While New Jersey is slowly but surely destroying their historic haunts, one haunt remains active. Take a tour through Trenton.

The Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, formerly called the State Lunatic Asylum, was established in 1848 by Dorothea Dix under the best intentions. However, when Dr Henry Cotton took it over in 1907, horrible violations of human rights began to take place. Hence, the haunting. Trenton is still in operation. So, we will take a virtual tour of the abandoned facilities, and the haunting tales behind it.

Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, 1848
Photo compliments of Wikimedia Commons
Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, 1848
Photo compliments of Wikimedia Commons

The History of Trenton

Late 1800's mental patient photo and notes
Late 1800’s mental patient photo and notes
Photo compliments of METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum, founded in 1848 in Trenton, New Jersey, was the first public Asylum in the state. Dorothea Dix ran it. The first superintendent was Doctor Horace Buttolph. The building’s architecture was based on the Kirkbride Plan. The Kirkbride Plan was a building design that included patient treatment by natural light and fresh air.

One of Trenton’s famous patients was John Forbes Nash. Nash made significant contributions to game theory, differential geometry, and economics. Mid-way during Nash’s career, he was admitted to the institution under the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Later, he rehabbed and was released to return to his work. The famous movie A Beautiful Mind was based upon Nash’s life.

Many mental hospitals were used for experimenting on humans in the 1800s and early 1900s. Trenton’s fateful past included experimental surgery on its patients. Innovative operations were often done without the families’ knowledge or permission. Many patients died at Trenton due to infections from no use of anesthesia and medication. Victims of these experiments often included the ill and mentally ill.

Trenton’s Sordid Past

Abandoned hallway at Trenton
Abandoned hallway at Trenton
Photo compliments of Dave Scaglione

The haunts began with the psychotic behaviours of a psychiatric doctor. Dr Cotton believed that because syphilis caused mental illness and the degeneration of organs, then syphilis caused psychological illness. His answer to the problem was to remove organs from his patients to remove their mental illness.

Many patients had organs and teeth removed under the care of Dr Cotton. Organs, including gall bladders, colon tracts, and parts of the stomach were removed. Teeth (often uninfected) were removed as well. This was all done without the use of anaesthesia.

While mental illness improved by 85 per cent with the treatments, many patients died. Often, Dr Cotton didn’t even have the approval to perform the surgeries. My take on the patients’ improvements is that they were no longer forced to be bound with restrictive devices and occupational therapy was introduced.

The Haunts of the State Lunatic Asylum

There are claims that the ghosts of tortured patients still haunt Trenton
There are claims that the ghosts of tortured patients still haunt Trenton.
Photo compliments of Eric Muller

Many accounts of hauntings at the Asylum include sightings of ghosts with missing limbs. Other considerations include audio hauntings such as screams and moans from the patients’ rooms. The most popular haunting is Dr. Cotton, who can be seen wandering the halls in his doctor’s jacket.

Trenton cannot be toured because the facility is still in operation with four hundred beds.  Sneaking in is not recommended because it has security. However, for the one who figures out how to visit Trenton unnoticed, here are some bullet points for seeking out spooks.

Most ghost hunters have experienced haunts such as cold spots (measured with EMF meters) and phantom touch. Feeling uneasy is subjective. The most popular places for haunts are the Frost Building, lab, and Women’s Ward. The lab was where Dr. Cotton performed the tortures of unmedicated surgeries. The Women’s Ward may be famous because more women were operated on; hence more women may have died.


There is any number of photos of asylums and haunts from the past. However, I have found that Dave Scaglione’s photography of Trenton is by far the best. His address is attached below the photo above to view his full album. The scary stories of yesteryear are falling to the wayside with each Asylum that is being demolished. Parking lots and business buildings now take precedence over history. Please read about our asylums. A recommendation is Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine by Andrew Scull. Watch the videos. While I can’t guarantee the accuracy of all the stories, learn about our sordid past, so we don’t repeat these horrors in the future.