It seems that everyone in Cedar Grove, New Jersey has a spooky story or two about the Overbrook Asylum. Though it only closed down officially in 2007, the complex has long been home to abandoned buildings, and local lore has been quick to populate them with unexplained voices, vengeful spirits, and mysterious presences. Situated among public parks and residential neighborhoods, the decaying asylum known by many as “the Bin” has become a well-known hangout for teenagers, ghost hunters, scrappers, and other curious parties, much to the consternation of local law enforcement. In 2008, the local sheriff amped up police presence on the property, leading to 34 arrests over the course of 3 days, though it was rented out as a location for the tacky Travel Channel series “Ghost Adventures” the same year. Rumors of 24/7 surveillance still serve to ward off would-be trespassers, but on the gloomy Sunday morning I set out to explore the aging asylum, not a soul, living or dead, patrolled the 100-acre grounds of the old Essex County Hospital.
I won’t rehash the history here that most every American asylum shares. (For a more detailed account, read up on psychiatric treatments at Kings Park Psychiatric Center and the “farm colony” design of Letchworth Village.) Suffice it to say that the good intentions Overbrook was founded on in 1896 couldn’t hold up to the harsh realities of overcrowding and underfunding that characterized mid-20th century institutions. This dark period of neglect ended, for the most part, with the development of new “wonder drugs” for the treatment of serious mental disorders, which led to the abrupt closure of asylums across the country.
Though there’s little to differentiate the history of Overbrook Asylum from the dozens of similar institutions across the northeast, one particularly notorious episode stands out. On Dec 1st, 1917, the hospital’s heating and lighting plant broke down, sending temperatures plummeting inside the dormitories. As a cold snap hit New Jersey in the following weeks, 24 patients died as a result of or in conjunction with exposure, along with 32 cases of frostbite. In an act of desperation, the medical superintendent sent out letters to patient’s families in the hope that many would come to retrieve their relatives, who he admitted were living in “far from comfortable” conditions.
Even in the best times, “comfortable” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when describing the way of life of the thousands of mentally ill patients who called Overbrook home. An impressive amount of artifacts remain throughout the maze of interconnected dormitories, offering a look into the individual lives that make up its collectively tragic history. At every turn, large-scale photo murals of nature scenes and wildlife adorn the beige and sea foam walls of the wards. Elsewhere, holiday decorations clutter the floor. Stockpiled in cabinets are jolly snowmen, grinning halloween skulls, festive scarecrows, and gleaming easter bunnies, anything to distract from the clinical gloom of the wards. Out of the clustered piles of clothing, medical supplies, and craft projects, the terse, impersonal lines of a handwritten card speak volumes on the isolation of the unfortunate men and women who spent their lives forgotten behind asylum walls: “Dear John, I hope you are well and happy. I’m feeling okay. Miss you. Love, Mom.”
The decrepit hospital closed down in 2007 when a new state of the art facility opened up nearby, which still operates today. By that time much of the property had already been long abandoned, with a dwindling patient population due in large part to the effective treatments developed in the 60s and 70s, as well as the pressure to discharge anyone who wasn’t a threat to themselves or others, no matter how unprepared they were to get by on their own in the outside world. Contrary to a few adamant commenters in online forums, most of the Overbrook campus is still standing on the east side of Fairview Avenue. A development plan to demolish the complex soon after it closed in 2007 would have brought 78 luxury single family homes to the area, but it never panned out. Today, the property is county-owned. Though plans were put in place to convert the land to a public park in 2008, little progress has been made in that regard.
As Overbrook continues to crumble, the treatment of the mentally ill has been making headlines in recent months, and it’s troubling to see the same familiar patterns play out in an even more brutal setting—the prisons cells and solitary confinement units where many of today’s mentally ill end up. A recent article in the New York Times outlines a harrowing study of an epidemic of violence toward mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island which rivals the worst cases of abuse in the age of institutions. Earlier this week, a positive step was made on the West Coast, where the California Department of Corrections has introduced new standards for the treatment of the mentally ill living in the prison system. Here’s hoping this results in legitimate changes that can be instituted across the country.
Last month Vocativ.com followed me through three decaying institutions in New York City, resulting in a three part series, “A History Abandoned” which you can check out on YouTube. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to venture inside an abandoned building, these videos give you a pretty good idea. Props to Vocativ for keeping the focus on the history. Let me know what you think and if you’d like to see more like this in the future!
Episode 1: Kings Park Psychiatric Center
Episode 2: Letchworth Village
Episode 3: New York City Farm Colony
Imagine a picture-perfect October afternoon—white steeples set against a crisp blue sky, apples to be picked, pumpkins to be carved, colonial headstones moldering beneath a gaudy display of fall foliage…
Only in New England is the essence of autumn so vividly arrayed, no more so than the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The pastoral region was revered among literary luminaries of the 19th century—it’s rumored that Melville first envisioned his white whale in the wintry outline of Mount Greylock—but it’s also a wellspring of inspiration for local storytellers. The Berkshire hills are laced with legends and more than their fair share of ghost stories, so I got out of town to explore this mysterious region and hopefully encounter a few ghosts, just in time for Halloween.
My first stop was the Bellows Pipe Trail on Mount Greylock, known to be haunted by a ghost called the “Old Coot.” This unfortunate soul went by the name of William Saunders in life and earned his living as a farmer before being called away to fight for the Union in 1861. His wife Belle assumed the worst when the letters stopped coming after receiving word that her husband had been injured in battle. But Bill Saunders had survived, only to return home and find Belle remarried. He retreated to a ramshackle cabin on Mount Greylock, where he lived out the rest of his days as a hermit, occasionally working on nearby farms. One day, a group of hunters entered his shack and came across his lifeless body. They were the first to describe a sighting of the Old Coot’s spirit fleeing up the mountain, but he’s haunted the trail ever since.
On the outskirts of Brattleboro, rumors about one eccentric local are still raising eyebrows more than fifty years after her death. Madame Sherri was a well-known costume designer in jazz-age New York City whose designs were featured in some of the most successful theatrical productions of the day. After her husband died of “general paralysis due to insanity,” Madame Sherri retreated to an elaborate summer home in the Berkshires, where she was known to throw lavish and unsavory parties for her well-heeled guests, often gallivanting about town in nothing but a fur coat. Gradually, her fortune was depleted and the dwelling was abandoned in 1946. Late in life, she became a ward of the state and died penniless in a home for the aged. Her “castle” burned to the ground on October 18, 1962, but its dramatic granite staircase remains to this day. Sounds of revelry have been heard emanating from the ruins of the old estate, where the apparition of an extravagantly dressed woman has often been spotted ascending the staircase.
If Madame Sherri’s Forest and the Old Coot’s trail don’t give you goosebumps, this next one might. To get there, you have to go down—way down—into the Hoosic River Valley to the bedrock of the Hoosac Mountains in North Adams, MA. Turn off on an unnamed dirt road, park at the train tracks, take a short hike, and you’ll come face to face with one of the most haunted places in New England. How far would you be willing to venture into the “Bloody Pit?”
In 1819, a route was proposed to transfer goods from Boston to the west, and the Hoosac Range was quickly identified as the project’s biggest obstacle. Construction began in 1855 on the 5-mile Hoosac Tunnel, but the dig was plagued with problems from the beginning. When steam-driven boring machines, hand drills, and gunpowder proved too slow, builders turned to new, untried methods, namely nitroglycerine, an extremely powerful and unstable explosive. The tunnel claimed close to 200 human lives over the course of its 20-year construction, earning the nickname “The Bloody Pit.” The work was merciless, but precise—when the two ends met in the middle, the alignment was off by only one half inch.
On March 20, 1865, Ned Brinkman and Kelly Nash were buried alive when a foreman named Ringo Kelly accidentally set off a blast of dynamite. Fearing retaliation, Ringo disappeared, but one year later, he was found strangled at the site of the accident, two miles into the tunnel. No one witnessed the crime, but most men agreed—the ghosts of Ned and Kelly had slaked their revenge.
The most costly accident in the tunnel’s history occurred the following year on October 17th, halfway through the digging of a 1,000-foot vertical aperture called the Central Shaft which was designed to relieve the buildup of exhaust in the tunnel. Thirteen men were working 538 feet deep when a naphtha lamp ignited the hoist building above them, sending flaming debris and sharpened drill bits raining down. The explosion destroyed the shaft’s pumping system and the pit soon started filling up with water. When workers recovered the bodies several months later, they discovered that several of the men had survived long enough to construct a raft in a desperate attempt to escape the rising waters. The accident halted construction for the better part of a year.
When work resumed, laborers reported hearing a man’s voice cry out in agony, and many walked off the job, claiming the tunnel was cursed. Through the 19th century, local newspapers reported headless blue apparitions, ghostly workmen that left no footprints in the snow, and disappearing hunters in and around the Bloody Pit. As recently as 1974, a man who set out to walk the length of the tunnel was never heard from again.
In spite of these tales, I found myself standing at the entrance to the West Portal, where a single bat sprung out of the darkness, setting the tone for what would prove to be a rather unsettling experience. The tunnel is undeniably creepy, lined with old crumbling bricks, half flooded with gray water, and coated with almost two centuries of soot and grime. It didn’t help that I was visiting on October 17th, the anniversary of its grisliest accident…
Sure enough, the moment I stepped across the threshold, my camera started taking pictures by itself. (Granted, it’s been having issues lately, but the timing and severity was uncanny.) The whole time I was in the tunnel, I was unable to gain control of the shutter, and had to resort to setting up a shot and waiting for the “unseen forces” to take each picture. It beats me why a ghost would choose to fiddle with my camera rather than, say, making the walls bleed, but the entire encounter left this skeptic scratching his head. Were these the spirits of the Hoosac Tunnel?
* * *
Back at the campsite, with the fire extinguished, I settled in for a fitful sleep on the hard ground, unable to shake that uneasy feeling. That night, the falling leaves outside the tent sounded just like footsteps. When the wind blew, the whole forest sounded like a crowd of ghosts walking. It was exactly the kind of night I had hoped to pass in the Berkshire hills, a chance to experience the other side of the season, beyond the spiced cider and the pumpkin lattes, far older than the covered bridges that cross the languid Hoosic River, that ancient date that marks the beginning of the dark half of the year, when the boundary between the living and the dead is at its thinnest point.
When the Sutro Baths first opened to the public in 1896, the west side of San Francisco was a vast region of all-but-unpopulated sand dunes. The sprawling natatorium was a pet project of Adolph Sutro, a wealthy entrepreneur and former mayor of San Francisco who became widely known as a populist over his illustrious career. Before constructing his magnificent bathhouse at Land’s End, he opened the grounds of his personal estate to all San Franciscans. Later, when transportation costs proved too high for many to reach his baths, he built a new railroad with a lower fare.
The Sutro Baths were the world’s largest indoor swimming establishment, with seven pools complete with high dives, slides, and trapezes, including one fresh water pond and 6 saltwater baths of varying temperatures with a combined capacity of 10,000 visitors. The water was sourced directly from the Pacific Ocean during high tide, and pumped during low tide at a rate of 6,000 gallons per minute. The monumental development also featured a 6,000-seat concert hall and a museum of curios from Sutro’s international travels.
The Baths’ popularity declined with the Great Depression and the facility was converted to an ice skating rink in an attempt to attract a new generation of visitors. Facing enormous maintenance costs, the Sutro Baths closed in the 1960s as plans were put in place for a residential development on the site. Soon after demolition began, a catastrophic fire broke out, bringing what remained of the glass-encased bathhouse to the ground. (There’s some suspicion that the fire was related to a hefty insurance policy on the structure, though it’s never been confirmed.)
The condo plans were scrapped and the concrete footprints of the Sutro Baths were left largely undisturbed. In 1973, the site was included in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the ruins were opened to the public for exploration. This is not your typical park; as one sign warns, “people have been swept from the rocks and drowned.”
The highlight of any trip to the Sutro Baths is the cliffside tunnel. Through a pair of apertures, visitors can watch waves collide on the rocks below as the unlit corridor fills with briny mist and the booming sounds of the sea. In this spot, you might catch yourself believing vague rumors of hauntings that hang like a fog around the ruins of the Sutro Baths, or as some would have it, strange sightings of Lovecraftian demigods that lurk in its network of subterranean passages…
Letchworth Village rests on a placid corner of rural Thiells, a hamlet west of Haverstraw set amid the gentle hills and vales of the surrounding Ramapos. A short stretch of modest farmhouses separates this former home for the mentally disabled from the serene Harriman State Park, New York’s second largest. Nature has been quick to reclaim its dominion over these unhallowed grounds, shrouding an unpleasant memory in a thick green veil. Abandonment becomes this “village of secrets,” intended from its inception to be unseen, forgotten, and silent as the tomb.
Owing to its reputed paranormal eccentricities, Letchworth Village has become a well-known subject of local legend. These strange tales had me spooked as I turned the corner onto Letchworth Village Road after a suspenseful two-hour drive from Brooklyn. Rounding a declining bend, I caught my first glimpse of Letchworth’s sprawling decay—some vine-encumbered ruin made momentarily visible through a stand of oak. Down the hazy horseshoe lanes of the boy’s ward, one by one, the ghosts came out.
By the end of 1911, the first phase of construction had completed on this 2,362 acre “state institution for the segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded.” With architecture modeled after Monticello, the picturesque community was lauded as a model institution for the treatment of the developmentally disabled, a humane alternative to high-rise asylums, having been founded on several guiding principles that were revolutionary at the time.
The Minnisceongo Creek cuts the grounds in two, delineating areas for the two sexes which were meant never to mingle. Separate living and training facilities for children, able-bodied adults, and the infirm were not to exceed two stories or house over 70 inmates. Until the 1960s, the able-bodied labored on communal farms, raising enough food and livestock to feed the entire population.
Sinister by today’s standards, the “laboratory purpose” was another essential tenet of the Letchworth plan. Unable to give or deny consent, many children became unwitting test subjects—in 1950, the institution gained notoriety as the site of one of the first human trials of a still-experimental polio vaccine. Brain specimens were harvested from deceased residents and stored in jars of formaldehyde, put on display in the hospital lab. This horrific practice has become a favorite anecdote of ghost-hunters and adolescent explorers.
The well-intentioned plans for Letchworth Village didn’t hold up in practice, and by 1942, the population had swelled to twice its intended occupancy. From here, the severely underfunded facility fell into a lengthy decline. Many of the residents, whose condition necessitated ample time and attention for feeding, became seriously ill or malnourished as a result of overcrowding. At one point, over 500 patients slept on mattresses in hallways and dayrooms of the facility, meagerly attended by a completely overwhelmed staff tasked with the impossible.
Having discontinued the use of the majority of its structures, and relocated most of its charges into group homes, the institution closed down in 1996 as old methods of segregating the developmentally disabled were replaced with a trend toward normalization and inclusion into society. The state has made efforts to sell the property, with mixed results. Most of the dilapidated structures were slated for demolition in 2004 to make way for a 450-unit condo development, but the plan has evidently been put on hold. Ringed with ballfields and parking lots, shiny Fieldstone Middle School makes use of nine buildings of the former girl’s group, an island of promise in a landscape of failure.
Off Call Hollow Road, a new sign has been erected pointing out the “Old Letchworth Village Cemetery.” Down a seldom-traveled path, an unusual crop of T-shaped markers congregate on a dappled clearing. They’re graves, but they bear no names.
Few wished to remember their “defective” relatives, or have their family names inscribed in such a dishonorable cemetery—many family secrets are buried among these 900 deceased. Here, in the presence of so many human lives devalued, displaced, and forgotten, the sorrow of Letchworth Village is keenly felt.
As part of a movement taking place across the country, state agencies and advocates funded the installation of a permanent plaque inscribed with the names of these silent dead, and a fitting epitaph: “To Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten.”