Letchworth Village History - Abandoned Insane Asylums
When Good Intentions Turn Bad: A Look at Letchworth Village
Close your eyes and think about all the good things in your life. Your family, a job, food on the table, maybe a spouse and a few kids, some great lifelong friends. People who love you. Now imagine those very same people abandoning you. Disgusted by you. Ashamed. Refusing to even acknowledge your existence. Seems cruel and far fetched, right? Well for thousands of innocent souls at Letchworth Village, this was a sad and common reality.
Just two hours outside of Brooklyn, we are cruising through Rockland County, New York, passing scattered farmhouses, and thick forests. Soon we come upon the picturesque Harriman State Park. We turn onto Letchworth Village Rd. and traverse our way through dense woods, rolling hillsides, and then the secluded scenery ends as we descend upon a massive neoclassical structure. Vintage lamp posts and curved roads leading to rustic stone buildings create an idealistic bliss until you reach the institution. You see vine and ivy covered ruins, ginormous and impressive arch windows are smashed in fury, the panes left rotting. Other windows are completely boarded up and bear a no trespassing warning. Vandalized and covered in graffiti, this once serene village hospital despairs into a complete desolation. If you happen to find a peek inside of a smashed window, you will see chairs and beds strewn about. All belongings of the past. All left behind to rot with all that was before into a state of oblivion.
Welcome to Letchworth Village. You have reached your destination
Noble Beginnings and a Man With a Heart
In the late 19th century, a businessman, humanitarian, and philanthropist named William Pryor Letchworth came up with the idea of this community village for the physically and mentally disabled of all ages. His dream was to give an alternative to the ever rising inhumane asylums popular of that time period by creating a peaceful, countryside farming village where patients could work and grow their own food. Therefore, the community was built on many acres of land. The architecture was modeled after Thomas Jefferson's Plantation Monticello in Virginia. Unfortunately, William Pryor Letchworth died before the institution was complete and opened in 1911. But you can pay a visit to his old estate in upstate western New York. It is now the astonishing Letchworth State Park which I have visited numerous times being from around that area.
The History of Letchworth Village Insane Asylum
Letchworth Village was a functioning psychiatric hospital in Haverstraw, New York. It was a residential location in Rockland County near the picturesque Harriman State Park. Spread over 2,363 of acres of land, the village was composed of over 130 buildings at its peak. The buildings were divided into six groups that would ultimately form a U-shaped pattern. Publicly noted as " a state institution for the segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded", it was founded on several different concepts by William Pryor Letchworth as an alternative to the much less humane current insane asylums.
Separate living quarters and training facilities were set up to segregate children, women, men, and the elderly. This separation divided the campus into two halves with the Minisceongo creek running through the two areas ensuring the different sexes never mingled. The institution was built to house 2,000 patients in the 130 buildings and boasted to the public "an acre for every patient." Construction of each dormitory was not to exceed two stories and built to house only 70 patients. There were more structures for dining halls, housing for the staff, and a hospital in addition to a gym, theater, Sunday school, laboratory, fire house, boiler house, laundry rooms, a refrigeration plant, bakery, storehouse, workshops, and administrative offices. It was basically a community within a community. Patients were to be able to farm, plow, cook, sew, clean, carpentry, care for the animals, and many other useful skills. They even made toys and sold them at Christmas time.
The final completion of Letchworth Village was so vast that the institution lies at the heart of three towns: Haverstraw, Thiells, and Stony Point. The acres surrounding created a ton of leisure space for patients and they were able to grow their own crops while attending to livestock as well. In addition to being a more humane environment for the disabled, it was also very beneficial to the surrounding towns employing about 10,000 locals during the mental institution's peak.
Letchworth started out with the best of intentions, but along the way, something went wrong, very wrong...— Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures on The Travel Channel
Did You Know?
One of the first polio vaccinations was administered at Letchworth Village to an 8-year old boy in 1950. When it was successfully administered with zero side effects, 19 more were then given to patients.
When a Serene Village Turns Sinister
Letchworth Village was described to most as an ideal place for the mentally disabled and was even praised by the public. What would come next was a devastating end to a very promising beginning.
Rumors soon surfaced of cruelty, neglect, mistreatment, and malnourished patients. But the most shocking rumor of all? Horrific experimentation...and mostly on children. The first superintendent of Letchworth Village, Dr. Charles Little, believed in strict segregation from society and from each other in the village community.
"Moron", "Imbecile", "Idiots", that was how Dr. Little referred to and categorized the mentally challenged patients at Letchworth. The buildings then became seperated by mental capacity. The three groups included
- Middle aged and Industrious
- Young and Improvable
- Infirm and Helpless
The able-bodied were expected to work the farms on the property to raise enough food and livestock to feed the entire population of Letchworth Village. If the patients couldn't be trained to do the variety of jobs expected such as building roads and loading coal, then Dr. Little wanted no part of them at Letchworth. His reasoning? Those who were not capable of performing such tasks would not "benefit the state", when so many of them were children.
The children of Letchworth suffered the most cruelty and neglect. Visitors and staff recall observing them looking sick and suffering from malnutrition as there was a scarcity of water, food, and other necessities. Reports started surfacing of inadequate funding and neglect of residents, especially the children. Residents were found unclothed and unbathed. Among reports of neglect came abuse. And not just of the patients. Many of the staff ultimately reported abuse and rape by fellow co-workers.
So many of the children could comprehend learning but were never given the chance. They were thought of as "different" and "unworthy". Instead of given the chance at schooling and the benefit and gift of learning, they were subjected to abuse and horrific scientific testing.
It was the top facility of its kind in the whole country. But it became a victim of its own success.— Corinne McGeorge- Amatuer Historian and Exhibit Maker of Letchworth Village
Overcrowding and Notable Incidents
Approximately 1,200 patients were residents at Letchworth by 1921. By the 1950's, the village was vastly overpopulated with over 4,000 patients. And by the 1960's, that number rises to over 5,000. That is a massive difference compared to the 2,000 residents the institution was built to house.The state had at some point decided not to build more structures, leading to patients being cramped into dormitories. At one point, there were 70 beds crammed into each dormitory and over 500 patients had to sleep on matresses in the hallways and day rooms. Because of the overcrowding, nurses only had thirty minutes to feed all the patients. They would literally shove the food down patients throats. This ultimately caused many recorded deaths of choking.
Families of the patients were as much of the blame as the staff was, often abandoning and neglecting their relatives at Letchworth and never returning or visiting.
Notable Incidents Include:
- Brain specimens were harvested from recently deceased patients. They were then stored in jars of formaldehyde and put on display in the laboratory.
- The bodies of the deceased were then diminished to nothing but a serial number, and buried a half a mile away in a small cemetery hidden in the forest.
- The atrocious conditions of the facility were finally brought to attention in the 1940's when a photojournalist by the name of Irving Haberman took a set of photographs while visiting, showing the true nature of the asylum. He exposed the public eye to the dirty and unkempt patients, most of them naked and covered in their own feces, huddled in the day rooms. There were only 2 or 3 nurses on shift at a time for every 80+ patients.
- But it wasn't until 1972 when a local newsman for ABC News, Geraldo Rivera, recorded a career-making documentary on asylums, that motivated the public to take a closer look at how the disabled were treated and cared for in this country. The documentary was called Willowbrook: The Last Disgrace, and was actually mainly centered around Willowbrook State School which was a similar institution on Staten Island. However, in the documentary was a piece on the overcrowded Letchworth Village and how the patients were living in a disgraced state of dirty and neglectful conditions. His documentary went on to earn The Peabody Award.
The Nameless Cemetery
Near the end of Call Hollow Rd. in Stony Point is a path into a thick woodland forest. One blink and you will miss it. A new sign has only recently been erected pointing out "The Old Letchworth Village Cemetery". Follow the path deep into those woods, and eventually you will find The Nameless Cemetery. It lays only a half a mile away from the institution. Once there, you will find t-shaped markers with no names, just numbers. Hundreds of numbers. Hundreds of numbers of the nameless victims who perished at Letchworth Village. That is all these hundreds of innocent souls were left with. But who was really to blame here, exactly? The state? The mental hospital? I vote yes, but I place the most blame on the victims families. Few people visit these graves, and it was the wishes of the families for them to remain nameless even after death. Few wished to remember their "defective" relatives, or to have their family names inscribed on the stones of the mentally challenged. This disgusts me tremendously.
Patients names are buried in the archives at Letchworth Village but they are completely off limits to the public.
It was only recently within the last few years that state agencies and advocates funded the installation of a memorial plaque now placed at the front of the cemetery, inscribed with the words "Those who shall not be forgotten" and a list of the silent deceased patients.
Letchworth Village Today
In 1996, Letchworth Village was finally permanently shut down after over 85 years in operation. Most of the structures remain desolate in serious disrepair and weathering away with time. Many of the buildings have been completely vandalized with graffiti, some even burned from suspected arson. Painted on the doors and boarded up windows of the structures is a warning bearing "No Trespassing". Inside the rusted doors, beds, chairs, medical equipment and paperwork, and patients belongings are strewn about everywhere. It appears as if the Letchworth Village was immediately abandoned, and that makes the already creepy institution that much more eerie. If you can find the Administrative Building, located behind a grove of thick, twisted branches, is the columns holding up the building and bearing the name of the horrendous 1st Superintendent Dr. Charles Little.
After left decaying for 19 years, the town has made recent renovations to some of the structures. Others have been put up for demolition while a lot of the buildings have been converted. Converted parts of Letchworth Village include the Fieldstone Secondary School which uses 9 of the buildings. Much of the land has been repurposed to a golf course and a park.
A local resident stops by everyday to feed and care for the cats who have made the haunting buildings home.
Letchworth Village in the Media and Hauntings
- In 2011, Letchworth Village was featured on the Travel Channel's hit paranormal show Ghost Adventures in Season 5, Episode 6.
- In Season 2 of American Horror Story: Asylum which aired in 2012-2013, the institution served as inspiration for the show according to creator Ryan Murphy, because of its role in Geraldo Rivera's famous documentary.
- Letchworth Village was featured as a key scene setting on the television series Elementary in the Season 3 Episode 14 titled "The Female of the Species". It originally aired in 2015.
Letchworth Village does have quite the reputation as being haunted. Apparitions have been seen as well as disembodied voices heard throughout the remaining structures. On the third floor of the medical building, pentagrams and other satanic rituals have been discovered. The most chilling of all is the screams and apparitions of the innocent children seen and heard in this sinister village. Those who have been inside say it is "bone chillingly eerie" and others claim the village is always terrifying and eerie, even in total daylight. Many believe they are feeling the most uncomfortable there due to the satanic mark spotting the structures.
Letchworth did not fail, we failed them.— Corinne McGeorge- Amatuer Historian and Exhibit Maker at Letchworth Village
May the Souls of Letchworth Village Finally Rest in Peace
Many people who worked at Letchworth refuse to speak of their experience during their time there. After the closing of the asylum, and the many others like it, old methods of segregating patients were changed drastically to including them in society to try and bring a sense of normalization to the patients. The remaining patients at Letchworth were moved to more up-to-date facilities in other counties.
It is my belief that many family secrets have long since been buried with the silent victims, in a nameless cemetery, where someone who was supposed to have loved them unconditionally left them there, bearing only a number.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2018 Brianna W