Set in a bucolic landscape in the town of Haverstraw in Rockland County, Letchworth Village has a peaceful, small town feel, and in 1911 it was chosen to be the home of a progressive experiment. Letchworth was built in response to current mental health facilities. It aimed to provide more humane treatment than the asylums before it. The majority of the residents were children, ages ranging from 5 to 16 years old, that were abandoned there by their parents.
Letchworth Village seemed like a step in a new direction. The center encompassed 2,300 acres of property in the rolling hillside of Rockland County, New York. There were sections for children, adults, and the sickly. 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. Letchworth developed a rather ignominious reputation for dubious experimentation and inconsistent care.
History of Letchworth Village
Letchworth Village opened in 1908 as the Eastern NY State Custodial Asylum, a place for the ‘feeble minded and epileptics’ of New York State. In 1909 the name was changed to Letchworth Village Home for the Feeble Minded and Epileptics. It was named after William Pryor Letchworth, a noted humanitarian and philanthropist, who was familiar with institutional conditions. At its peak, the Village employed about 10,000 locals. It was one of the biggest employers in the area, and at one time had a worldwide reputation as one of the most progressive centers of its kind.
To avoid overcrowding, each building planned to only house 70 patients at a time. The entire area truly resembled a village as they also had bakeries, churches, and dormitories. The institution was home to about 1,200 by 1921, then about 4,000 by the 1950s. Letchworth Village was ahead of its time as unlike other asylums, some patients worked in the land as farmers, tending to animals and crops. In addition to farming, patients unloaded coal and built roads.
Letchworth Village reached its 3,000-patient limit in 1935. New arrivals from places like New York’s Bellevue Hospital overcrowded the facilities and overwhelmed the staff. Contrary to its early ideals, the over-crowding led to insufficient funds and shortages in staffing, which in turn, as could often be the case, curdled into abuse. In the 1940s, photographer Irving Haberman released photos of the facility, showing patients unclothed, unwashed, and locked in empty rooms.
By 1950, approximately 4000 people lived in a facility built for just over 3000. There was not enough space for Letchworth Village’s growing number of residents. Mattresses lined the halls and common areas to accommodate the masses. Many of the residents, whose condition necessitated ample time and attention for feeding, became seriously ill or malnourished as a result of overcrowding. The attendants could no longer monitor each person properly, and ultimately, it led to the deterioration of the facility and resulted in patient neglect and abuse.
The Letchworth Village was up-front about its intention to use the patients as guinea pigs in clinical trials. One of the most notable events in the asylum was the polio vaccine trials administered to some of the patients, particularly the children. In 1950, the live virus polio vaccine was tested on an eight-year-old child. Nineteen more patients, likely unwilling and certainly unable to give consent to the procedure, became human test subjects 17 developed antibodies to the virus, and none developed any complications. Because the tests were deemed successful, there was no public outcry.
In 1972 a local newsman for ABC News, Geraldo Rivera, recorded a career-making documentary on asylums. 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. Despite the deplorable conditions, the facility remained open until 1996. The state forced the Letchworth Village administrators to locate all the names of the dead in the cemetery and erect a plaque at the entrance.
The towns of Haverstraw and Stony Point purchased the land and used it to build the Philip J. Rotella and Patriot Hills golf courses. Some of the buildings were converted into the Fieldstone Secondary School (now the Fieldstone Middle School), Willow Grove Middle School, and the Stony Point Justice Court. Most of the dilapidated structures were slated for demolition in 2004 to make way for a 450-unit condo development, but the plan has evidently been put on hold. Towards the end of 2014, multiple ideas have been proposed from a senior citizens community to college campus, and even a Lego Land Amusement Park. The Letchworth Village itself is now a part of a public park that is freely accessible to the public.
Letchworth Village remains to be one of the most visited abandoned places in the country. Paranormal investigators have experienced temperature changes in certain buildings. Many of the people who died here were buried in a Potter’s Field, with no names to identify them So, Urban trespassers especially interested in in the Nameless Cemetery, where hundreds of unnamed patients are buried. It seems the spirits of the tortured and abused are unable to find peace even in the afterlife.