Disturbing Histories: 5 Abandoned U.S. Mental Institutions With Grim Tales to Tell

abandoned-rolling-hills-asylum (Image: Melissa Daniels, (The Nymph & The Bee, Facebook) reproduced with permission)

There’s no denying it – abandoned mental institutions are just downright creepy. And there’s good reason for that, too. Most were places of horrific conditions and inhumane treatment, with there being little difference between the terms “patient” and “inmate”. For most, unmarked cemeteries on the grounds are the final resting places of these lost souls, as forgotten in death as they were in life, with only those who still visit these haunted halls to remember them.

Trenton State Hospital and Dr. Henry Cotton


trenton-state-hospital-abandoned-8 (Images: Katherine (Katherine Caprio Photography) reproduced with permission)

Curing and treating mental illness has always been something of a rather hit and miss operation – and sometimes, it’s very literally an operation. New Jersey’s Trenton State Hospital is still in existence today, but parts of it, like the Forst Building, have long been abandoned to the elements. There’s still beds and other kinds of furniture there, along with debris that reflects the souls that lost their lives within the walls.

trenton-state-hospital-abandoned-3 (Image: David Scaglione, cc-4.0)

In 1913, researchers had confirmed that syphilis was connected to the development of brain lesions and erratic, psychotic behavior. The medical director of the institute decided that he was in the perfect position to try to come up with a cure. Noble enough, maybe, but as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It gets disturbing really, really quickly.

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He thought that the illness could best be treated by removing the source of the infection. He started by removing patients’ teeth, and when that didn’t work, he went on to removing tonsils. According to Cotton he began to see progress, so he just kept right on going. He started removing stomachs, gall bladders, colons, and reproductive organs of both men and women.

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He claimed an 85% success rate, but if you read the fine print, he also adds that’s among the patients that survived his treatment. Not surprisingly, this came with an appallingly high death toll, which he promptly explained away by saying that the mentally ill were at risk for complications from any surgery.

trenton-state-hospital-abandoned-6 (Image: David Scaglione, cc-4.0)

Weirdly, he managed to keep the support of the state that sanctioned him, and was such a popular doctor that he needed to set up a private practice to deal with all the patients that came to him outside of the state ward. Reports that came out about the horrific treatments that were going on in the hospital were suppressed, and in something of a karmic turn of events, two of the key players in the mad doctor’s continued success – a board member of the hospital and the state’s Commissioner of Institutions and Agencies – ended up spending their last years in a back ward of the same hospital they’d kept open.

Rolling Hills Asylum, New York

rolling-hills-asylum-abandoned-3 (Images: Mathew Merrett (website: thephotomat.ca), reproduced with permission)

Rolling Hills Asylum stands in the rather unassuming countryside of East Bethany, New York. Located in upstate’s Genesee County, the years haven’t been kind to this nondescript brick building. Originally built in the 1820s as a poorhouse, the asylum has, over the years, been home to unwed mothers, alcoholics, the mentally challenged, and the criminally insane. The original idea behind the building was one that was common across the United States at the time, and heartfelt if not a little unsettling. Those who had nowhere else to go would live there, work on the property’s farms, and earn their keep.

rolling-hills-asylum-abandoned (Images: Mathew Merrett (website: thephotomat.ca), reproduced with permission)

In the 1950s, it became a nursing home, and was ultimately closed in the 1970s. When it temporarily reopened in the 1990s as a boutique shopping location, those who were renting space there quickly came to the conclusion that they weren’t alone.

Reports include all the usual signs of paranormal activity, including mysterious voices, doors that would open and close, and footsteps that would echo down deserted corridors at night. There were the occasional screams, and the appearance of shadow people wandering the halls.

Ghost hunters flock to the site, which lays in a state of disrepair (do not go in without permission). Stories have begun to surface around the one-time inhabitants of the building, and it’s the heartbreaking, tragic ones that are worse than the horrors.

rolling-hills-asylum-abandoned-2 (Images: Mathew Merrett (website: thephotomat.ca), reproduced with permission)

One of the patients that’s said to still wander the halls is a man named Roy. As unmistakeable in death as he was in life, his only crime was being born with gigantism; stories portray him as a kind soul who liked to listen to opera music, and it’s said that if you see a massive, shadowy person lurking about, that’s Roy.

There are also rumours about cruel nurses and doctors who kept their patients and inmates in line with abuse rather than treatment, and it’s said that the site was the location of a number of Satanic rituals.

rolling-hills-asylum-abandoned-4 (Image: Mathew Merrett (website: thephotomat.ca), reproduced with permission)

While that’s up for debate, it’s the sad truth that there were massive numbers of people who called Rolling Hills home until the end of their lives. The poor residents didn’t have the funds for a proper burial, so the 11 acres of property were turned into burial grounds. It’s estimated that at least 1,700 people are buried at Rolling Hills, with only a single, recently erected monument to honour them. Names have long been forgotten, and it’s thought that a large number of undocumented deaths were forgotten as well.

Topeka State Hospital, Kansas

topeka-state-hospital-kansas (Images: Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, cc-nc-sa-4.0)

Before it was slated for demolition, the empty remains of Topeka State Hospital stood a desolate, sad reminder of a dark time in American history – a period of eugenics and forced sterilisation of those deemed unworthy to reproduce.

topeka-state-hospital-kansas-2 (Image: Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, cc-nc-sa-4.0)

Along with its sister facility, Winfield State Hospital, Topeka State Hospital was one of a number of institutions around the country that had instituted a practice of forced sterilisation. Hospital records are still considered sealed by the state government, and they’re the only ones that really know how many people had this terrible procedure performed on them.

topeka-state-hospital-kansas-3 (Image: Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, cc-nc-sa-4.0)

Winfield State opened in 1881, and it’s thought that by 1916, almost 600 people had been sterilized – most of them at the direction of the superintendent, Dr. F. Hoyt Pilcher. Pilcher’s belief was that there was no place for the feeble-minded in society, and even if they were released from the institution they shouldn’t be allowed to have children and pass on their genetic weakness.

topeka-state-hospital-kansas-4 (Image: Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, cc-nc-sa-4.0)

The practice officially began at Topeka State, and between the two institutions there were other weirdly vague stories of abuse that came out of the facilities. Topeka State was closed in 1997, and restoring the asbestos and lead-laden building was little more than a brief flicker. Instead of a restoration project that would have cost millions of dollars, the site was condemned – along with the cemetery that was on the property, the final resting place of nearly 1,200 people.

The Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry

Philadelphia-State-Hospital-abandoned (Image: David Scaglione, cc-4.0)

Built in the early 1900s and closed in 1990, the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry became one of the most notorious examples of the horrendous conditions people lived in at state-sanctioned asylums. During World War Two, many conscientious objectors went to work in facilities around the country, filling in spaces left empty by those who had been drafted into military service. Many objected on religious grounds, like Warren Sawyer, a young Quaker sent to work in the mental wards of Byberry.

Philadelphia State Hospital-2 (Images: David Scaglione, cc-4.0)

What he found when he got off the bus was an eerie shadow of what his peers were fighting overseas. Naked, starving men were living in silence, clustered together in concrete rooms with no furniture, covered in their own filth. The violent ones were tied to their beds, and those that managed to get free often attacked each other – and their caretakers – with makeshift weapons.

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The untrained, far-from-home conscientious objectors soon realised that the patients weren’t the only problems in the facilities. Regular employees often used makeshift weapons, too, carrying broom handles or hoses to beat unruly patients into submission. A favourite weapon at Byberry was a wet towel – choking someone with it would leave no marks, and nothing for the rare inspector to catch on to. Attempts at giving patients something to keep them occupied often ended in reprimands, and the boredom was toxic.

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The temporary employees at Byberry decided that they needed to try to make a difference. One, Charlie Lord, smuggled a camera into the facility to document the abuse he saw. Letters and journals, written by men like Sawyer, documented the day-by-day, but the photos showed something eerily reminiscent of a Nazi concentration camp happening right on American soil.

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The photos found their way into Life magazine and into the hands of Eleanor Roosevelt. They ultimately led to the formation of schools to train people who were working in facilities like Byberry, and the institution itself began a slow, long-term process of closure that started in the 1960s and ended in 1990.

The Belchertown School for the Feeble-Minded, Massachusetts

belchertown-school-for-the-feeble-minded-abandoned (Image: Matthew Hester, cc-nd-4.0)

When the Belchertown School for the Feeble-Minded opened in 1922, it was intended to resemble a paradise on earth. Sitting on the beautiful Massachusetts landscape, the main buildings were ripe with the influences of classical architecture, and the grounds were immaculately kept. On the inside, though…. it was a different story.


belchertown-school-for-the-feeble-minded-abandoned-5 (Images: Matthew Hester, cc-nd-4.0)

It was called a school instead of an asylum because it was home to children rather than adults, but even that was misleading. Many residents came to the school and never progressed far enough to leave, and spent their lives living in filth. Of course, nothing happens in a small town without people knowing about it, but the school operated for 50 years before a class actions lawsuit was brought against the school by the father of a resident. And it was only when a judge dropped by unannounced that the doors were opened and a flood of horror spilled out into the nearby town.

belchertown-school-for-the-feeble-minded-abandoned-2 (Image: Matthew Hester, cc-nd-4.0)

The judge found the scenes that the boy’s father had described, and we really can’t even imagine what it must have been like, walking into the so-called school. According to his reports, children drank from toilets that had been backed up and filled with excrement, they were covered in their own waste, tied helpless to beds, some crawling with maggots. Bites and welts covered others, made by the bugs the place was crawling with.


belchertown-school-for-the-feeble-minded-abandoned-4 (Images: Matthew Hester, cc-nd-4.0)

Before the full horrors of the place were exposed, parents in the nearby town had already begun organising relief efforts; well-intentioned, perhaps, but the collection of basic supplies that they knew the children didn’t have – supplies like soap and toothpaste – probably should have been a clue that something more than a charity drive needed to be done.

The horrible conditions in the school led to a complete reevaluation of the state’s schools and adult asylums, but the stigma never really left the place. Ultimately, it closed in 1992, and while there have been numerous plans for the buildings, nothing’s ever been put into motion.


About the author: Debra Kelly



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