Abandoned, Hospitals, Lost and Found

Found in Essex County Hospital

Clothing left behind in a group dormitory.

Clothing left behind in a group dormitory.

I outlined New Jersey’s Essex County Hospital in a previous post, but a few months back I made it out a second time to explore a little further. I ended up in the tunnels underneath the wards, where I found a file room stuffed with material dating from the 1930s to the 1980s, near the last years of Essex County Hospital’s operation.  The records are scattered in cardboard boxes with no apparent system of organization, many of them overtaken with mold and rot.

Much of what’s been left here is mundane, day-to-day operational notes on staff, time sheets, and maintenance, but some of it is rather enlightening.  There are decades’ worth of doctor’s notes, admission records, and log books detailing the daily activities of individual residents, some describe a patient’s entire life story in a single paragraph. The scale of it is truly overwhelming when you start flipping through the files page by page.

As I’ve mentioned before, many of the patterns of neglect well-documented in the age of institutions have shifted to the criminal justice system today. In New York City, the mentally ill now account for 40% of the prison population. To make matters worse, an epidemic of violence against mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island came to light this summer, causing an uproar. Now, the de Blasio administration is pushing for a major $130 million initiative that strikes at the heart of the problem, aiming to keep repeat low-level offenders out of prison and get them into treatment programs. From the Times article: “The changes include tripling the size of both pretrial diversion programs and the amount of resources devoted to easing the transition from jail back into society. This would represent a significantly different approach to criminal justice in the city, experts said. But they cautioned that nothing of such scale had been tried by a municipality before, and that putting the plan into effect would be difficult.”

As we look forward, it’s worth taking a moment to look back.  What follows is a tiny sampling of the massive amount of records, artifacts, and ephemera left behind in the wards of Essex County Hospital and that moldy file room in the basement. You can read for yourself, just click to enlarge.

Files scattered underground in Essex County Hospital.

Files scattered underground in Essex County Hospital.

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Patient's belongings were left behind in bags, most meticulously arranged by a previous visitor.

Belongings left in a storage room (most likely meticulously arranged by a previous visitor to the abandoned building.)


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Murals depict the wide world outside the institution.

Wallpaper commonly depicts majestic scenes of the world outside asylum walls.


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This room doubled as church and synagogue, catering to the resident's religious needs.

This room doubled as church and synagogue, catering to the patients’ religious needs.


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The file room contained 6 or 7 aisles of shelving piled high with records.

One of six or seven rows of shelving in the file room, stuffed with 50 years’ worth of records.


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10 thoughts on “Found in Essex County Hospital

  1. Will – Great post as usual. Incredibly sad and pathetic that they left so many records just laying around. Probably some of the records are about people that are still living today. Thanks for discussing the continuing lack of Mental Health facilities\services problem in this country. Hopefully, the funding by the de Blasio Admin, that you mentioned, includes new Mental Health Treatment facilities for those folks who will not stay on their Meds and then become violent to others or harmful to themselves. Over the years, I’ve seen some of my friends struggle with family members in this situation and there are no long term facilities for them to get treatment at.


    Posted by BJ | 12-11-14., 9:00 pm
    • Yeah in some ways they rushed into closing down the institutions instead of improving conditions or creating new alternatives. now there are so few options for people who are still struggling, which is why so many end up in jail or on the street.


      Posted by Will Ellis | 12-12-14., 12:04 am
  2. Hey Will, this new post was a nice surprise. This is a powerful one, with the images showing the sad story of these individuals. Many thanks…really looking forward to your book.


    Posted by Frank Brennan | 12-11-14., 10:17 pm
  3. Hi Will,
    Really interesting post. I am curious, did you get permission to go on the grounds? After reading this I looked up the site and have seen in other places that police survey the grounds in plain clothes and will arrest and prosecute you.

    Would love to know how you got into other abandoned places / if you recommend they are “safe” for others to visit as well.


    Posted by Nicola | 12-11-14., 11:56 pm
  4. Great post – love old abandon hospitals!!   Mike


    Posted by Michael Donegan | 12-12-14., 1:03 am
  5. You’ve given us an incredible array of historical photographs. It is fascinating to read the case assessments. I’m wondering about the statistic of 40% of criminals being mentally ill. I would put it much higher…more like 80%. I’m sure there are many incarcerated people who are mentally ill, but not diagnosed. It is clearly time for people who battle mental illness to be given treatment, not punishment. I remember when the state hospitals were shut down and mentally ill people were suddenly on the streets. Because of our generally mellow weather, I think the problem might be the worst here in California. I’m seeing more access to mental health treatment, but we have a long, long way to go.


    Posted by Laurie | 12-12-14., 1:56 am
  6. There’s actually wayyy more records worth than 50 years! A lot are probably already gone. We have some from back into the 1800’s. You should have snagged some of the death files… A lot has been soaked and is now modly now though, which is unfortunate.


    Posted by Kathryn | 12-12-14., 11:50 pm
  7. Priceless and very, very moving!


    Posted by SandyW | 12-13-14., 5:40 am
  8. Wow! Thank you for posting this. I just found out a distant relative was a patient here from at last 1930 through 1940. It would have been wonderful if those records had been preserved to learn more. Thanks for posting this.


    Posted by GJW | 3-12-20., 4:31 am
  9. My grandma was in Essex Co.Overbrook Hospital from about 1923-June 19, 1968. She had epilepsy, just like me. My dad and I never knew until 2018. She had 4 children. This is devastating. Is there anyway of getting medical records? Georgiana Stevenson, 5/5/96-6/19/19 maiden name Georgiana Mac Rae. My dad Robert Louis Stevenson died at 87.


    Posted by Lucy Stevenson, RN, PHN | 9-11-22., 9:33 pm

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