On the sprawling campus of the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital is a neglected brick building hidden behind overgrowth. The crumbling structure is no longer in use, and serves as a stark reminder of the site’s deeply troubled past.
The Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, originally the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum, was founded in 1848 by mental health advocate Dorothea Lynde Dix. It was the first public institution to employ the Kirkbride Plan, which promoted patient privacy and a welcoming, naturally lit environment.
In 1907, Dr. Henry Cotton became the hospital’s medical director. Cotton seemed a fine fit for the forward-thinking facility. He instituted occupational therapy programs and eliminated mechanical restraints used to subdue patients.
Unfortunately, Cotton’s barbaric approach to mental health soon turned the center into a hospital of horrors.
The not-so-good doctor believed infections were the root cause of all mental disorders. As a result, he used surgery as treatment. He and his staff routinely maimed their patients; they cut out teeth and gallbladders, stomachs, colons, testicles, and ovaries. Cotton reportedly paid particular attention to the right side of the hindgut, which he believed was the source of depraved impulses.
Cotton claimed to have achieved cure rates near 90 percent during his tenure – yet his death numbers were disturbingly high. What’s worse, many of his victims were dragged against their will into the operating room.
While he died in 1933, remnants of Dr. Cotton’s practices continued well into the second half of the twentieth century. Eventually, the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital forsook his brutal methods and certain wings of the campus fell into abandonment.