Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The ghosts of yesteryear

Sarah Howard
Boise, Idaho, United States


The Original Mercy Hospital Building in 20141

Some old buildings are drenched in mystery, regardless of their intended purpose or how many times they have been remodeled. I have often considered that the grand, century-old, empty building down the street was no exception, and furthermore, I stick to the opinion that I have been proven right.

Originally a hospital begun by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy in 1919, the structure was a huge, four-story, brick building that took up nearly half a block with many dozens of windows running in rows down each of the long sides. This once-auspicious building was the original Mercy Medical Center. My dad worked at the new Mercy Medical Center for many years as a hematologist, and since I had always found the human body and the medical field fascinating, Dad would sometimes let me tag along to work. On these exciting days my mom would wake me before the sun was up, and I would spring out of bed, dressing quickly and shoving some hurried breakfast in my mouth so I could go to the hospital with Dad. All morning I would watch him sort the tubes of blood, take samples from patients, and observe tiny findings beneath the fascinating, multi-layered microscope. Of course, by noon my eyes were drooping so he would take me home again at lunch. But always I loved to go, and it was these trips to the new Mercy Hospital that sparked interest in the old building, complete with all its dusty history and abandoned ghosts.

The new hospital was built in 1967 and the old building left to other purposes, the last of which was a retirement center called Valley Plaza. By the time Valley Plaza closed in 2004, I had been driving past it for fifteen years. As it sat empty for the next ten years it became increasingly dilapidated – the grounds overgrown, the bright sign faded by wind and weather, and the once-busy windows stale and vacant. That place, I thought, was still filled with mystery and history.

Familiarity with a certain ancient building, such as the old Mercy Hospital, can breed a strange and gleeful sense of haunting, like the delightful chill that comes from telling ghost stories around a campfire with a group of friends. My imagination flourished while I was growing up because in addition to learning about blood and medicine from my father, I also learned to love literature. Every New Year’s Eve  my dad would recite from memory the mystical short story “The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” to my siblings and me. Our family was always in the middle of some classic book; in the late evenings, after dinner, all four of us kids would trundle to the living room where Dad would read to us from the pages of Tolkien or Lang or Lewis or Alcott. It was considered education, but we also really did enjoy it. There was no shortage of imagination around our house, so when the sudden opportunity arose for us kids to enter the darkened, dusty fortress of the original hospital, of course we had to do it.

We slipped in through a basement window and instantly found ourselves in the dark antechamber behind the long, heavily-shelved kitchen. There was a small room directly to our right, segregated from all the others, which appeared to be the boiler room, but curiously, it also looked like a crude, hastily-set-up bedchamber, soundproof and lit by a single swinging light bulb. When shut, the room was sealed from the rest of the building with a massive steel sliding door. The small room contained only an old, assembled metal bed frame, a chamberpot, and the tall boiler that must have heated the water for the building. With a chill I thought that surely this room was not meant to house people. I shivered as I recalled that this large residence had been both a hospital and a home for the elderly, either of which could have housed a  patient who may have been subjected to seclusion.

The floor below our feet was covered with the chalky dust of aging plaster so that we could see our footprints. “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints,” we reminded ourselves as we walked slowly through the long kitchen and up the narrow stairs into the winding hallways, shining the dim beams of our flashlights down the rows of dark doors lining both sides of the hall. I had to concede that it did look creepy.

Peering cautiously into the rooms I was amazed to find piles, more like mounds, of personal belongings, property of the residents of Valley Plaza Retirement–books, photographs, furniture, stuffed animals, folded blankets, a Christmas tree still entirely decorated, boxes and garbage bags full of personal items… Everything had been left when Valley Plaza had shut down, thrown in unsorted heaps and closed up in this forgotten building. I bent down and picked up a soiled picture from the floor. It showed an elderly woman and several teenagers, probably grandchildren. These were people’s lives, I thought, brushing some of the dust from the faces on the photo. Clearly the picture had been cherished by this lady, probably put proudly on display for friends and visitors to see, and now it lay buried in a grave of memories. The forgotten days of yesteryear.

Dim sunlight did its best to seep feebly in through the lone, dirty window at the far end of the second story hall out of which I could see our car parked along the curb. The inside pane of glass was broken. It was a sad place, but also dark and secluded and one hundred years old, and I could not help but glance over my shoulder every now and then to make sure that nothing but darkness was following. The building itself seemed to watch us with silent, knowing eyes that had seen many lives born and many lives die.

Outside the building as we later piled into the car to leave, I paused, glanced back up at the broken window above, and snapped a photo of it. To be honest,  the only reason I stopped or took the picture was that I felt the slightest subtle suspicion that I was being watched, which of course was completely irrational.  Still, it was curious that there seemed to be stories about that old place, descriptions of happenings and goings on – simple stuff, but intriguing and somehow perceivable.  When I developed the photos I had taken of the building’s exterior, I was sure I could see, in the distant second story window, the figures of a bearded man in a suit, a woman in a white dress with what appeared to be a white nurse’s cap on her head, and a child, all leaning forward as if over a bed. I was shocked that the figures seemed consistent with photographs from the 1930s or ‘40s.  Even my usually skeptical father conceded that it did look very much like characters from the past were going about their business behind the grimy panes.  What was more, the neighbor woman had hurried across the street as we stood outside after our expedition, and asked us if we had been in the building.  She quickly went on to say that she herself had once explored the old dusty corridors, wandering up and down only to suddenly notice the small, bare footprints of a child shadowing her own through the dark hallways.

Stories have always been part of my life. History, poetry, medicine, myth… It seems fitting that the original Mercy Hospital should have met its end in the same manner as the grand, ancient halls of Charlotte’s Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Daphne DeMurier’s Rebecca–by fire. Just as the fictional houses of Thornfield and Manderley succumb to flame and murder and memory, so Old Mercy also buried itself in its own ruins, taking with it its secrets, joys, memories, and ghosts. No one ever knew who had started the fire.



  1. “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: Mercy Hospital,” Idaho State Historical Society, August 14, 2014, accessed January 9, 2018, https://history.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/Mercy_Hospital_14000504.pdf



SARAH HOWARD, BA, holds degrees in Musical Theater Performance and English. When she’s not performing on the stage, she enjoys spending time with her family and cats, and reading good literature with a hot cup of coffee.


Winter 2018  |  Sections  |  Personal Narratives

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