In 1986, the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, more recently known in less alarming terms as the Austin State Hospital, transferred nearly 200 preserved human brains to the University of Texas, where they were to be used to advance the study and treatment of mental illness. By early December 2014, more than half of the brains originally transferred to the university — allegedly including the brain of mass murderer Charles Whitman — had disappeared without a trace.
A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste
According to The Statesman, Psychology professor (and specimen curator) Tim Schallert had concluded that “…somebody may have taken the brains, but we don’t know at all for sure. I never found out exactly what happened—whether they were just given away, sold or whatever—but they just disappeared.” Not long after reports that the brains were missing became widespread, the university issued a statement declaring that the mystery had been solved: the missing brains were destroyed in 2002. On purpose. By professionals. At least one source specified that…
A preliminary university investigation found that [University] environmental health and safety officials disposed of multiple brain specimens in 2002 in accordance with protocols concerning biological waste. … The brains were in poor condition when the university received them in the 1980s and were not suitable for research or teaching, the university said in a statement. Workers disposed of between 40 and 60 jars, some of which contained multiple human brains….
Author Alex Hannaford discovered the brains had gone missing while researching a book, Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital, and has repeatedly questioned whether 100 brains could possibly fit into the 40 to 60 jars UT says it destroyed. “It leaves the question,” Hannaford asked, “are there some that are unaccounted for?”
It’s worth noting that the hospital — in use as a treatment facility for the mentally ill and criminally insane since 1861 — is widely reputed to be haunted by the spirits of former inmates. The whole grounds are allegedly crawling with spirits of the restless dead, made all the more restless because of the lack of peace their bodily remains have been given. Even leaving aside the pickled brains that the hospital donated to the University in 1986, the asylum’s cemetery, an unhallowed place filled with unmarked graves and at least one entire section dedicated to interring body parts separated from their owners during academic vivisection, has been moved at least once — most recently in 1998. More than 3,000 inmates are buried on the grounds, most with no record of who was buried where or when.
Although Charles Whitman himself is not buried on the grounds (at least not completely) the former Marine was autopsied there after local police officers ended his deadly shooting spree from the 28th floor of the University of Texas’ main building. They kept his brain for further study, ultimately identifying a mysterious and apparently suddenly-appearing tumor as the potential cause of Whitman’s psychotic break. It’s possible that some of Whitman’s other remains are still on the grounds as well. Perhaps the brains, including Whitman’s, were destroyed to end the haunting of a restless murdering spirit? Sounds like a good hook for Dread, or perhaps Fear Itself.
Leaving aside the possibility that the whole thing is the result of some kind of haunting, Whitman’s preserved brain matter could easily serve as the central maguffin in an occult heist, with your PCs as the investigators attempting to rid the world of a persistent possessing demon using Whitman’s mind as an anchor to the material plane. Or maybe Whitman’s tumor wasn’t a tumor at all, but a rare parasite puppeteering the confused man for its own inscrutable reasons. As the parasites spread and take control of others, finding the original may be the only way to develop a way to resist what amounts to an alien invasion.
A History of Mystic Ritual
Even if Whitman is not central to the missing grey matter in your game, the hospital should hardly want for murderers. Dr. W.W. Reeves, then the superintendent of the asylum, was murdered by a supposedly cured former inmate on 1 January 1892: one Henry Purnell, the son of a well-regarded U.S. Marshall who developed an apparently serious recurring mental illness after a “fever” overtook him as a youth. This in itself is not that strange, except that W.W. Reeves’ body was not immediately returned to his family:
The remains of Dr. Reeves was accompanied from the asylum to the depot Tuesday night by the Knight Templars and Mystic Shriners and left in charge of the masonic delegation….
Is the whole thing some kind of decades-long freemasonic ritual? A magical act unfolding over more than a century? We’re certainly not ones to let the freemasons off lightly. At least not when they have so much conspiratorial story potential.
And that’s all assuming the brains were really destroyed.
Where Are They Now?
For the simple sake of good plotting, let’s assume that the brains were not destroyed, and that they have, indeed, gone missing. You’ve got the makings of a pretty elaborate local conspiracy as the town fathers — freemasons all — steal the brains themselves to to complete a ritual that their forefathers began on the psychically significant birth of a new year.
Or maybe it’s all about the ghosts: the unquiet, mad spirits of the insane slowly penetrate the thoughts of those forced to work around them, driving them ever closer to madness. Perhaps they seek to force some innocent graduate student to kill on their behalf, or maybe they have some other less explicable purpose. They are, after all, crazy.
You can also go full Lovecraft on this thing: your call on whether this is some plot of alien Mi-Go (who are known to keep brains in jars so that they can properly withstand the journey to distant Yuggoth), or Herbert West: Reanimator.
Or maybe you took them. Admit it! I won’t tell.
Image Credit: Flickr
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