Saturday, March 29, 2014

Haunted Places: Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital

Today’s guest author is Denise K. Rago, known for her paranormal romance novels. Here she shares some history and photos of a haunted hospital near her home in Morris Plains, New Jersey.

"They have stripped me of my madness, 
that disease had sown and cultured,
They have granted me the spirit 
and the will to smile in healthy gladness,
When I’d once frowned like a vulture, 
in six months time on Greystone’s verdant hill." 

~ Richard Davis Comstock, patient at Greystone, 
from his book Rhymes of a Raver, 1930 ~

I know it as Greystone Park, a sprawling complex of buildings set on a massive hill smack in the middle of suburbia. Samuel Sloan’s New Jersey Hospital for the Insane opened its doors on August 17, 1877, to 342 patients to accommodate the overcrowded “lunatic asylum” in Trenton, New Jersey.

Greystone Park is synonymous with the famous Kirkbride building, built in the Second Empire Victorian style, and at 673,706 total square feet it alleges to be the largest continuous foundation surpassed only by that of the Pentagon built in 1943. 

The State Hospital at Morris Plains, ca. 1899, Morris Plains, New Jersey

“Courtesy of The Morristown & Morris Township Library, 
North Jersey Historical & Genealogy Center”

The Kirkbride Building 
~ Photograph taken by Denise K. Rago, 2013

Nestled in the lush green hills of Morris Plains, New Jersey; Greystone sat on 743 acres.  The plan for the main building called for 40 wards split into two wings, one to house men and the other for women with the center wing housing administrative offices. New dormitories were built to accommodate the inpatient population and the grounds spread to 1000 acres to include staff housing, a chapel, a post office, fire and police stations, a working farm, vocational and recreational facilities, ponds, a morgue stables and greenhouses. The hospital had its own quarry as well as gas and water utilities.  A trolley line connected the hospital with New Jersey Transit. 

Photograph of the train depot 
taken by Denise K. Rago

In later years, tales of the abuse and neglect of patients were synonymous with the institution but in the nineteenth century the belief was that 70 to 90% of insanity cases were curable, however the proper architecture was essential for the comfort, security and recovery of the patients.  Mental illness had been attributed to demonic possession and moral weakness, however, Dr.  Thomas Kirkbride, a Pennsylvania born Quaker, believed that the mentally ill could be treated and cured with kindness and care in an environment designed to treat them. 

Greystone was just the place, complete with airy rooms filled with Victorian furniture, housing only two patients per room; however, to decrease the chances of fire, stone, brick, slate and iron were used in the construction of the buildings. His design, called the Kirkbride model, became popular around the country, written about by Carla Yanni in her book The Architecture of Madness. 

Known to us locals as ‘Greystone’ it was once a place I would avoid, fearful of even driving near the grounds. My mother would jokingly accuse my brothers and I of “sending her to Greystone” with our bad behavior, which meant we were driving her crazy.  It was an anomaly in our middle-class, suburban world. A place for crazy people. And as rumors spread about the patients and how they were treated, most people stayed away. 

The hospital population peaked in the 1950s with the return of soldiers from World War II suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Perhaps Greystone’s most famous patient was folk singer, Woody Guthrie, committed to Greystone on May 29, 1956 with Huntington’s disease, which he inherited from his mother.  Guthrie nicknamed Greystone “Gravestone” and called his hospital ward “Wardy Forty” for Ward 40.  Although he was moved to a New York hospital in 1961 where he died, his daughter Nora has joined in efforts to preserve Greystone. 

Photograph taken of an abandoned building 
by Denise K. Rago

Dormitory photo taken by author 2014

In the 1970s and 1980s, trends in mental health shifted towards the deinstitutionalization of mental patients, and by 2003 the hospital closed its door. There had always been much bad press about the hospital, including stories of patient suicides, the sexual assault of patients and a twice-convicted rapist escaping from the hospital.  In 1974, community homes were built as halfway houses for the patients. 

A new hospital has been built on the same grounds and covers over one square mile and consists of 43 buildings.  Though the historic Kirkbride building remains standing its fate is unclear. An organization formed to preserve the hospital and several of the historic buildings continues to work with the State of New Jersey to take over vacant structures for non-profit agencies.  The County purchased Greystone Park from the State for $1.00 while exploring its options for the park and buildings.
Ghost Stories

Once abandoned, rumors of hauntings clouded Greystone, especially involving the dank underground tunnels which connected various building and were used to transport patients and other commodities.  I myself know of people who have worked on the grounds, sharing their tales of “feeling watched” while there or “not able to get out of there quick enough.” 

Even while taking photographs, I stay in my car and especially now that the grounds are patrolled daily by the local police.  Still, I cannot imagine the landscape without the Kirkbride building. It is a part the community, for better or worse. 

Filmmaker Sean Stone, son of movie director Oliver Stone, set his sights on making a movie on the grounds of Greystone Park.  Simply titled Greystone Park, the filmmakers came here in 2009 to explore the haunted asylum famous for electroshock, insulin therapy, and lobotomies; however the crew got more than they bargained for and the film is based on their experience 

Here is a trailer for the film Greystone Park.

Weird, New Jersey, a popular magazine, has numerous articles written about the abandoned buildings, the possible demolition of the Kirkbride building, and touring the asylum.  Presently, there are working non-profits on the grounds but the energy feels oppressive, even on a sunny day.  The Kirkbride building has been used in numerous television shows and films, including Marvin’s Room and House, M.D.

Did Jack The Ripper Die in Greystone?

The title of the article in Weird, New Jersey stated, and I was immediately drawn in further to an article published in 1923 in the Empire News about a Norwegian sailor named Fogelma who was committed to the Morris Plains Lunatic Asylum in New Jersey, better known as Greystone. Apparently he was subject to fits of rage and insanity, describing scenes and incidents that clearly connected him with the crimes of 1888 in London.  His sister also found press clippings in his belongings about the Whitechapel murders, and although Scotland Yard was notified, no follow up was ever done.  The archivist at Greystone said there was no record of such a patient, and one wonders about the validity of the newspaper article. But still it’s a great story and who knows?

References for further reading and great photographs:
e)   Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital – Wikipedia


Author Denise K. Rago, grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, minutes away from Greystone Psychiatric Hospital.  Author of two paranormal romance novels, Immortal Obsession and Blood Tears, you can learn more about her at