittle and tattle.”
“Yes ma’am. I don’t want to be scrubbing out toilets on my hands and knees.” She retreated and shut off the hall light.
“Okay, Nora. You act like you’ve done something pretty bad. Give me your hands. I haven’t used these for almost three years, but unless you can explain yourself I’m going to treat you like an agitated patient.”
Nora just looked at her feet and made no resistance to her handcuffing. When we returned to the basement, we found that the trapdoor was normally concealed by a dirty tarp which was mostly covered with junk to discourage people from going near it. Miss Mason went through Nora’s purse. There was nothing out of the ordinary in it, except for a small ring with two keys on it, one of which fit the trapdoor. Miss Mason asked several times what Nora had been doing, where the stairs under the trapdoor went, and why she thought that the police were capturing her. The girl stood with slumped shoulders and a bowed head. Finally, she resignedly said, “I can’t tell you.” Miss Mason had me wait with our prisoner while she got dressed. She returned in about five minutes and took her away, telling her that she’d be confined to the Violent Ward for the night and turned over to the police in the morning if she weren’t more cooperative.
This excitement kept me up for another hour, so I had a fairly short night. When I checked into the Violent Ward in the basement of Elm Hill at 7 the next morning, Mrs. Greene, the charge nurse or shift supervisor, told me that I had a special patient in Room 5 whom I needed to care for. After removing the bedpans of Jenny Sachs and Valerie Waller, I went to wake her and get her ready for the day. I looked in through the observation porthole and saw that Nora was sitting on her bed, dressed in a hospital gown and reading a small piece of paper. I abruptly opened the door and she turned away, seemingly shoving the paper down the front of her gown. I ordered her to lie back on the bed, locked her into wrist and ankle restraints for safety, flipped up her gown, and saw the paper half shoved into the right breast of her bra. I removed it and read a message in printed block letters, “IF YOU SQUEAL, YOU’LL DROWN LIKE A RAT.” Again, she refused to say anything when I asked who had given it to her and what it meant. Since someone had obviously given her contraband, I got Michelle Rice, the other nurse on our shift besides Mrs. Greene; and we searched the room thoroughly but didn’t find anything. Then I left, while Miss Rice gave Nora a full strip search.
Chapter 2: Escape
I took the note to Miss Mason after breakfast, my first free moment. Since we had been exposed to the problem of fingerprints on evidence during the murder investigation, we both handled the note with gloves. She looked at it with some wonderment and said that it was time to call Laura Sanders, the policewoman who had worked on the Adams murder, to arrest and interrogate Nora. I returned to the Rubber Room (the nickname for the Violent Ward which nobody dared to utter in the presence of the Nurse Manager, June Rayburn) just in time for the 9:00 census, when we had to check and record the whereabouts of the patients specifically assigned to us. My other three patients were easy to find and check off, but Nora was another thing altogether. I looked for her in the dayroom and lounge, the hydrotherapy tubs, the dining area, her room, and all the corridors. By then I was getting very nervous and had Kathy Steele, another aide, check the bathrooms and showers which were empty. I also realized that I hadn’t seen Mrs. Greene anywhere!
With growing trepidation Kathy and I knocked on the door of the Nurse Manager’s suite. Miss Rayburn’s secretary, the kind-hearted Mary Peters, opened the door. She saw that something was wrong and immediately called Miss Rayburn, a stout women about 5’5” with curly gray hair. We told her that Nora was missing and that we couldn’t find Mrs. Greene.
Instead of blaming or questioning us, she became practical and decisive. “You’ll have to tell me how Nora ended up here later. Now, we have to find them. Jane could be seeing a patient in their room, but I can’t see how a patient, like Nora, could walk through a locked door. Kathy, go check all the patient rooms. If you find Mrs. Greene, bring her to me; if you find Nora where she shouldn’t be, don’t approach her, but have Robert put her in a strait jacket. Andy, come with me; and we’ll check the storerooms. Mary, call Miss Mason. Even if Nora got out of here, she’s probably still in the hospital.”
We went by the medications room which was locked and empty. Another storeroom filled with hospital supplies like a few spare beds, wheelchairs, enema bags, and bed linins was empty as well. This left one last storage area that I had never visited before. When Miss Rayburn opened the door and turned on the light, she gasped and ran forward. I followed her in. The room was much smaller than the adjacent storeroom, not much bigger than 10’ by 10’. At the back of the room, Miss Rayburn was kneeling over a figure. Its head was hooded by what looked like a white hospital gown, the torso was tightly bundled up in a strait jacket, and the feet were tethered around a support for the shelving by a leather leg strap. Miss Rayburn turned to me with strong emotion on her face.
“Poor Jane. She’s alright, thank heaven. Please, Andy. You have to leave. We can’t humiliate her even more. Have Mary call Miss Mason again and tell her to come to my office immediately. Then find Michelle and tell her to get all the patients into their rooms as quickly as possible. Tell them that Mrs. Green got sick suddenly and that we couldn’t find another charge nurse. We’ll serve them lunch there. Then come back to my office. I think Miss Mason will want you there.”
When I’d run both of these errands, I returned to the Nurse Manager’s office, and Mary seated me at the conference table in the outer room. A few minutes after that Miss Mason appeared with Laura the policewoman, who was a slim 5’7” with a long face surrounded by curly black hair. Laura squeezed my shoulder as she sat down next to me and whispered, “You seem to be getting pulled into police work again.” Mary then poured us coffee which we sipped in silence for about five minutes until Miss Rayburn brought in a shaken looking Mrs. Green who was dressed in a hospital gown. Mary then poured them coffee and brought a plate of apple Danish from Miss Rayburn’s office.
Miss Mason quickly explained why she had confined Nora to the Violent Ward, and Miss Rayburn then asked me to describe how I had treated her in the morning. She seemed horrified when I told the group about the note, immediately recognizing that someone who worked on either the night or morning shift must have entered her room and given it to her. Laura asked if anyone had any idea what Nora had been up to; and everybody shook their heads. Finally, Mrs. Green, a woman in her 40s with unruly black hair who looked much less composed than normal, got to tell her story.
“During breakfast, I stayed at the nurses’ station reading the nurse’s notes from yesterday’s evening and night shifts. Nora, who must have skipped breakfast, came up and asked for a sedative because she was so distraught that she hadn’t been able to sleep all night. She also asked to be diapered because she was very nervous and had never been sedated before. I got the diapering supplies from the nurses’ station; and then she went with me back to the medicine room. I didn’t think of it at the time, but as soon as we left the nurses’ station, we were isolated and alone. I went into the medicine room and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nora grab something from a shelf right by the door. Then, she grabbed my left arm from behind and put a scalpel against my throat.
I was so shocked and frightened that I capitulated immediately. She made me take her to the small storeroom. I doubt that she’s been on this ward, so I don’t know how she knew where it was or what we keep there. Once we were inside with the door closed and locked, she made me take a rubber gag off the high shelf. Then she forced me to kneel and gagged me very tightly. Next, she made me take off my uniform, slip, garter belt, stockings, and shoes. She used her hospital gown to hood me. After that I could hear her getting restraints from the shelves. First, she pulled off my panties and diapered me standing up. She works on Ward 2, so she must have a lot of experience with diapers. Second, she got me into the strait jacket. Finally, she helped me lie down on my back, put my feet around the bottom of the shelves, and buckled leg straps on me. There was a rustling of clothes for the next minute or so, as she presumably put on what she’d made me take off since we’re about the same size. Then she turned off the light; and I heard the door open and close. That was it until Miss Rayburn rescued me. It must have only been twenty or thirty minutes, but it felt like hours.”
Miss Rayburn quickly added, “Since that storeroom is next to the side entrance into the ward, she could have easily got out unseen with Mrs. Greene’s keys and been in a deserted part of the basement. Even after we alerted people to be on the lookout for a patient, someone in a nurse’s uniform probably could have moved around freely in the hospital or on the grounds.”
Miss Mason was a little more reassuring. “I talked with the guard at the main gate, Frank Ramos. He knows Nora; and he’s pretty sure that he hadn’t seen her this morning. There are a couple of small gates through the wall, but you need special keys for them. Jane, did you have either of those keys?”
“No ma’am. Or at least I’m pretty certain I didn’t. I have so many keys for the ward that there might be an odd one in the bunch, but I’ve never even thought of using one of those little gates.”
“June, what are you doing with the patients now?”
“I’ve had them confined to their rooms. We don’t have enough people to supervise them; and someone would probably have become upset if they had realized what was happening. We’ll return to normal when the next shift comes on.”
“That’s good thinking. I’ll have Gwen take Jane home and contact her husband.
“June, we’ve got a big problem with the staff, however. Someone on this shift or the preceding one must have given Nora that note; and somebody must have brought in the scalpel. I know you wouldn’t tolerate anything dangerous like that on your ward.”
Then Miss Mason turned her attention to the policewoman.
“Laura, what should we be doing? This brutal attack is surely criminal.”
“Yes ma’am. It’s aggravated assault; and I’m sure we could get other major charges as well, perhaps even kidnapping. We need to get Detective Perkins here to start a full-scale investigation of the attack and her escape. Let me call police headquarters to report it and get a search started.”
Mary had the switchboard connect us with police headquarters; Laura summarized the attack; and Miss Mason gave a surprisingly detailed description of the escapee.