Pilgrim State Hospital

Pilgrim State Hospital

Painted upon the cold tile walls of a subterranean morgue, located in the dark recesses which form the under-structure of an abandoned asylum, can be found a Latin proverb just barely legible on the decaying wall adjacent to the autopsy table. “Let conversation cease. Let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights to help the living.“ Across the property a lavender curtain billows as wind enters in over jagged edges of shattered glass which once comprised a large bay window. Overlooking a landing no one uses. Above an empty lobby. Abutted by hallways echoing the sounds of nothing.

It's mostly all gone now, plowed under by a crew of workers as part of a plan to clean up the immediate area surrounding the still-functioning sections of the Pilgrim Hospital Center. When such places are done away with, especially when care is not properly taken, we often run a real risk of losing our history in the debris. This place stood but for a relatively brief moment in a state of abandonment, before the plows eventually came to remove it from existence. Unfortunately it is in these short windows of disuse that we find history often becomes most tangible, evoking emotions and interest in those who gaze upon its forgotten form.

This was what remained of the vacated portions of Pilgrim State Hospital in Long Island, NY. What was at one time the largest psychiatric hospital on the globe, with a peak patient population of almost 14,000, came to be little more than a broken collection of buildings dotting the grounds of what is still a partially-operational facility. Undone by modern medicine, and overrun by nature, these massive brick corpses serve as eerie reminders to medicine's darker times. Like so many of the patients who traversed their now empty corridors, these buildings were given numbers to serve as their names. Of all the numbers on these grounds, none holds a history so dark, or so tragic, as the looming edifice named “23”. It was here, on the uppermost floor, in an operating room overlooking the whole of the campus, that prefrontal lobotomies were preformed. Altering the lives of over 1,500 patients from the 1940's through the 1950's.

The operating room had been stripped by scrappers long ago, and weathered by the many years it has sat without use. Its barren and blackened walls enclosed an operating room floor which had come to be flooded with rainwater. Fogged windows cast a mirror image across the wet surface of the floor, the reflection periodically disturbed by small ripples as water dripped off ceiling beams. It's a depressing place, and through the unrelenting forces of time it has finally come to reflect so physically.

The construction of Pilgrim began in 1929, due primarily to severe overcrowding in city asylums. It's design was one of a “farm colony”, an institution based around the ideals of living and working in the open space of what was then rural Long Island. As the title implies; patients were to farm crops and work the land as part of their treatment. Opening October 1, 1931 on some 1,000 acres, Pilgrim housed it's own power plant, post office, police station, fire department, cemetery, water source, and a neighborhood of housing for the doctors and administrative personnel. Most all of which were connected under the sprawl via an intricate system of tunnels and passageways.

As the population grew at Pilgrim, the campus itself began to spread out. In the end the massive property was reaching into four separate townships of Suffolk county; Babylon, Huntington, Islip, and Smithtown. WWII saw several buildings taken for use by the War Department and utilized to aid traumatized soldiers. After the war the population surged at Pilgrim State Hospital, at its highest point the campus saw use by almost 18,000 people; 13,875 of them patients, and approximately 4,000 employees. This massive populous heralded the end of the farm-colony concept, as it withered away in lieu of the more modern medical practices which were gaining traction nationwide, such as electroshock treatments and the previously mentioned prefrontal lobotomies.

Even during the most affluent years for the use of lobotomies, the practice was always seen as controversial. In some documented cases, typically with patients who were severely violent or erratic, the operation had a “calming effect”, making the post-operation patient “quieter”. However in countless other situations it removed the very essence of the individual who received treatment, in effect dehumanizing them. Of course, when we look back with generations of medical advancement between then and now, we see this practice as primitive in form and barbaric in concept. To be in the shoes of a doctor in that time though, would surely reveal a completely different perspective on the matter. You would see thousands of people incapable of keeping from harming themselves and others. You would look to medicine for the answers, only to be greeted with a complete lack of understanding as to the cause and cure for their condition. You hear that a simple operation, hailing from Europe, has the ability to calm those who are unreachable by any other means. The answer would seem clear to you, a miracle treatment.

Time marches on. As the practice becomes mainstream in the United States, and is instated in hospitals nationwide, it becomes more and more typical to use as a crutch than as a cure. Situations obviously vary dramatically from case to case, but somewhere along the line doctors surely must have seen all the moral issues contained in such a method of treatment. Perhaps these doctors were doing the best they could given the tools at hand, but I have to think that surely they knew, if perhaps only one some base level, that what they were doing was wrong.

As mentioned - Pilgrim State Hospital still stands today, but it now goes by the title of Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. Though it has a much different anatomy than it once had. It operates out of about a third of the campus, The farm-colony was sold, renovated, and in 1974 became the Suffolk County Community College's Western Campus. A large portion of the unused acreage was also secured by a developer, who has slowly been leveling buildings. There are still numerous abandoned edifices which endure on the old property, but for how long is anyone’s guess.

Building 23 (now razed) is where the lobotomy procedures once took place.

In a darkened chamber beyond these morgue units stood an autopsy table.

This is an opposite view of the morgue doors from the previous image.
At one point this autopsy room was separated from the brightly lit morgue room by a literal wall of corpses.

These hand prints and smears were all some kind of deep blackish mold.

The carpeting in the administrative building had mostly all become covered in moss.


Doctors congregating in the operating room, where most all of Pilgrim's lobotomies took place. 

The operating room at the time of our visit.
Note the stainless steel door-frame, which is present in the background of the previous historical image.

The power plant lost its stacks long ago.


We documented Pilgrim State Hospital way back in 2011. Because of this, the following video is considerably different than our current ones, in both style of filming and in edit. We recorded this during a time when we were still early in the learning stages of cinematography. Furthermore, everything was shot on equipment which, by today's standards, would be considered pretty outdated. All that being said - We are very happy to have come away with what we did, especially since there is no way of ever returning to Pilgrim. An abandoned building can often be a fleeting thing, so to have anything at all to remember it by should always be seen as a blessing. Enjoy.