There’s something truly chilling about abandoned psychiatric hospitals. In the past, when these hospitals were mostly referred to as “lunatic asylums,” they were a place of much despair and trauma. When a patient was sectioned, it was very unlikely that they would come out alive. In fact, most had their own cemeteries on sight. They were often rife with abuse – physical, mental, and sexual – and the fear felt from the patients can still be sensed inside these derelict buildings today, long after the patients have left and long after they have perished. Thankfully, times have moved forward and we have said goodbye to archaic so-called treatments such as the lobotomy. However, despite advancement in mental health care, we have not eliminated the stigma associated with mental health.
Now let’s take a look at a couple of abandoned psychiatric hospitals in America and the horrors took place within their walls.
The Overbrook Asylum
In 1896, Essex County Asylum for the Insane was built on 325 acres of land in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. The asylum was more commonly referred to as Overbrook. From the onset, the asylum was at full capacity, often housing thousands of patients at once. Additionally, the asylum was severely understaffed.
On the grounds of the asylum stood a train station as well as a power house and a boiler. The patients at the asylum were mostly fed by food that was grown in the fields on the grounds. In fact, they even ran their own dairy farm. A bakery and firehouse were also built within the complex of Overbrook.
It was said that it was a town within a town, but with an ever growing patient list combined with minimal staff and developing drugs, it was set up to fail, and fail it certainly did. 1
While the asylum tried to portray itself as progressive and revolutionary, this couldn’t have been further from the truth.
As early as August 1910, the Trenton Evening Times ran an article in which they reported that the Essex Country Grand Jury found that the asylum was being “mismanaged” and that “gross immorality existed in the institution, that nurses and patients had been abused, and that the freeholders had neglected to investigate complaints – in fact, they have attempted to cover up the crimes that have been committed.” 2
Disaster struck in 1917 when the asylum’s only boiler malfunctioned and, according to New York Times, 24 patients froze to death in their beds while they slept while another 32 suffered from frostbite. 3
“Essex Nurse Held for the Death of Two Women” read the headlines in the Jersey Journal on 26 October, 1923. Anna Rosenszweig was a nurse at Overbrook. She was being charged with manslaughter after force feeding two patients to death. The asylum reported that force feeding was relatively common and necessary. Their autopsy concluded that the patients had died partially from exhaustion from the struggle. 4
One of the more notable patients was Harrison W. Noel. On the 28th of June, 1925, 18-year-old Noel, escaped from Overbrook. At the time, it was reported in the Evening Star that fourteen other patients had recently escaped from the asylum and still hadn’t been tracked down. The son of a wealthy New York lawyer and former Harvard student, Noel had been confined at the request of his parents. According to a 1925 article in the State, Noel had attacked his father with an axe. A week after his escape, he was captured and returned to the custody of his father despite the fact that he was suffering from a “dangerous form of dementia praecox” (now known as schizophrenia). This decision would prove to be deadly.
In September of the same year, Noel shot and killed cab driver, Raymond Pearce. The following day, using Pearce’s stolen car, he abducted 6-year-old Mary Daly from the front of her home in Montclair. He then called the young girl’s mother, offering her safe return for $4,000. Instead of waiting for the ransom, Noel decided he would kill Mary instead. He pulled in at the side of the road on Preakness Mountain, Little Falls, New Jersey, alongside some bushes. He ordered Mary out of the car and shot her in the head and neck before hiding her lifeless body in the bushes. He readily confessed and was committed to the Greystone Park Psychiatric Center. 5
“I know that my son is demented and I thank God that he has confessed,” his father said. Dr. John M. Thompson, senior resident physician at Overbrook, was discharged after the Essex county board of free holders held him responsible for Noel’s escape.
As time progressed and mental health issues became better understood, grim methods such as lobotomies, electroshock therapy and insulin treatments became out-dated. This was a blow to the already failing asylum, which used these methods in abundance.
The asylum eventually closed for good in 2007. Over 10,000 patients died within the confines of the walls.
It isn’t much surprise that many say Overbrook is haunted – several visitors have claimed to witness a nurse wearing a 19th century nurses uniform, walking around the asylum conducting checks. 6
The Fernald State School
Built in 1888, the Fernald State School in Waltham, Massachusetts, was originally named the Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children but was later renamed after the third owner, Walter E. Fernald. 7
Fernald was a stanch advocate for eugenics, a misapplication of Darwinian principles and genetics, and was on the board of the Eugenics Society. He genuinely and strongly believed that the best way to improve society was to isolate those who he considered unwanted or inferior, mainly due to physical or mental disability. As a matter of fact, he advocated for the forced sterilisation of people with developmental disabilities. 8
Thankfully, the field of eugenics was discredited following World War II and the Nazis’ grim application of eugenic ideas. The Boston Globe would later estimate that at least half of Fernald’s patients were physically fit but just deemed unwanted or a burden to their family.
Many of the children sectioned at Fernald came from impoverished families who just couldn’t afford to look after their children. At its height, some 2,500 people, mostly children, were confined within its walls.
“We thought for a long time that we belonged there, that we were not part of the species. We thought we were some kind of, you know, people that wasn’t supposed to be born,” said Fred Boyce to CBS News. As a young boy, he was locked up inside Fernald when his foster mother died despite the fact he had an average IQ. He remained there the next 11 years. These kids who suffered from no sort of illness or ailment were known as “state boys” and their forced labour helped run the facility; this was a financial incentive to keep those deemed fit locked up.
In an 1852 report on the school published in the Granite State Farmer, “general characteristics or classes of idiots” were described as:
“Idiots are apt to be irregular and filthy in their habits, and lacking in a sense of decency. Many are apt to be gluttonous and omnivorous, not caring to eat things savoury, not thinking to gratify the palate, but only to gorge themselves to fullness. Some of them are lazy, sluggish, and inattentive; they dislike motion; they dislike even sensation and thought; they desire only to be left alone – to vegetate and grow like the sloth. On the other hand, some are restless, noisy, mischievous, and destructive.” 9
The institution was often cramped due to taking on many more patients than they were able to cope with. Almost immediately, it was rife with abuse at the hands of the staff – sexual, mental, and physical.
Joe Almeida was abandoned at Fernald when he was 8-years-old. His abusive father drove him to Fernald and told him to wait in the hallway while he went to the car to pick something up. His father never returned. He relayed to CBS News that he dreaded “Red Cherry Day” where all children would sit in a circle and one by one, they would have to stand in front of everybody and get their bare buttocks smacked with a branch “until it was red like a cherry.”
Furthermore, it would later be uncovered that the institution was involved in human experimentation including sterilisation and radiation experiments on living and unwilling subjects.
Between 1946 and 1956, the institution exposed young male children to radioactive isotopes to document the effects. The young boys involved in the radioactive experiments had signed up to join a “science club” but what this club entailed was never detailed to them. They genuinely believed they were joining an innocent club, not being used as human guinea pigs. Without getting consent from the patients or their guardians, radioactive isotopes were served up in milk and oatmeal to see if a chemical in oatmeal would interfere with the body’s ability to absorb iron and calcium. 10
These experiments were conducted by Harvard University and MIT researchers and were sponsored by the Quaker Oats Company. School documents regarding these experiments were uncovered in 1994 by the United States Department of Energy.
It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that a class action suit was filed to upgrade the conditions. Guardians and advocates for the disabled alike sued the Commonwealth in federal court leading the judge to order state funding and better treatment of the disabled.
In 2014, Fernald finally shut down for good but not before ruining the lives of hoards of children who were mistreated between the walls. They were isolated. They were berated. They were abused. And ultimately, they were exploited. Most, understandably, were never able to overcome the trauma they experienced at Fernald and never could adapt to the outside world once finally released. Fernald still stands among 186 acres of property off Trapelo Road in Waltham, Massachusetts, and there’s talk of it potentially being used as a high school or police station. Currently, it still remains unused and empty.
Topeka State Hospital
The Topeka Insane Asylum, as it was originally called, opened its doors in 1879 in Topeka, Kansas. It was built to accommodate patients from the already overflowing Osawatomie State Hospital. The Legislature officially changed its name to the Topeka State Hospital in 1901.
The purpose of the Topeka State Hospital was to treat the mentally ill but it became infamous for its inhumane practices and abuse as opposed to anything positive that came from it.
America has had a long history of criminalising mental illness and until 1919, the only way to be admitted to the hospital was by a court order, meaning that all of the patients before 1919 were deemed criminally insane. The superintendent, Dr. Barnard D. Eastman, didn’t approve of demeaning insanity trials, saying “the insane are sick, not criminal.”
The horror stories from Topeka State Hospital involve abuse, neglect, and rape and emerge from the early 20th century onward. These stories are so grim that they tarnished any form of success stories that came from Topeka State Hospital. One of the earliest reports from the hospital came from a newspaper reporter who relayed the atrocities he had witnessed while visiting the hospital. He wrote of a patient who had been confined in leather straps so long that her skin had started to grow around the straps. 11 The disturbing reports didn’t stop there, either. They steadily continued and were in abundance.
“I had to make a choice between being buried alive and confinement in the Topeka Insane Asylum, I would gladly be buried alive,” said Mrs W.P. Cowhick. Cowhick had been sent to Topeka in 1889 after being deemed insane. It was later discovered that she had been suffering from an abscess on the brain and she was released.
For three days straight, Cowhick was strapped to a bed in a locked room. On the third day she was sent to another locked room with three other patients, all wearing torn and tattered dirty clothing. Most patients were semi-naked or naked, she recalled. Cowhick was grabbed by the hair by one of the nurses, Mrs. Starr, who then smashed her head into one of the iron beds. The reason was because Cowhick, who was partially paralysed, couldn’t move fast enough.
On another occasion, when she couldn’t get out of the tub quickly enough, the same nurse poured boiling hot water over her. Following her release, she put in a complaint about the treatment of the patients at Topeka. 12
At around the same time, Dr. Wetmore, the superintendent of Topeka, handed in his resignation to Gov. Leedy. He described the horrors which had been taking place between the walls of Topeka. He reported that the workers of Topeka were often drunk and inflicted a barrage of abuse on the patients – physical, mental, and sexual.
“When I assumed the duties of superintendent of the Topeka Asylum, I did so with the full determination to use my utmost endeavours to protect the unfortunate inmates of the Institution from every wrong that might be practiced upon them by those in whose charge they were placed and to give them such care and attention in their most unfortunate conditions as would meet with the approbation of their solicitous friends and relatives at home,” the letter read in part.
Wetmore also revealed that assistant superintendents, Dr. T. W. Scott and Dr. D. H. Smith, had been sexually abusing the female patients and that several patients had died due to neglect. “Dr. Smith has often said that it was better to let the patients die than to prolong their lives since they are an expense of the state,” he recalled.
Just the following month, the conditions at Topeka were under fire once again. Fred Zimmerman, an ex-patient at Topeka, came forward to report that he witnessed a brutal murder of a patient, perpetrated by the employees assigned to take care of them. He said that he had seen James Funston, another patient, beaten to death in his room by one of the Topeka employees. He described the scene as a “slaughter house.”
Harry C. Hall, a former employee at Topeka, corroborated these claims and went into more graphic detail. He detailed how Funston was bludgeoned to death with a rubber hose that had been filled with lead. Hall also detailed how he had witnessed a severe assault on Jacob Waggouer, a one-armed soldier, who was covered head to toe with bruises and lacerations, caused by employees. 13
Despite alarming testimony from numerous witnesses into the abuse of patients at Topeka, life in the hospital carried on as usual. Employees passed their days in a drunken haze, abusing whoever they pleased, while the patients lived in fear. It wouldn’t be until the 1940s that action would finally be taken.
As abuse and neglect was still rife within psychiatric hospitals state-wide, the first sterilisation law in Kansas was passed and it specifically targeted the vulnerable. Involuntary sterilisation was directed at “habitual criminals, idiots, epileptics, imbeciles and the insane.” Between 1913 and 1920, 54 involuntary sterilisations took place in Topeka State Hospital.
In 1948, an inspection into Topeka State Hospital came back with horrifying results. The inspector found that over 1,800 patients were being treated by three doctors, one nurse, and 116 unschooled attendants. He described an air of “utter hopelessness” among patients and staff. In fact, he even concluded that most patients would probably be better off dead. 14
Following this distressing report, the state agreed to spend $1,000,000 a year for training psychiatric personnel, with Topeka State Hospital becoming the training centre. By 1956, conditions had improved tremendously. In fact, Kansas had the highest per-patient-day allowance in all of the United States. 15
Topeka now had social workers, physicians and dentists. Patients were taught how to survive on the outside world and how to use modern-day appliances that were non-existent when they were first sectioned. Now, there was a very high chance that the patients in Topeka would be able to leave and return home with their families. Beforehand, the majority of patients at Topeka would languish until perishing.
There’s no denying that Topeka certainly underwent a revolution but it could never shake the gruesome reputation it once had and deservingly so.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck once again in 1991, when the high-security unit of Topeka closed due to lack of funding. Most of the 31 patients from this defunct unit were mixed with the general hospital population while those deemed violent were sent to other psychiatric hospitals that were equipped to keep them isolated. However, a couple of violent patients slipped through the cracks and were placed in the general hospital population of Topeka State Hospital.
The nurses in the hospital complained about the increasing violence within the hospital and called for an investigation but that investigation didn’t come quickly enough. One of these violent patients was 25-year-old Kenneth D. Waddell, a schizophrenic patient who had been in state care since 7-years-old. He landed in Topeka State Hospital after stabbing an Emporia State University Student in 1985. In April of 1992, Waddell strangled Topeka State Hospital therapist, Stephanie A. Uhlrig, and discarded her lifeless body in the bathroom of the hospital. 16
For thousands of patients, the hospital became their final resting place. Occupying a 2.8-acre plot was the Topeka State Hospital cemetery. Over the course of its operation, over 1,150 patients were buried in the cemetery. However, only 16 have headstones, the rest are unmarked. The patients at Topeka State Hospital built the coffins and sewed the burial shrouds.
While conditions in Topeka certainly improved over the years, the hospital had been marred by the horrors that had taken place between the walls in the past. In 1995, the state Legislature decided to close the hospital in an effort to care for the patients in community settings. 17
Times were changing. Mental health was becoming better understood and modern medication and treatments reduced the need for hospitals such as Topeka. It has since been partially demolished.
- Trenton Evening Times – 2 August, 1910 – “The Essex Asylum Scandal”
- Jersey Journal – 15 May, 1931
- Jersey Journal – 26 October, 1923
- Evening Star – 7 September, 1925 – “Killer of Girl, 6, Boasts of Crime”
- Boston Herald – 23 April, 1925 – “State House News in Brief”
- Granite State Farmer – 21 April, 1852 – “Third and Final Report”
- Augusta Chronicle – 14 January, 1994
- The Topeka Capital-Journal – 17 January, 2000 – “Topeka State Leaves Mixed Legavy”
- Kansas Semi-Weekly Capital – 1 November, 1898 – “A Horror Chamber”
- Topeka Weekly Capital – 28 October, 1898 – “Brutal Murder of “Hooky Jim”
- Sacramento Bee – 9 December, 1959 – “Kansas State Hospitals Reflect Progress”
- Arkansas Gazette – 25 November, 1956 – “On their Way Out”
- Arkansas Democrat – 1 March, 1992 – “Cuts at Hospital Freed Strangling Suspect”
- The Wichita Eagle – 12 September, 1996 – “State Hospital Residents Find new Homes”