Happy New Year!
As we contemplate our past and future, we should not forget those less fortunate than ourselves. In fact, on Interstate 95, we pass many places that were scenes of both healing and misery.
Richard Conniff wrote in National Geographic:
“In the strange territory called the Meadowlands, just west of Manhattan, a battered volcanic knob of rock juts up from the mudflats and reed thickets. Its history, like its name, is colorful. Snake Hill was once home to the indigent and the insane, and prisoners in the county jail here broke up the rock with sledgehammers. Its solidity once inspired a passing ad man to use “the rock” as the symbol of a great insurance company (though the concept somehow got refined along the way from Snake Hill to Gibraltar).
On a cold windy evening, this 200 Million year old remnant of the Triassic is an excellent spot to sit and look out on one of the weirdest and least reputable landscapes on Earth: the New Jersey Meadowlands. Everybody’s trying to get somewhere else. Rush-hour trains moan and clatter across the wetlands. Trucks on the New Jersey Turnpike roar right through a cut in the rock.
Snake Hill was formed by the same intrusion of magma that created the Palisades cliffs along the nearby Hudson River. The Dutch colonists who originally settled the area called the 252 foot high bluff 'Slangenbergh' ('Snakes Mountain') because of the many snakes found there.
From 1855 to 1962 there were Hudson County penal and charitable institutions on Snake Hill. It was essentially a self-contained city in which hundreds of people lived. The grounds had its own support facilities that included a sewer system, reservoir, electricity plant and incinerator. The on-site institutions included two almshouses, which provided shelter for the poor and elderly, a penitentiary, a quarry, and a number of medical facilities, all grouped on the north side of Snake Hill. The medical facilities included a Contagious Diseases Hospital, a Tuberculosis Sanatorium, and most infamously, the Hudson County Lunatic Asylum, which existed from 1873 - 1939.
When the Asylum opened it had a capacity of 140 patients. By the time it closed its population had exploded ten fold. Different wings were designated for men and women, and each room held several beds. People admitted to the Asylum were not restricted to the mentally ill, and whose conditions ranged from schizophrenia to syphilis. Many people were admitted to the hospital "who had no reason to be there: healthy residents who had been determined by their relatives to be a burden." Residents sometimes signed in their elderly relatives when they could no longer afford to take care of them. Some who were rebellious or difficult would be remanded to locked cells or worse: frontal lobotomies often denied committed patients of any hankerings for freedom. So they would live here forgotten until death.
At the time, it was not difficult to sign in a patient, but harder for one to leave the hospital. According to Secaucus Town Historian Dan McDonough, "Anybody could sign somebody in. However, you would need three doctors to sign you out." The causes of death of many patients were not recorded, because the patients had been given pauper's funeral in the potter's field on the grounds, which is known as the Hudson County Burial Grounds.
In 1927 the area was renamed Laurel Hill and in the 1930s the Asylum adopted the name Mental Disease Hospital as they was believed to be a less offensive name. At the end of that decade, the hospital was moved to County Avenue in Secaucus, at the location where Meadowview Psychiatric Hospital now exists. In 1939, the Mental Disease Hospital, which by then housed 1,872 people, ceased operations.
In 2003, more than 4,500 bodies of poor people, prisoners and patients were moved from the grounds to make way for the Turnpike's Exit 15X ramp. You may take that Exit now. And do not worry about aggravating avenging angels: all the cadavers of the poor unfortunate inmates of the Snake Hill Asylum have been moved.
Or have they?
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