Trenton Psychiatric Hospital – An Abandoned Institution In New Jersey

Trenton State Hospital

Trenton Psychiatric Hospital is a mental hospital run by the state of New Jersey and located in Trenton. It is not entirely abandoned as it still houses a 400-bed psychiatric hospital serving a designated New Jersey population. Much of the original building is disused.

New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum

The New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum.

The hospital opened originally as the New Jersey State Hospital at Trenton in 1848. It later became known as the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum and then Trenton Psychiatric Hospital (TPH), the name by which it is known today.

It was the first institution built under the Kirkbride Plan, a system of mental health treatment advocated by Philadelphia psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride. He suggested that environment and exposure to natural light and air circulation were crucial to the treatment of mental health conditions. All of the Kirkbride buildings had a common bat wing style design in which wings radiated from a central administration building. Other Kirkbride buildings include Danvers State Hospital, Topeka State Hospital and Worcester State Hospital.

Trenton State Hospital

The original layout of the building, designed in the Kirkbride Plan.

The hospital was founded by Dorothea Dix, a pioneer in the treatment of mental health patients. She lobbied state legislatures and the United States Congress. Her 1844 investigation into the conditions at New Jersey jails and almhouses led to her calling for an immediate release of funds to construct a facility for the care and treatment of the mentally ill. On 25 March 1845, a bill was passed paving the way for the establishment of a state facility. Trenton, the state capital of New Jersey, was chosen as the location for the new asylum.

Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix circa 1850.

The first public mental hospital in the state of New Jersey opened on 15 May 1848. The Hospital’s first superintendent was Dr. Horace A. Buttolph and 86 patients were admitted in the first year. As the first building designed under the Kirkbride Plan, it was subject to visits from doctors and psychiatrists from around the United States and even beyond. The hospital and its patients were under scrutiny as the effects of Thomas Story Kirkbride’s theories were analysed.  It was deemed to be a resounding success.

The main building was designed by architect John Notman and consisted of accommodation for the staff, offices, a chapel, kitchens, six female wards, six male wards and rooms to treat patients. The state decreed that no patient could stay any shorter than 6 months.

The first extension came in 1853 when accommodation was added to house a further 250 patients. A museum and reading room were added shortly after, followed by an exercise room and ten-pin bowling alley. In 1858, a laundry building was added and in 1863, the main building was extended adding capacity for a further 200 patients. Overcrowding was still a problem though and in 1876, some of the patients were moved to a newly opened facility in Morristown. It did little to alleviate the overcrowding problems and another new building, intended mainly for chronic and incurable cases was opened in 1889. Over time a number of other buildings and extensions were added including a school for training nurses and scientific laboratories.

Trenton State Hospital hallway

A hallway in the abandoned section of the hospital.

By 1954 there were 4,237 people at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital but with the increasing use of medication for mental illness, that number began to drop and wards were closed. As patient numbers decreased over time, more and more of the buildings in the complex were closed off and left abandoned. There was a riot in the 1960s which led to the abandonment of one building in the complex.

The hospital became the subject of much debate, notably at first under the directorship of Dr Henry Cotton who believed infection was the cause of mental illness. Dr Cotton came from the Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. Under his instruction, infected body parts were removed from hospital patients and teeth were routinely pulled out. In fact, teeth were still being removed from patients until the 1960s and in some instances, even if x-rays showed no infection. The cure rate was said to be 85% however the mortality rate was extremely high and he didn’t always have permission to perform the surgeries.

Trenton Psychiatric Hospital

A sign at the entrance to Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

Today, Trenton Psychiatric Hospital provides a holistic approach to patient care and still serves the people of New Jersey. Much of the original Kirkbride building may be abandoned but it paved the way for others to follow. Thanks to pioneers like Thomas Story Kirkbride and Dorothea Dix, American mental health patients finally got the treatment and care they needed. Unfortunately, others like Henry Cotton abused that care.

Location: Trenton, New Jersey, USA 🇺🇸
Abandoned: Still in operation



6 thoughts on “Trenton Psychiatric Hospital – An Abandoned Institution In New Jersey”

  1. I was there when I was 17yrs old (1985-86) it was being investigated for the death of a boy that was known to have seizures and died in the tub from drowning, And other abuse from staff. My first day in the cottage unit this down syndrome girl was throwing into the room across the floor from outside,they said she tried to run away again. The adolescent unit was closed down later that year and most of the kids were moved to Arthur Brisbane children treatment center, and most of the staff workers, the state didn’t fix the problem just moved it so where elsewhere,to make it look good on paper.

  2. I was conceived there. My parents were both patients and somehow came together. My mother was taken from there to give birth and then returned. I actually was able to get a lot of her medical records. Later adopted, but a very intense story when I finally got all of the information.

    1. my brother was there at the children’s ward then after 13 to the adult was so sad..I still cry about what he went thru…he’s passed now..1966 to 77……

  3. Pingback: Danvers State Hospital - An Abandoned Psychiatric Hospital

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