Care for the mentally incapacitated wasn’t always humane. Patients in nineteenth century insane asylums were often treated like animals, locked in cages and subjected to unethical treatments that were nothing less than torture.
Many of the poor souls trapped behind the gothic stone walls would spend their entire lives there, the daily suffering creating a mind-numbing existence that would never end. Some theorize that these old abandoned asylums are haunted because the dead were tortured and maimed to such a frightening degree, they couldn’t tell the difference between life and death. They continue to live out their tragic lives as though caught in a horrible time warp of misery and suffering.
1. Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane – Buffalo, New York
The green-capped towers rise high into the sky, looking more like a backdrop for a gothic vampire movie than a hospital. Opened in 1880 near the heart of Buffalo, the hospital was revolutionary in its day.
Like many of the insane asylums built during this period, the Buffalo State Asylum, later renamed the H.H. Richardson Complex, was part of the Kirkbridge Design. The building layout follows the aspirations of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbridge, a respected psychiatrist in the mid 1800s who hoped to advance the design of mental facilities by separating patients by gender and severity of illness. In a typical Kirkbridge building, a central administration building stands front and center, with long infirmary wings extending off either side, providing fresh air and sunlight to all of the patient rooms. Prior to his design, the mentally ill were often housed in county jails and in the basements of public buildings, where they were often neglected and forgotten.
Unfortunately, even a well-intended vision couldn’t prevent the abuse and mistreatment. Overcrowding and lack of funding often left patients sleeping in fecal soiled bedding with little to no care. The Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane was a prime example of this. The hospital was so overpacked, many patients slept on top of one another in tiny beds, covered in filth.
Treatment for the mentally insane during this era consisted of nothing more than inhumane experiments. Doctors would cut into patient’s heads to incapacitate portions of the brain, turning them into living zombies. Other methods involved frying their brains with electricity or submerging them in tubs of water for hours on end. It’s no wonder some of them continue to haunt the facilities.
The Buffalo State Asylum has been closed down since 1974, but whispers of the dead can still be heard behind the towering brick walls. Thrill seekers, risking arrest for trespassing, report hearing blood curdling screams echoing down the abandoned hallways. Some have reported that the interior of the hospital looks as though it was evacuated swiftly, leaving behind rusting metal beds, equipment and even a dollhouse sitting in the middle of the floor, serving as a haunting reminder of the lives that passed through the arched brick doorways.
2. Greystone Park Psychiatric Center – Parsippany Troy Township, New Jersey
The Greystone Park Psychiatric Center was opened in 1876, prompted by the efforts of Dorothea Lynde Dix, a nurse who tirelessly lobbied for better health care for the mentally ill.
While the hospital had good intentions, the center was soon overcrowded, swelling to more than 7000 patients by 1953, primarily due to an influx of World War II veterans who returned with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Lacking modern medications, archaic procedures such as electroshock therapy and insulin shock therapy were used, which typically only made things worse for the patients.
(Above: an example of Insulin Shock Therapy, circa 1950. Photo credit: Asylumprojects.org)
Patients enduring insulin shock therapy were treated to daily injections of insulin,with the dosages being increased over a six week period. Once the brain was overloaded with insulin, the patient would go into a coma, some suffering a series of seizures in the process. Often, the patients would be given electroshock treatments while in the induced coma, just to top off the torture. Doctors at the time applauded the 50% success rate for treating schizophrenia, but the ones this didn’t help were left with irreversible conditions, including brain damage, severe obesity, restlessness and constant sweating, if they survived it at all.
One of the hospital’s more famous patients was folk-singer Woody Guthrie, who was a patient at Greystone from 1956 until 1961, suffering from Huntington’s Disease, an inherited degenerative nervous disorder. While there, Guthrie jokingly referred to Greystone as “Gravestone,” a name that was fitting for the institution. The hospital closed in 2003, amid reports of sexual abuse, suicides and the well-publicized escape of a convicted rapist.
Paranormal investigators have reported seeing dark shadows in the tunnels below the buildings, along with a sense of being watched. The hospital was the inspiration of the 2009 movie Greystone Park, filmed by Sean Stone, son of legendary filmmaker Oliver Stone, based on their terrifying experiences while filming there.
3. Essex County hospital Center – Cedar Grove, New Jersey
Featured in a 2008 episode of Ghost Adventures, the Essex County Hospital Center has long been known for its hauntings.Originally known as the Overbrook, the hospital was built in 1896 in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. During a catastrophic boiler failure in 1914, twenty-four patients froze to death, with 32 others suffering from frost bite.
(Above: Left, diagram of an orbital lobotomy. Photo credit: Abandonednyc.com, Right lobotomy surgery from The Asylumproject.org)
The hospital suffered similar fates as other psychiatric facilities of the era, with over-crowding, reports of abuse and unethical practices. Perhaps the most horrific medical procedure patients were forced to endure was the transorbital lobotomy. Early procedures involved hammering a pick-like instrument through the patient’s eye socket to sever connections to the brain. Patients were often subdued prior to the surgery with electroshock therapy. In its 111 year history, it’s estimated that over 10,000 patients died there, lending relevance to the reported hauntings.
Trespassers have reported seeing the full bodied apparition of a nurse roaming the hallways. Others have experienced strange sounds, like the squeaking wheels of a gurney rolling down a dilapidated corridor. The hospital closed in 2007 after a newer facility was built nearby.
4. Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital – Middletown, New York
Opening in 1874, the Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital offered a change of pace for patients suffering from mental illness. Unlike other psychiatric hospitals of the time, they employed homeopathic treatments developed by German physician Samuel Hahnemann, designed to restore the patient’s mental health through drugs, proper diet, and recreation, including a baseball team for the male patients.
Considerably smaller than other facilities, the hospital originally treated 69 patients, but by 1974 nearly 1,400 patients and a staff of over 1,000 occupied the buildings. Commonplace of the era, the hospital was plagued by numerous fires. A fire in 1905 destroyed furnishings in one room, while a more substantial fire in 1921, resulting from an alcohol burner explosion in a laboratory, caused far more damage. Another fire in 1921 destroyed the Administration Building, which was rebuilt in 1927. Urban explorers describe the building as brighter than they expected, with the exception of the basement area, where empty coffins can be found.
Many of the buildings on the sprawling campus remain in use by various government funded groups. One building used by the National Guard in the late 1980s, gave soldiers an eerie feeling of being watched. They reportedly didn’t stay in the building any longer than necessary.
5. Hudson River State Hospital – Fairfield, New York
It’s not difficult to imagine a host of lost souls roaming the hallways of the Hudson River State Hospital. Opening in 1871 in Fairview, New York, as the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane, it is one of the few Kirkbridge asylums built with asymmetrical wings. Believing that they would treat far less women than men, the women’s’ wing is much shorter than the males.
(Above: typical of the era, many “difficult” patients were chained to walls to prevent them from “acting out” in many psychiatric facilities in the 1800s)
During its 132 year history, the property included a Tuberculosis Hospital, a number of rehabilitation buildings, housing for the criminally insane, a power house, a church, as well as a morgue with refrigerated chambers.After several fires, one in 2007 and another in 2010, the buildings were abandoned and the area was fenced off to the public.
Curiosity seekers report hearing whispered voices that seem to come from everywhere and doors slamming in empty rooms. One person who snuck in heard a disembodied voice tell him to “Get Out!” which he promptly complied with.
6. Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum – Weston, West Virginia
Imagine being locked up in an asylum against your will. This is what happened numerous times during the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum’s 130 year history. Reasons for being committed to an asylum were various. Patients could be locked up due to jealousy, political excitement, disappointed love, and gathering in the head, just to name a few. Husband’s who were weary of their wives could commit them without proof of illness.
While some of the patient rooms were spacious, crowding was an extreme issue at this asylum, as well. Originally designed to house 600 patients, by the 1950’s more than 2,600 people were interred there. Lobotomies and shock treatment were considered normal treatment practices, with “out of control” patients often being locked in cages.
Patients residing there were plagued with a variety of illnesses, including epilepsy, alcoholism, drug addiction, as well as mental defectives, according to a 1938 report by a North American medical organization survey committee. The hospital, like many others of the time, suffered from poor sanitation, as well as insufficient furniture, lighting, and heating. Patients were often locked in bare rooms with very few comforts.
One treatment of the era was hydrotherapy. Patients would be submerged in tubs of water for hours on end, hoping to calm them down. They would be greased prior to their baths to keep their skin from pruning. While the practice started with good intentions, it was often abused and was used as punishment for out of control patients.
(Above: An example of hydrotherapy treatment from the era. Photo credit: cournellpsychiatry.org)
This sprawling asylum in Weston, West Virginia, is one of the few former hospitals on the list who allow public access to the haunted hallways. To schedule a tour, visit the asylum’s website http://trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com
7. Willard Asylum for the Chronically Insane – Ovid, New York
It was a well known fact that the majority of the people who arrived at the Willard Asylum for the Chronically Insane would never leave once they got there. Most lived their lives at the asylum, only to be buried across the street in unmarked graves. Unfortunately, nobody provided the patients with this information. Some of them are still there today in spirit.
in 1995 four-hundred unopened suitcases were found in the attic, most containing personal items dating from 1910 to 1960. Judging by the contents, many of the interred were considered well-to-do, possessing luxury items such as hand-blown glass perfume bottles and silver napkin rings, along with personal effects, such as photographs and letters. It was clear by the contents that the patients once led normal lives.
The first patient at the asylum arrived on October 13, 1869. Mary Rote arrived on a steamboat, after having spent the past decade at the Columbia County almshouse, chained to in a corner without clothing, proper medical assistance or even a bed. All she had was a tattered blanket.Several others joined her that day adorned with leg irons. By comparison, the Willard was a five star resort to some of them.
Since so many of the early patients at Willard had suffered at the hands of ill run poor farms or almshouses, which were little more than prisons for the feeble minded, treatment was nearly impossible. An 1872 article in the New York Times describes a girl who was kept in a five foot by five foot cell, chained to the corner. The superintendent of the facility told a visiting doctor that the girl was destructive and disturbed, despite frequent floggings with a whip or strap. The only thing that seemed to keep her in line was a method he called “pulleying” where she was hung by her thumbs until she settled down. He also reported that she’d given birth to two children earlier in her stay by “fathers unknown.”
The most reported paranormal sighting at the Willard Asylum for the Chronically Insane is of a woman with long red hair, seen walking the hallways. Thought to be a patient who started out at the asylum as a doctor, she is also known to let loose a spine-tingling scream in the middle of the night.
Several of the buildings are now used by the New York Department of Corrections to house incarcerated drug addicts, but it is opened once a year for tours.
8. Rolling HIlls Asylum – East Bethany, New York
Like a reincarnated soul, the property now known as Rolling Hills Asylum has seen many lifetimes. After spending years as a stagecoach tavern, the building and the property was acquired by Genesee County in 1826 to be used as a poorhouse.
By definition, a poorhouse was a place where the county kept people who couldn’t fend for themselves. This included people with mental afflictions, as well as people who weren’t able to provide for themselves, essentially the outcasts of society. Since women and children couldn’t typically own land, they could be interred there as well if the county deemed it. Residents were known as inmates, despite their reasons for being there, and were expected to work the land to help feed the poorhouse population.
One of the saddest stories involves a man named Roy. Roy was born with gigantism, possibly due to a tumor in his pituitary gland. By age 12, Roy was an embarrassment to his father, who was a prominent banker in Genesee County. He was abandoned at the poorhouse with little thought to his future. With bulging, exaggerated facial features and oversized hands and feet, Roy grew to a height of nearly seven and a half feet tall. A gentle soul, who loved opera music, he spent the rest of his life at the poorhouse, dying in 1942 at the age of 62. Many feel Roy never left. His seven foot shadow has been captured many times in photographs and has been seen in the hallways.
It is estimated that over 1,700 bodies are buried in the potter’s field graveyard behind the building in unmarked graves. Many spent their entire lives at the facility, including a woman named Phebe White, who was interred at the institution at the age of 9 and spent the next 58 years at there, never spending a night away from the institution. For many, it was the only home they ever knew.
(Above: the author near the morgue area at Rolling Hills Asylum in 2014)
The Genessee County Poor Farm went through many other reincarnations, as well. It was also an insane asylum, Tuberculosis Hospital, school, and nursing home before being vacant for twenty years. It was then purchased by a private owner, who turned it into an antiques shopping mall for several years until it was sold again and became known as Rolling Hills Asylum. To learn more about tours and investigations at the site, visit their website http://rollinghillsasylum.vpweb.com/
During a 2014 visit to the asylum, the author captured this chilling EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) while trying to take a picture of a dark hallway.
9. Utica State Hospital – Utica, New York
Originally named the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica, the hospital opened in 1841, holding the title as New York’s first state-run facility. The massive Greek Revival structure was designed by Captain William Clarke and was funded by a combination of state funds and local donations. The building contained 380 patient rooms, with 24 rooms for their attendants, as well as 20 dormitories that housed up to 12 people. There were 12 dining rooms, 16 day rooms, 24 bathing rooms and 24 bathrooms, as well.
Treatment at the hospital was similar to others of the period, with hydrotherapy, electroshock therapy and prefrontal lobotomies occurring frequently, but perhaps the most well-known treatment at the Utica State Hospital was the Utica Crib, named after the facility.
A Utica Crib looked very similar to the beds used for infants, with one glaring addition: it contained a cover used to keep patients from escaping. Initially, the hospital was celebrated for the invention. The device was used to control and calm patients. Unfortunately, it was adversely used as a “time out” space to house “uncontrollable” patients, many of them suffering from conditions that required actual medical attention, such as strokes, heart attacks and epilepsy.
(Above: The Utica Crib, www.inmatesofwillard.com)
The building was closed in 1978 and now sits shuttered and abandoned in the heart of Utica. It’s not surprising that visitors report seeing faces at the window and a feeling of sadness lingering in many of the rooms. Many of the inhabitants still remain in the rotting and crumbling structure, having been locked up for an eternity.
The majority of the hospitals on this list are in poor condition and are boarded up to prevent vandals and paranormal enthusiasts from exploring the ruins. Please always abide by the wishes of the community and state when visiting them. If you visit one of the facilities that is open to the public, always bear in mind that the souls you encounter have already suffered greatly. Use compassion and empathy when interacting with them.
Thankfully, due to advances in the medical field, treatments such as these are a thing of the past. The lost and forgotten souls locked up inside those walls are a testament to the abuse and neglect that was inflicted. Those who still remain are unfortunately trapped in a time warp they can’t seem to escape.