As my anticipated plans for the day fell through, one after the other, I took the opportunity to enjoy the sunshine warming the sandy cliffs at the end of Dock Road in nearby Kings Park. I followed the road to the end and discovered a parking lot filled with cars and a beach. It was nice to see people outside enjoying time together after a long winter and one year of social distancing. A group of older men sat together behind their cars as one fellow showed off the tricks his drone could do.
I headed toward a trail easily identified with a sign and some steps. Another couple and their puppy followed me up the trail, then sat down to enjoy their cold coffee drinks. The trail winds along the bluff with occasional gaps in the trees offering spectacular views. From the top of the bluff I could see Sunken Meadow State park where I got married in 2019, one of the last big parties before the pandemic!
After taking a few photos from this scenic overlook, I remembered that last summer we had gotten lost attempting to find a restaurant in this area and drove past the deserted Kings Park Psychiatric Center. I wondered if it was possible to take a closer look and pulled out my handy Google app to get more information.
In fact, the former hospital and some of the abandoned buildings are part of a state park with plenty of parking and trails for hiking, biking and walking dogs. I registered the address into my map app and within 3 minutes found a parking spot at a mostly deserted campus of the former hospital. A few men were working on a roof, but it seemed to be OK to get out and walk around the grounds.
Advancing towards the first building I was in awe of how the dormant trees and bare vines gave the old building with broken windows an even more haunted look. The photos I took of the buildings were cool, but looked even better in tinted black and white.
I imagined the people who lived in these buildings which looked much like a college campus. The 873 acres were used to house patients and also ran a farm colony where therapies included farm related activities like feeding animals and growing food. The objective was to move patients from being secured in dinghy basements in the cities to getting more sunlight and leading productive lives by learning skills and keeping busy with work.
Opened in 1885, the Kings Park Asylum opened to alleviate overcrowding from the Kings County Asylum in Brooklyn. In reading up on the history, I was surprised to learn that more women were usually retained in the mental hospital than men.
But then I thought about mental health and women. What a great topic for Women’s History Month.
One hundred fifty years ago women could be sent to the nearby lunatic asylum for a number of ailments that seem very commonplace today. Grief from the loss of a spouse or child could lead a woman to depression or agony. PMS could be mistaken for insanity.
Unhappy husbands committed their wives based on their own subjective observations. Being admitted for substance abuse with alcohol or other addictive substances were common. Alzheimer’s disease wasn’t identified yet, so if women became forgetful or confused, off they were sent to the asylum.
Of course once admitted, it was often difficult to leave.
In 1905, State Hospital for the Insane changed its name to Kings Park State Hospital. Also the previously established school of nursing was registered with the State Department of Education.
I knew this place reminded me of my years at a State University of New York.
In 1948, following World Wars l and ll, and the Spanish- American war, the hospital census included 1748 veterans suffering from mental illnesses. Many veterans required some type of therapy. Experiences in battle led to long lasting traumatic effects such as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and the hospital was able to offer support in the way of hypnosis therapy which sometimes caused amnesia.
The numbers kept climbing at the Kings Park Psychiatric Center as it was later called and soon became overcrowded. In the town of Kings Park which had 16,000 residents, over 10,000 patients were housed on the state property serviced by approximately 700 employees.
Yes, some inmates did escape.
While the hospital with all its land and good intentions were an improvement from insane asylums of the previous centuries, abuses still happened. Reports of patients beaten, even killed due to becoming problematic were common. Patients beating each other by choking was considered common. Patients locked away in isolation or treated with electric shock therapy were doled out to difficult patients. There were even rumors of patients being taken down into the underground tunnels to be tortured due to bad behavior.
In the year 1951, the hospital started to perform pre-frontal lobotomies on a select group of women.
By 1955, 5% of the patients were receiving Thorazine or Serpasil as drug therapy and the use of restraints declined by a whopping 50%!
The farm buildings were eventually phased out and replaced with community centers for the mentally ill and funding for psychoactive drug research.
Some buildings still stand in the Nissequogue State Park which is open to hikers, bikers and even dogs on leash as far as I could tell. Walking among the buildings made me curious as to who stayed here and why. I’d love to imagine a cooperative environment where people healed from mental anguish. I’d love to think that counselors were available to console the bereaved and to help people move forward to becoming productive and well adjusted members of society,
I’ve seen enough scary images of mental institutes, or as they were called, lunatic asylums, to have a vague idea what may have happened on these grounds.
For more detailed information about this place, I recommend the book: Kings Park Psychiatric Center: A Journey Through History Volume 1 by Jason Medina
It’s a peaceful place to walk and spend a warm early spring afternoon with your thoughts. If you are having a bad day, like I was, just walk around this place and imagine what life could have been like.
Then go home and count your blessings. What are you grateful for today?