Letchworth Village

I want to tell you a tale that sounds today as cruel and nightmarish as anything you can think of, but I promise you were real. Now before you go saying that Halloween is still months away, I think that if Walt Disney World can start celebrating Halloween in August, then maybe It’s not too soon for me. And who doesn’t like a spooky tale?

Mental illness has had a rocky road through human history. There was a time when those who were not well were treated in horrible manners. Treatment, when given, was something out of a horror story. 

The Lobotomy was one of the worst treatments, using an icepick, Dr. Walter Freeman, who is the most famous for using this method, would drive the pick just under the eyelid and cut the frontal lobe. Sounds awful right? Bleeding, vomiting, and purging of the body to try to balance out the fluids of the body was another idea that today sounds just nuts. Another crazy idea was Trephination, in which a hole was cut into the skull. The idea was to relieve mental illness issues or to cure demonic possession, whichever seemed to be the problem of the moment. Speaking of demons, there was a time when people believed that the issue was the devil. All you had to do was cast it out with prayer or an exorcism and the issue was corrected. We, well at least most of us, know that none of this worked. 

All of this brings us to the topic of today’s pictures, a visit to Letchworth Village in Rockland County in New York. Our trip takes us about 40 miles north of New York City, far away from the crowded streets of the city.

Letchworth was an institution built in 1911 for the physically and mentally disabled. The nearly four square miles institution was made up of about 130 buildings. The idea was a change in the model in treating those with mental illness from the then current idea of throwing them in high-rise asylums. As anyone who follows Batman or read Charles Dickens, Asylums were bad places where people went to be forgotten. However, Letchworth was said to be a humane, forward-thinking way to treat patients. Overcrowding was limited with tree lined grounds to allow patients to have more space. They were even able to have a farm where food and livestock were raised to help feed the complex.  

It sounds nice doesn’t it? You send that crazy aunt of yours there to be taken care of so she gets the help they need. Now by our standards of today, it lacked a lot but I’m guessing not making holes on skulls was a step forward. An example of how the thinking of the day was different from today was how patients were put into three different groups, the morons, the imbecile, and the idiots. Dr. Charles Little, the first superintendent, said it was no benefit to the state to have patients who fit into the idiot group. 

Now you say, it does sound good, but i’m looking at your pictures and that doesn’t look like all sunshine and happy days. Well the worst stories are the ones that start off with good intentions. 

Everything was great at first but like many things, with great hope, a dark shadow fell upon Letchworth pretty quickly. Many of those who got sent here were children between 5 and 16. In 1921 it was reported that out of the 506 incoming patients, 317 were children between those ages. Quickly reports of malnourished children started to make their way out. Testing on the children was said to not be uncommon. Within ten years overcrowding was already a problem. By the early 1950s, it had over 4,000 patients, many of whom were dumped off by families. Stories of unclothed, unbathed, and abused patients also made their way out. There were also stories of patients being raped by staff and other patients. Babies born from the rapes were put up for adoption or just quietly disappeared. In the 1950s testing of the polio vaccine was done on unwilling patients.

Letchworth was a testing ground for shock treatment, both as a treatment but also to see what the side effects were on the brain. It also was a site of Lobotomies on patients, many of which were done in secret.

The nightmares were very real, but sadly many places like Letchworth fell into the same pattern of promise sliding into hell holes. Now many of those who worked there said that they only remember good memories of the grounds and they never saw any time of mistreatment of patients. Many others who worked there will not talk about their time at Letchworth. 

It was finally closed in 1996. After years of trying to reform Letchworth, how to treat patients started to change. After closing the buildings were left to decay. A small cemetery nearby housed the 910 souls that died there, which didn’t list the names of those who died, many children, but instead, the headstones just had numbers. A few years ago a memorial to those who died was put up.

Today the mood is just as bad just by looking at it. Poison Ivy covers the walls with windows smashed and roofs that have fallen in on a few buildings. When you look inside the buildings you see tables, chairs, and items used by the patients still there. It gives a very ghostly feel, almost like everyone left in a hurry. Many of the buildings have started to be reclaimed by the trees and nature in general. If you wanted to know what life would be without humans, this would be example number one. But it’s not just the look that can send a shiver up your spine. As I said, the number of children sent here was high, and to know that they were treated horribly, you can’t help thinking how much pain and suffering slipped into the walls of the buildings still standing.

You can visit Letchworth and walk around it’s building. Some of the old grounds were turned into a golf course and plans have been in years to turn the rest into some kind of development. I sometimes think that some places should be left alone, people’s lives were ruined there, no need to put a parking lot over them. And anyways I have seen enough horror stories to know that those bad things don’t always stay in the shadows.

All pictures by me unless noted. If you enjoyed this trip into the world then like and follow to get more daily stories. You follow on social media with links below.

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