Monday, December 26, 2011

Madness Monday - Trenton Insane Asylum (Part II) Sad Tale of Two Sisters

Entrance to State Hospital for the Insane, Trenton, NJ 1917
This 1917 postcard showing the entrance to the New Jersey State Hospital, or more commonly called at the time, the Trenton Lunatic Asylum presents a pleasing picture of calm and tranquility.  As we all know however, pictures can be quite deceiving.  As I discussed in Part I of my story on Mary and Ella Rogers, from what I have learned I believe their time spent in this institution was anything but pleasant.

In the 1910 Census, the only Rogers listed in the State Asylum is Ellen Rogers which I believe to be Mary although the age is off a few years.  I could not find her listed in the 1920 census.  In the 1930 census, once again under the State Asylum is a Mary Rogers, born in Pennsylvania, which is correct.  However, the age is listed as 53 which would be incorrect.  Surprisingly, also listed is Ella Rogers, her sister. 
1930 Trenton City Census, New Jersey State Hospital

Dec 1927 Trenton Evening Times
Next I found two articles on Ella Rogers;  the first pertaining to guardianship in December of 1927 in the Trenton Evening Times for Miss Ella M. Rogers, formerly of 125 Jackson Street who is now a patient of the state lunacy hospital.  The article stated Ella Rogers had entered the institution on 6 Jun 1925, had been released twice when her condition improved, but was now bedfast and a guardian was needed and her property must be sold to assist in payment of her care.  The second article was her obituary dated 24 Nov 1948 in the Trenton Evening Times. 

24 Nov 1948 Trenton Evening Times

This entire story makes me terribly sad.  These two sisters both seem to have spent a large part of their lives in the New Jersey Insane Asylum; Mary for nearly forty years, Ella for over twenty years.  The research I’ve done on this institution has been horrifying.  From 1907 to 1933 the asylum was run by Dr. Henry Cotton who believed that insanity was the result of untreated infections in the body.  His treatment was “surgical bacteriology” or the removal of teeth, tonsils, testicles, ovaries, gall bladders, stomachs, spleens cervixes and especially colons.  The patients of the asylum were continuously subjected to these gruesome experimental surgeries in a time before antibiotics which resulted in a high mortality rate.  Many were dragged kicking and screaming to surgery as they knew what was coming.  Amazingly, Dr. Cotton was considered a "pioneer" in his field by the medical community, as reported by Mike Adams, award-winning journalist in his article about the "Dark History of Modern Medicine."

Several things occur to me;  one, before his death in 1907 Dr. Elmer H. Rogers, their brother, according to newspaper articles I have found, admitted patients to this asylum and went there on occasion to treat patients - he surely must have witnessed some of the shocking conditions although from what I have read the worst started around the time of his death. Two, how ironic that these two women who came from what seemed to be a charmed background, lived and died in this horrific institution.  Thirdly, I wonder if they were housed in the same vicinity and if so, were they even sane enough to know that they were sisters?  

It’s been over one hundred and ten years since Mary was admitted to this institution, around her early thirties and it brings tears to my eyes to think of this poor woman and her sad, tortured, wasted life.  I have no information abut her actual diagnosis, was she really “mad” or was she sent away by her family as was common for the times when they didn't know how to handle what is easily treated today as depression or perhaps even a bi-polar condition?  Whatever the truth, I don’t believe she and her sister deserved the “cure" they received.


  1. It sounds horrific. Do death certificates not give cause of death for the two ladies? Of course the cause of death might not tell you the cause of institutionalization.

    My aunt remembers going with her mother (my grandmother) to visit a female relative who was in a state hospital. My grandmother was adamant that the only reason the relative was in the state hospital was because her family didn't want to take care of her. My aunt does not remember the name of the person in the state hospital but through all of my searches I've found only one ancestor who was institutionalized. She had epilepsy.

    Have you read Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenburg?

  2. This is an incredibly interesting and sad story. It's wonderful that you decided to write about Mary and Ella to keep their story alive. If you hadn't researched them their story might have been forgotten, probably like hundreds of other people from that institution. You've given them a dignity in death which may have escaped them in life...

  3. Nancy, I do not have death certificates for them, they are very difficult to get for NJ. I had not considered epilepsy, but that is a good option. I have not read Annie's Ghosts but I will check it out.

    Cynthia, I have wanted to write their story for some time - it has really haunted me for some reason and they are not even related to me. Thank you for your kind words.

  4. My mother worked at this hospital during WWII. She wasn't a nurse, for she was only 18, but she worked as somthing like an aide. I grew up listening to her stories, some bad, but also some good ones. She spoke fondly of many of the patients. I still have her diaries and photos.

    1. I think after 1933 Dr. Cotton was gone so perhaps the patients were treated better by then. Your mother probably was there at a much better time. I wonder if she ever crossed paths with my husband's aunt? How very lucky you are to have her diaries and photos!

  5. I had an uncle George A. Hardy who was admitted to the hospital in 1910 when Dr. Cotton was in charge. He remained there until his death in 1941. I read the book: "Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine" by Andrew Scull. It details the time of Dr. Cotton's tenure. Very disturbing. I contacted the author and he believed that by the time Dr. Cotton started his surgical quest, my uncle would have been deemed hopeless. I'm not so sure he would have escaped all of the torture.

  6. I read your sad blog about your aunts' after you mentioned it today after reading my Sepia Saturday blog. It is impossible of course to enter into any speculation about why they became institutionalised. I have also skimmed the Wiki article about Dr Cotton, and again I cannot enter into any comment about his medical ethics that must be judged by the ethics at the time, and the early days or non availability of anti-biotics. What I do know, and what has not changed, is how terrifying madness can suddenly manifest itself in people with internal infections which do not have obvious other signs. I witnessed this with my mother a number of times as she got past 70, and it turned out to be urinary infections a number of times, and unspecified winter viral temperature another time. Eventually she did suffer from vascular dementia in her late 80s, but to me the symptoms from her behaviour were much the same as I had witnessed from infection causes. With a male cousin for whom I was carer, he had an onset of dementia in his 80s, and died some 12 months later of a heart attack in a care home. At his post mortem it was shown he had died of heart failure, but that he had an infected appendix. Nobody knew about that infection or was treating him for it. It bothers me now that, at the time his dementia came on, he had complained of severe back ache, which was unusual for him. I just wonder whether his year or more of mild dementia, which prevented him looking after himself, was in fact an infected appendix, which was unrecognised and untreated, partly perhaps because he was 'old', a prime suspect for onset of dementia, and he could not articulate himself well to the medical carers.


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