I want to talk about mental health. Mainly mental health from the turn of the century - so it’s good intentions with total shit results. I want to talk specifically about Letchworth Village in New York State.
Here’s a short video about the village to give you an idea.
Okay, now that you have been introduced, follow me deep down into the rabbit hole that is the Letchworth Village.
The original name of this facility was to be “The Eastern New York State Custodial Asylum” (sounds comfortable, right?) but that was changed when successful businessman and philanthropist, William Pryor Letchworth, devoted himself to his Quaker lifestyle and the welfare of the less fortunate. He wanted to help disabled children in particular. Evil outcomes usually start with a heart of gold. Am I right?
William Letchworth was appointed president of the New York Board of Charities in 1878 and used his position to push for a new model of care that was radically different from the large, over-crowded asylums of the day. He envisioned a community where the patients could work, live, and maintain a productive lifestyle, all while under the supervision of physicians, medical staff, and researchers. In his mind’s eye he saw a community within a community. With small cottages, a working farm, recreation centers and facilities to acquire training in subjects such as; carpentry, shoe repair, welding, and other useful skills.
William’s vision came to fruition and the facility began admitting patients on July 10, 1911.
Unfortunately, William died before he could see his vision come to life. He lived just long enough to gain that knowledge that it would be his namesake. Which, in the end, turned out to not be a “great” thing.”
This community encompassed 130 buildings and was meant to house up to 2,000 patients. On paper this sounds like a terrific idea! Kinda like communism… There were dining halls, housing for staff, a hospital, gym, theater, Sunday school, Synagogue, laboratory, fire house, boiler house, laundry rooms, a refrigeration plant, bakery, storehouse, workshops, and administrative offices. 10,000 local residents were employed to run this institution.
The head honcho in charge was Dr. Charles Sherman Little, a psychiatrist. He devised a system of grouping the residents into four groups (this is upsetting):
The buildings were further segregated by sex then by age and/or mental condition:
Middle aged and industrious
Young and improvable
Infirm and helpless
Those that were healthy and strong enough to work were expected to pull their weight. Men and women would work from sun up to sun down in the fields or with the animals. Producing enough food to feed the entire community of Letchworth. If they couldn’t work on the farm then they would be expected to cook, sew, or clean. Some even made toys to sell at Christmas time.
Once the facility was really up and running it was described as “beautifully planned and built.” It sounds very picturesque and perfect. In the beginning, I believe, it’s true purpose of treating patients humanely was successful.
Of course, physicians and researchers used the patients as lab rats and studied them to try and find the cause of “mental retardation” and “insanity”. They offered lectures and courses for other doctors and professionals from around the world who would come to visit and observe the community. Still sounding all good, right?
Here are a few reasons that one could have been committed. This list is older than Letchworth but it provides a look into what the world considered “insane behavior”. I think it’s safe to say that if we lived by these standards today then most of our population would be locked up. Hence why these institutions were so grossly overcrowded.
Letchworth eventually developed a reputation for experimentation and inconsistent care. The staff at Letchworth were very up front about the experiments they were conducting. In 1950, Dr. Jervis (a doctor on staff who later had a building named after him) tested the polio vaccine on an 8-year-old boy and when he showed zero side effects they administered the vaccine to 19 more patients.
The conducted other experiments and procedures that were somewhat standard for the day, such as: lobotomies, electroshock therapy, ice baths, and being used like guinea pigs for new medicines.
By 1921, they were still under their full capacity limit with somewhere around 1,200 residents. So, they were comfortable and everything was going as planned. But that story changed by 1935 when they became overpopulated with 3,000 residents. The staff were underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed.
As the population exploded, rumors began to spread about cruelty, neglect, mistreatment, and malnourishment. Even rape was rumored to have occurred between male care givers and female patients. A photojournalist, Irving Haberman, released photos of naked and dirty residents sleeping in overcrowded rooms or on mattresses on the floor and in hallways.
Of course, with so many people needing specialty attention and care, and so few staff, there were multiple deaths. So many deaths, that the cemetery quickly filled up with grave markers consisting of just numbers that had been assigned to each patient. These people lost their identities and were assigned a number instead of given the respect of putting their name on a simple marker. It’s outrageous and heartbreaking! Fuck man, they could have least put their initials or last name!
Years later, a memorial was set up listing all of the patients in the cemetery.
“Those who shall not be forgotten”.
At one point, the state offered to put the names of the deceased on the grave markers but many relatives (when they could be found, even distant relatives) refused to do so. They didn’t want their name to be associated with “defective” and “mentally retarded” people. Seriously, you fuck heads! These. Were. People.
Working conditions became so difficult for the nurses that there were 80+ patients for 2 or 3 nurses during a standard day shift. They were given only 30 minutes to an hour to feed and administer medication to every patient under their care. This resulted in overwhelmed nurses force feeding individuals and shoving food down their throats. Many died from choking. Okay, imagine having the mental capacity of a toddler or young child. A nurse comes to feed you or help you eat but she’s incredibly rough and scary. She hurts you and confuses you. Maybe she abuses you in other physical ways. That would be absolutely terrifying!
Some of the patients that died at Letchworth had their brains removed and placed in specimen jars filled with formaldehyde. These were put on display in the labs. I can understand wanting to study the brains from a scientific aspect but these “professionals” were abusing their “power”. They just liked the idea of a “brain collection”.
Along with this atrocious treatment, it was said that children were not provided with adequate water, food, or other necessities. Many went unclothed and were often covered in their own feces and caked with filth and grime. I think it goes without saying that these children were not schooled in any form or fashion. Dr. little labeled them as “different” and “unworthy” of education. OMG, I get more heart broken the more we go along.
In the 1960’s, Letchworth was grossly overpopulated with 5,000+ residents. Remember, it was only meant to house 2,000! They requested more funding from the state but were quickly refused. Grrreat!
Everything finally started to change in 1972.
It took fucking long enough….
Geraldo Rivera, (bits and pieces of his work are in the video from the beginning of this story) an ABC newsman, made a documentary about asylums. He focused mainly on a similar institution called Willowbrook State school on Staten Island but he did include a piece on Letchworth. Along with a Peabody award, he brought attention to an immensely dysfunctional system. The horrific conditions that these people were enduring finally came to light and the system began to get phased out to smaller operations and group homes where individual needs could be better met.
Letchworth was closed permanently in 1996. It now sits mainly in ruins. Medical equipment and furniture were just left behind to rot.
Today, the property is managed by the town of Haverstraw. They have converted some of the grounds to a golf course and park. Some of the buildings have been renovated to be used as school buildings.
But for the most part, the village sits abandoned. The walkways and roads are kept clear but the buildings are slowly being eaten by vegetation. You are allowed to tour the village but admittance inside the buildings is strictly forbidden. They are mostly afraid that a crumbling, decrepit building will collapse on someone. Understandably.
To cap off this story I just want to note that I think we have come A LONG WAY in mental health care but there is still a lot of work to be done.