Erected in 1896, Overbrook Asylum was Essex County's local answer to the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital for the housing and care
of mentally, and in some cases physically, handicapped residents. The facility had well over a dozen buildings on 90 acres,
most of them connected via miles of subterranean tunnels running under the grounds.
During its 110 years of service, Overbrook's patients endured many hardships. One of the most noteworthy events took place in the winter of 1917,
when the asylum's boiler broke down leaving the inhabitant's without heat for twenty days. During that time, 24 people lost their lives to the cold,
many freezing to death in their beds. During the great depression large numbers of homeless found refuge here, but over-crowding and heavily rationed
food made living conditions very poor. Following World War II, there was a large influx of patients suffering from 'shell shock' and post-traumatic
stress disorders. Because of this, the asylum became extremely overcrowded and staff was hard-pressed to manage the needs of so many patients.
Not surprisingly, numerous accounts of neglect, starvation, escapes and suicides were reported.
In the first half of the 20th Century, mental illness remained poorly understood. Thus, numerous forms of attempted treatment that took place at Overbrook
would, today, be widely conceived as forms of torture. A particular specialization was the relatively tame discipline of hydrotherapy, also known as hydropathy,
or water cures. However, electrotherapy and even prefrontal lobotomies were performed also performed here. Many patients
were never cured, and the official number of deaths inside the walls of Overbrook would eventually reach into the tens of thousands.
A growing interest in psychiatric medicine during the 1950's and 1960's saw tremendous strides in research and the development of new treatments.
As such, the number of patients began to drop dramatically, and would continue to do so. By the time the asylum closed in 2006,
the facility was operating only out of a small wing of one building, while the rest of the hospital was left to decay around it.
Its role was subsumed into the nearby, newly-erected Essex County Hospital Center.
Entering this place, it feels less a hospital than a winding labyrinth of red brick and dirty mortar. The sheer scale of the grounds is difficult to
communicate in text, photo, or film. The imagination suggests the sense of having left the familiar world behind for something altogether separate,
where every angle of the corridor reveals another bend, or stairwell, or row of doorways, and every room has a story to tell. Overbrook is more than
just a discarded husk or out-dated facility. It is a testament to the massive strides in healthcare and basic human rights made during recent decades,
and a crumbling monument to those who toiled, suffered and died before they became a reality.