Sunday Pastries With the Dead 15
A cemetery for patients from a now-abandoned circa-1907 NJ sanatorium.
Deserted sanatoriums have been fodder for ghost-hunting shows, urban legends, and horror movies since they went out of popular use in the 1950s. These medical ephemera and rubble-strewn shells of convalescence homes are ideal visual backdrops for creepy tales, and the fact that about 50% of their occupants died on the premises (and some less upstanding locales practiced horrifying experiments on patients) all but guarantees that more than a few traumatized spirits have stuck around.
Psychiatric centers of the early 1900s, especially, were infamous for treating their occupants appallingly and disposing of their forgotten, unwanted bodies without ceremony. So I was surprised to find that, in the crumbling shadow of New Jersey’s first tuberculosis sanatorium-turned-psychiatric hospital, there’s a cemetery for its early residents. You have to hike a trail deep into the woods to find it, though. Suffice it to say: this Sunday Pastries visit was...brief.
Today’s location is accessible by way of some beautiful country backroads, perched atop a hill with an expansive view of the region, including a nearby reservoir. The original hospital was opened in 1907 to house tuberculosis sufferers at a time when the disease was rampant and fresh air was considered the best cure.
The institution was built to be the gold standard in care and was designed to take in around 500 people each year. Its treatments were cutting-edge; over 10,000 patients were tended to between 1907 and 1929. By the 1950s, once the antibiotic cure for tuberculosis was readily available (it was discovered in 1943), the facility widened admission to those with various chest diseases, and later even some psychiatric patients. It was closed in the late 1970s and has been left to molder ever since. Here are some incredible (and deeply unsettling) photos of the abandoned hospital’s interior before it was barred to trespassers (there are now road blockades and cameras around the perimeter—I didn’t dare venture further than the public areas).
I’m guessing that the adjoining cemetery for patients exists because this facility was used as a model for what the very best treatment centers could be, both in structure and moral practice. Even so, it’s decidedly out-of-sight-out-of-mind, and the burial markers are extremely understated. There’s about a mile between the old sanatorium grounds and the graveyard, and smack-dab in the middle is a modern state-operated veterans’ treatment center—one must drive around that building and park next to a small sign signifying the cemetery path’s entrance.
After that, it’s a short hike following blue markers affixed to trees. The forested area is flush with Norway spruce and white pines planted in the 1930s for the benefit of patients’ outdoor excursions. From the moment I plunged into the woods, I was extremely aware of how alone I was and I felt eyes on me everywhere. Once I made it to the graveyard (visible thanks to rows of small dirt-stained American flags jutting from the leaf-strewn ground), I sat for a moment and warred with my feelings. Was I bringing my preconceived Hollywood-stoked notions about sanatoriums and their patients with me, or was I sensing a true threat?
From what I could tell via the spirits, I think it was a bit of both. They seemed greatly concerned that I’d traveled alone to the remote spot, but many of them lived in an era when women rarely did things unchaperoned. I got the sense that they’d been well cared for, but the longer I stayed there the harder it became for me to breathe. Clairsentiently, I understood the health issues that brought them to this place.
There are about 50 headstones here, all of them flush with the ground. Without the flags to designate their locations, many would remain hidden beneath the fallen leaves. Most of those buried in the 1920s have very simple slate ground markers with etched names that are largely faded. The oldest death date is that of Annie Farmera in 1918, 11 years after the facility opened. I wonder what became of the bodies from before that time, and the surely many others who died during the facilities’ heyday? I’m hoping for the best-case scenario: that they were transferred to cemeteries of their relatives’ choosing, or to rest among family plots.
Two headstones that gave me pause were Rocco Maccaroni (just an epic name), and the majestically-monikered Arlington A. Rodenbough, who shares a May 10th birthday with me.
While ascending the trail, my lungs burning from the latent effect of my connection with the spirits who arrived seeking a cure but never left, I thought again of the legends surrounding these treatment facilities. I pondered the time in which those interred lived—a period when an incurable airborne disease was a major public health threat. Of all the parallel moments in history, this one felt a bit close to home.
“Now the whole world’s a sanatorium,” the dead called after me.
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