Anyone who has gone through the fourth grade in California knows about the famous “Gold Rush” and the ensuing population boom that followed as hoards of men traveled to the Golden State in search of their fortune. Sadly, few men made their fortunes in the Sierra
Nevada region of northern California. Many found themselves penniless, hundreds of miles from home, and stranded in a region of the country too undeveloped to provide adequate jobs for its new, larger populace.
Worse still (and not often discussed in the grade school textbooks), the need for toxic materials like mercury for the gold mining process, massive depression, loneliness, exposure to the elements, and other factors led to an unprecedented increase in mental illness during in the final decades of the nineteenth century.
With the local communities now threatened by a rising population of criminally insane, often-violent men, a small group of medical professionals capitalized on an opportunity to seize federal funding earmarked for the study and treatment of psychiatric disorders.
In 1889, construction on the Healing Minds Institute for the Criminally Insane was finished in a remote area of Nevada County (now Penn Valley). After the first year, those who knew about the facility hailed it as a major success, and would continue their praise until 1901, when tragedy struck.
On July 15, 1901, sparked by the fallen oil lamp of a Wells Fargo Stagecoach driver making his way from French Corral to San Francisco, a massive fire spread through the area, cutting a path directly to the Healing Minds Institute. Unprepared and unequipped with appropriate fire fighting equipment, the patients and staff were quickly overrun and encircled by flame. On that day, three doctors, eight nurses, ten orderlies, and one hundred fifty patients burned to death. There were no survivors, and the remains of Dr. Dorian Schroeder were never found.
But, the fire was only the beginning of the horror. Weeks later, when the remains of the victims were being gathered for proper burial, dark and brutal secrets were uncovered, and a scandal ensued that would encourage a number of wealthy benefactors of the institute along with supporting politicians, to bury the secrets with the bodies.