Day 484: The Darkness Of The Padded Walls

originally published April 28, 2013

With no cash prize, with no great inheritance on the line, would you be willing to spend a night in an abandoned insane asylum? This is the sort of question which could open up an episode of American Horror Story (in fact, I think it did). A question which the average person never has the opportunity to answer with action.

Why does the idea strike such a cold quiver of mercury-fear into our hearts? It’s not the notion of the myriad of deaths which no doubt took place on the property. We have an abandoned hospital in my city, and nobody but the kookiest of kooks believes it to be haunted by spirits of the departed. Is it the notion of insanity that frightens us off? Few things are more terrifying than losing dominion over one’s mind whilst one’s body remains intact. No, I think it’s more than this.

I think the scariest thing about an abandoned asylum is the specter of cruelty which clings to the air, thickening it with the suffocating dread of the abuse, the neglect, and the outright vicious degradation which awaited those whose minds were crumbling in these institutions. The ghosts of places like Letchworth Village are not cruel – it is pure cruelty itself which haunts these decomposing walls.

In 1911, the New York State Board of Charities opened up Letchworth Village in the small hamlet of Thiells. It was a state institution designed for the segregation of the epileptic and ‘feeble-minded.’ It was a farming village, and the patients who were physically able were encouraged to tend the farms that would subsequently keep everyone inside fed. Letchworth landed on the medical map in February of 1950, when Hilary Koprowski tested his new polio vaccine on one of the children patients. Nineteen more tests followed, and Letchworth became a crucial step en route to the banishment of the disease from humankind.

Yet beneath the surface, things weren’t right at this institution. First off, look at the words of their first superintendent, Dr. Charles Little. He classified the mentally ill into three groups: the morons, the imbeciles, and the idiots. Okay – not exactly scientific but I tend to classify most drivers on the road into these categories, so maybe Dr. Little wasn’t far off.

The public began to realize that most of Letchworth’s patients were young children, and that they were becoming rather malnourished and sickly-looking. Dr. Koprowski’s experiment is a happy story, but there were a lot more tales of experimentation on the kids at Letchworth that were far less pleasant. The 1921 population of about 1200 patients was seen as overcrowding. In the 1950’s, that number was up over 4000, and no new buildings had been constructed.

Families deserted their relatives there. Letchworth was a dumping ground for those with a mentally ill relative that they didn’t necessarily want cured, but whom they wanted to get rid of. The facility closed in 1996, but there still remains a massive graveyard on the site, with numbers on the markers instead of names. Some of the buildings have been damaged by arson, but if you’re looking to boldly bask in the ghosts of mistreatment and anguish, this could be your destination.

Still, New York has even more dark secrets in its history of abusing the mentally disabled.

New Yorkers are probably quite familiar with the history of Roosevelt Island, the slender strip of land between midtown Manhattan and Queens, quietly taking up space beneath the Queensboro Bridge. In 1832, four years after the city had bought the land, a penitentiary was opened. A few years later the New York Lunatic Asylum opened its rickety doors. Finding a more terrifying and straightforward name would have been a challenge – this was not a place for rehabilitation as much as it was simply a lock-up for those who were deemed unfit for society.

Before long, the Asylum was packed with over 1700 inmates, more than double its intended capacity. In 1887, newspaper reporter Nellie Bly practiced her insanity techniques and had herself ‘involuntarily’ locked up at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. She spent just over a week inside those walls, marking down every instance of brutality and neglect she saw. Upon her release – and I’m really curious as to how she managed to secure such a quick release – she published her articles in the New York World newspaper. This led to a huge book deal and a grand jury investigation.

The end result of this investigation? An $850,000 budget increase for the organization running the asylum. Several of the staff were punted, and the laws for involuntary commitment were tweaked. A few remnants of this facility are still around as well, if you’re interested.

Over on the Upper West Side, the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum was the go-to place for families who were able to pay for care. The area was isolated by fields and farmland, and connected to the city’s downtown via Bloomingdale Road, which was later renamed Broadway. Despite the patients’ families being willing to pay for quality care, overcrowding and mistreatment seemed to be an inevitable side-effect of treating those with mental disorders in the 19th century.

In 1872, a 22-year-old reporter named Julius Chambers went undercover at Bloomingdale – the same thing Nellie Bly did, but fifteen years earlier. Many credit Chambers as being the first undercover reporter in history. His aim was also to uncover the wrong-doings at this institution, to hopefully inspire some change and improvement in conditions.

Oh, and earlier that year, Chambers had discovered Elk Lake, just off Lake Itasca, claiming it to be the source for the Mississippi River. The guy was a young over-achiever, that’s all I’m saying.

Chambers also spent ten days under lock and key, observing and noting everything he saw. His bosses at the New York Tribune secured his release, and when his articles splashed across the paper’s front page, history was made. A dozen inmates who were not technically insane in any way were released. The staff and administration were ‘reorganized’, which means the most evil bastards were probably purged. New York’s ‘lunacy laws’, which dictated how and why a person should be locked up against their will, were also altered because of Chambers’ work.

As New York City grew upward, Bloomingdale was sold off, building by building, mostly to Columbia University, which came to life around the old asylum grounds. Macy Villa, pictured at the top of this article, is the last building left from the area’s dark history. It now functions as Buell Hall, housing the French House for Columbia. It’s probably not too scary to spend the night inside those walls.

We have come a long way in treating those with mental illness. But if you dare stay overnight inside the shells of one of these old bastions of mistreatment, perhaps a little bit of the horrors of the past might seep through your skin.

Let me know how it goes.

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