The Clock at Saint Claude's

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spectralsprite 08/12/09 (Tue) 03:01:22 #76385640


The children of Saint Claude's.

Despite popular belief, the building is still occupied. I've come to be on a first name basis with a couple of the men who guard the property, so I won't make their jobs more difficult by giving out the actual name of the place. Still, those of you who are from the area will know the building I’m talking about, and anyone else dedicated enough can probably find it with some clever googling.

Suffice it to say that somewhere in the United States there was a peculiar orphanage. Let's call it "Saint Claude's Orphan Asylum." Before it was an orphanage it was a boarding house, and before then it was a would-be dormitory. Throughout the years it came to form the foundation of our town’s folklore, and today it is the wellspring from which an entire local mythology flows.

Most of it is bullshit, of course. After all, it's a spooky old orphanage——the place probably would've attracted stories even if nothing bad ever actually happened there. The fact that bad things did happen there is just the icing on the cake. It's the perfect source for campfire fodder—and I can attest to that: my first exposure to the tales of Saint Claude's was at a sleepover in third grade, told in hushed tones amidst blankets and flashlights.

In recent years I began to wonder how much of this lore was fact and how much was fiction. Obviously the stories involving ghosts and curses and whatnot would be difficult to verify, but what about the human horrors? I decided to do some research.

Right off the bat, I was shocked to find that several of the most lurid atrocities attributed to Saint Claude's weren't just matters of public record——they were practically mundane by virtue of how many similar cases you can find in the history of our country's orphanages. Based on everything I've read, I can say with no exaggeration that for most of the twentieth century, orphanages could murder children with no effort or consequence.

There were countless acts of cruelty committed on the grounds of Saint Claude's. Every case of abuse is a tragedy and I don't mean to diminish the significance of any injustice by excluding it—but exclude I must. For today's purposes, we won't linger on the beatings, humiliations, molestations, or alarming number of accidents involving stairwells and electrical sockets and pointed shafts of wood. You see, many orphanages have been places of cruelty, but today I'm going to tell you why Saint Claude's was fucking weird.

spectralsprite 08/12/09 (Tue) 03:01:20 #76385640

The first thing you need to understand is the building itself.

In its earliest life, it was intended to be a dormitory for a privately funded college, but the private funder went broke and plans for the college came to an abrupt halt. Still, the dormitory was mostly finished, and a couple of enterprising businessmen finished it up to use as a boarding house. One key feature remained incomplete, though: the clock on the facade. The face was set up and ready to go, numerals embossed and polished, but no hands had ever been installed.

The issue seems to stem from a miscommunication between the clock-maker and the architect. Normally there's a shaft which connects the hands on the face outside to the clockwork mechanisms inside the building, but the shaft piece delivered to the site was too short to bridge the gap and too wide to fit through the opening in the wall.

The clock-maker and the architect blamed each other for the mistake and demanded further payment to fix it, so naturally, nothing else was done about it until the Catholic Church paid to have the clock face covered by brickwork when they bought the property two decades later. As for the clock's internal mechanisms? Never removed.

The second thing you need to understand is the children.

Despite what some may assume from the name, Saint Claude's Orphan Asylum did not house mentally ill children. What’s more, the children weren't even orphans in most cases, just kids who got extracted from troubled families by the church or government after their parents were deemed lacking in morals or money.

Children up to the age of thirteen were accepted at Saint Claude's, though they sometimes stayed through early adulthood if they could find nowhere else to go. Adoptions were rare, and when they did happen, each new pair of grinning adoptive parents was often said to look disturbingly similar to the last. The sisters taught the children employable skills they could use in the future—and only in the future, as actual employment was not permitted while under the Sisters' care. Whenever an enterprising scamp would sneak off to work odd jobs in town, their wages were confiscated without fail. The Sisters always knew, and the Sisters always punished.

Of course, punishments didn't always require an actual offense. The children of Saint Claude's had a reputation, you see. Many came from other orphanages that were 'ill-equipped’ to deal with such ‘troubled’ youths. The Sisters attributed the children's issues to spiritual matters: generational sin, usually, though satanic influence wasn't out of the question.

One former inmate of St. Claude's recalled an incident where a 5-year-old girl was accused of black magic. A nun claimed to have seen the girl levitating, and when the girl embarrassed her by failing to reproduce the effect for the other Sisters, she took the child in her arms and threw her out a second story window. The girl reportedly screamed "Catch me! Catch me!" as she fell. By the time the witness made it outside, the little girl was nowhere to be found, and she was never seen again. The Sisters simply said she had gone home to be with her parents.

Fear was a constant companion for the children of Saint Claude's. All punishments and reprisals were the stuff of nightmares, but the one that brought me to write this today is the winding of the clock.

The foyer of Saint Claude's takes up both stories. It has a curved staircase and a small balcony on the second floor to give the impression of grandeur. Unfortunately, the clock was built on the central gable directly above the front entrance, which means that there's no way to access it directly from the floor below. Instead, one must traverse a narrow attic that protrudes along the center of the building from front to back like a spine. The only entrance to the attic is, of course, at the other end of the building.

Almost every single day, a child would be forced to climb up into the attic, travel the full length of the building, and wind a "clock" that had no hands, no face, and no bells.

On the days they didn’t send a child into the attic, there would still be one up there from the day before.

spectralsprite 08/12/09 (Tue) 03:01:20 #76385640

Urban exploration of an abandoned space is, in most cases, considered a form of trespassing. On the other hand, trespassing in an occupied space is hardly ever considered urban exploration, and that always struck me as a double standard. Don't get me wrong——there was no forced entry involved. I'm not a thug. All I had to do was become buddies with one of the guards. After we got to know each other, I explained the history of the place and assured him I only wanted to look around, and he gave me an hour. I walked through the front door.

Saint Claude's is a clergy house nowadays. The only folks who live there are a few old white men who go to bed before 10 PM. The floors are creaky, but the rooms are close enough together that they'd just blame each other for the noise, so getting to the attic was a piece of cake. Getting through it was the hard part. There was crap everywhere: walls of furniture, mountains of bibles, boxes of Christmas decorations, all of it ancient, ruined by water damage and infested with rot. The ceiling was lower than expected; just a little under five feet of clearance. Explained why they only sent kids to do it. Walking more than two dozen yards while hunched over would be bad enough on its own, let alone when you have to constantly stop and crawl over a moldy loveseat or a spider-infested pile of tinsel.

The far end of the attic drops down a couple of steps leading up to the gable, which allowed me to stand up straight again. The clock mechanism itself isn't terribly large, or at least not to an adult. About four feet tall; roughly the size of a chest of drawers. A skeletal frame wraps around the base like the edges of a box, leaving every tooth on every cog fully exposed. To wind it, one must affix a detachable crank to the top of the device and give it a couple dozen turns. Now, if you're about five feet tall, this is no problem. Unfortunately, most of the kids at Saint Claude's were under ten years old.

If you’re having trouble picturing the issue here, let me walk you through it:

You're eight years old. The nuns threaten to send you to bed without supper (or worse) if you don't wind this damned clock. You clamber up into the pitch dark attic with only a box of matches. Maybe an oil lamp if you're lucky. You're too short to reach the crank, so what do you? You climb up on the frame and kneel over it. The crank is stiff and heavy, you can't see shit, and you're shaking like a leaf because you're fucking terrified.

The crank hits a hitch. You lean on it with all your weight. It suddenly gives all at once, catching you by surprise. Your foot slips. Your leg slides between the gears. The heavy clockwork snaps your body in three different places as it pulls you in.

More than a dozen children are said to have died this way. No bodies were ever found, but there were remains. One survivor told me that she was put on clock duty a few days after a little blonde girl had vanished, and sure enough, she found a knot of wispy golden hair snared around a sprocket. She took it for evidence and hid it in her pillow, but a Sister discovered it two years later.

Having seen the clock myself, I can't quite tell you whether I think it's as deadly as the stories say. The machine and the area around it are clean; no blood or hair or even rust to be found. The teeth on some of the gears look quite sharp, and there are certainly a lot of pinch points, but it doesn't strike me as a meat grinder for children. I guess my verdict is that any child who fell inside probably wouldn't be reduced to a pulp, necessarily. But they would definitely come out broken.

At any rate, while I was inspecting the machine firsthand, I made a discovery. Three of them, actually.

The first is that there's a ladder right behind the clock mechanism. It’s wedged in tight, so it’s not like someone stored it there carelessly. It's clean, too.

The second is that there's a conspicuous rectangular seam in the wood beneath the machine. Just big enough to fit a small adult through.

The third discovery, and the reason why I'm sharing this with you all today, is that it's still ticking. Someone is still winding the clock.


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