Researching New Jersey’s Mental Hospitals

1849 New Jersey State Asylum Report

1849 New Jersey State Asylum Report
1849 State Asylum Report Title Page
The reports of New Jersey’s State Asylums to the Legislature are now digitized and available online in our New Jersey State Publications Digital Library. These documents are snapshots of how the State perceived, housed, and treated the mentally ill. Researchers of the history of medicine, the history of social movements, and the history of patient rights will find these collections of interest.

On Tuesday February 5, Digital Librarian Caitlyn Cook presented “From Dorothea Dix to the Post-War Era: Historic Reports of New Jersey’s Mental Hospitals.” Cook discussed the unique contents of over seventy years of government documents, during a period when the treatment of mental illness was undergoing profound change.

The State Hospital network included facilities in Trenton, Morristown, Ancora (Hammonton), Glen Gardner, Arthur Brisbane (Farmingdale), and Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital. Our collection is incomplete, but you can browse our print holdings in our catalog under the heading Psychiatric Hospitals – New Jersey or by searching the State Library catalog by facility name. The most complete collections of reports in the Library’s collection are from the Trenton and Morristown facilities and these, as well as Ancora, have been digitized. Additional reports will be digitized over time. We actively collect and will add new state documents to the library’s collection when they are made available to us.

Digitized State Hospital Collections

To date, librarians have digitized the following State Hospital collections.

What do Asylum Reports contain?

State Asylum at Trenton baseball team
State Asylum at Trenton baseball team
Report contents varied widely year to year. A budget statement was always included, but in some years you will find photographs of patient activities and treatment rooms, architectural drawings, and renderings of building works. The other persistent feature of asylum reports are patient statistics; these did vary year to year, but they typically include gender, race, occupation before admission, reason for the illness and its duration, and New Jersey county of origin. The eugenics movement in the early 1900s prompted reporting on patients’ ethnicity, level of education, and literacy. In some years, you will find charts that attempted to correlate diagnosis with ethnicity. Some reports contain pathology reports, x-rays, microscopy, and summaries of autopsies conducted at the hospital, including individual patients’ ages and genders, as well as brief summaries of autopsy findings.

Other Sources for Asylum Research

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of the Trenton Asylum, 1908
Plans of the asylums were included in some reports, but can also be viewed on fire insurance maps. State employees and TESU staff and students can access the interactive database Fire Insurance Maps Online with their state library card. Older fire insurance maps are public domain; freely available digital collections can be accessed from Princeton University and the Library of Congress.

Asylum reports did not name individual patients and will be of limited use to the genealogist. Extant patient records are in the collections of the New Jersey State Archives and are unavailable to the public except under extraordinary circumstances. Records of the chancery court (also held at the State Archives) may contain information about the legal circumstances under which patients were committed.

U. S. Federal Census returns include names of all patients and staff residing on the campus. On some returns, resident occupations and ethnicity were included. To find state asylum listings on the Census, try searching for the superintendent at the time the census was conducted. For example see the 1850 record for asylum superintendent Dr. Horace Buttolph; asylum residents and staff appear on pages 30-35. See Dr. Buttolph’s record in 1870; residents and staff are enumerated on pages 47-64.

About the Digital Publications Library

The New Jersey State Library’s State Publications Collection preserves all works published by the State and its entities, whether print or born digital. The digitization of our extensive print holdings is ongoing. Visit our collections in the New Jersey State Library Digital Publications Library. For questions about asylum reports, state publications, and other digital collections, contact Caitlyn Cook, New Jersey Reference & Digital Librarian, or Deborah Mercer, New Jersey Collections Librarian.