Letchworth Village was a residential institution located in Rockland County, New York, in the hamlet of Thiells built for the physically and mentally disabled of all ages, from the newborn to the elderly. Opened in 1911, Letchworth Village at its peak consisted of over 130 buildings spread out over many acres of land.
On February 27, 1950, the first trial case of the polio vaccine in the United States was administered to an 8-year-old patient by Hilary Koprowski, after he tried it on himself. After the patient suffered no side effects, the vaccine was administered to 19 more of the institution's children. Out of a total of 20 children, 17 developed antibodies to the virus, and none developed any complications.
Reports of inadequate funding and improper care of the residents, including children, were present dating back to the 1920s. Accounts surfaced of residents being found unclothed, unbathed, and neglected. In addition to rampant abuse among the institution's residents, staff also suffered abuse at the hands of co-workers, which included incidents of rape.
In 1996 the institution was permanently closed down, and many of its abandoned structures have since fallen into serious disrepair.
Opening and beginning years
By the end of 1911, the first phase of construction had completed on the 2,362-acre "state institution for the segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded.” With architecture modeled after Monticello, the picturesque community was lauded as a model institution for the treatment of the developmentally disabled, a humane alternative to high-rise asylums, having been founded on several guiding principles that were revolutionary at the time. Separate living and training facilities for children, able-bodied adults, and the infirm were not to exceed two stories or house over 70 inmates. Until the 1960s, the able-bodied labored on communal farms, raising enough food and livestock to feed the entire population.
It was conceived by the progressives of the time as a major departure from the almshouses of the 19th century. The facility was thought to have had great potential and was a great improvement from past facilities. It was a farming village of nearly four square miles, In the words of the 1927 Rockland County Red Book, "subdivided as far as possible in order to avoid the tendency toward institutionalism." The grounds surrounding the buildings were very plentiful and created lots of leisure space for patients. As late as 1958, the patients grew their own crops and tended cows, pigs and chickens. They made toys and sold them at Christmas.
Hilary Koprowski tested his live-virus vaccine on a human male child for the first time in February 1950. At this point, Letchworth enjoyed a good reputation amongst health professionals (despite rumors of overcrowding and maltreatment). Letchworth's Dr. Jervis asked Koprowski to test the vaccine at Letchworth over the alternatives. When the test was successfully administered to the first patient and was free of any side effects, 19 more tests were administered to patients. Koprowski viewed these experiments as a positive first step.
Structures and buildings
Letchworth opened in 1911 to care for mentally handicapped individuals. The village's fieldstone, neoclassic buildings consisted of small dormitories, a hospital, dining halls, and housing for the staff. It was built on thousands of acres of rolling fields and dense woods. Closed in 1996, most of the structures remain desolate, weathering away with time. The poison ivy covering the facades transforms into deep reds and gold when fall arrives. The once impressive arched windows are smashed with the panes rotting into splinters. "No Trespassing" is painted on boarded up windows and planks that bar entrance. Peeking inside windows or rusted doors reveals chairs and beds remaining where they were left. It appears as if the place had been immediately abandoned. Behind a grove of thick twisting branches, the columns of the administrative building hold a roof bearing the name of Dr. Charles Little. He was the first superintendent of Letchworth. Many of the buildings and structures have been vandalized and even some burned down as an act of arson. Some main structures still remain.
Conditions and treatment
Letchworth was described as an ideal center for the mentally challenged and praised by the state at first. Yet rumors such as the mistreatment of patients and horrific experimenting continued to circulate long after its closing. Former worker Dr. Little presented in an annual report in 1921 that there were three categories of "feeble-mindedness": the "moron" group, the "imbecile" group, and the "idiot" group. The last of these categories is the one that could not be trained, Dr. Little said, and so they should not be taken into Letchworth Village, because they were unable to "benefit the state" by doing the various jobs that were assigned to the male patients, included loading thousands of tons of coal into storage facilities, building roads, and farming acres of land.
Many of the patients were young children. In 1921, the 13th Annual Report lists the number of patients admitted that year. 317 Out of 506 people were between the ages of 5 and 16, and 11 were under the age of 5 years. The negative energy surrounding Letchworth is heightened because so many of the patients were young children. Visitors observed that the children were malnourished and looked sick. The Letchworth staff claimed in the Report that there was a scarcity of food, water, and other necessary supplies but that was not the case. Children were often the subjects of testing and some of the most cruel neglect. Many of the children were able to comprehend learning but were not given the chance because they were thought of as "different."
Patients were forced to dwell in cramped dormitories, because the state would not complete the construction of more buildings. Barely ten years after being constructed, Letchworth's buildings were already overpopulated, cramming 70 beds into the tiny dormitories. Nearly 1,200 patients were present during 1921. Over-population was one of the harshest conditions at Letchworth. By the 1950s, the Village was overflowing with 4,000 inhabitants. Quoting a spokesman for the State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, Corcoran confirmed that families abandoned their relatives there. Families of patients seemed to be just as neglectful as caregivers of the facility.
The patients at Letchworth appeared to be well-groomed, crisp and clean. In the 1940s, Irving Haberman did a set a photographs which revealed the true nature of what was going on. Until this point, the conditions of the facility weren't apparent to the public. Haberman's photos exposed the terrible conditions of the facilities as well as the dirty, not well kept patients. Naked residents huddled in sterile day rooms. The photos showed the patients to be highly neglected. These photos pushed the public to question the institution and demand answers. Haberman knew that these photos would bring attention to the Letchworth facility.
In 1972, ABC News featured Letchworth Village in its piece "Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace". The documentary, by ABC New York's investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera, looked at how intellectually disabled people, particularly children, were being treated in the State of New York. Although the documentary focused on the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, Rivera conducted a series of investigations, which included Letchworth Village and facilities in California. While he found that a great deal of progress had been made in the caring for, and training of, disabled people in California, he saw the situation in New York's facilities as backward and cruel. He found that residents of Willowbrook and Letchworth Village lived in awful, dirty and overcrowded conditions, with a lack of clothing, bathing, and attention to their basic needs. The facilities were incredibly understaffed, and there was little or no actual schooling, training or even simple activities to keep residents occupied. Rivera saw the overcrowding and neglect as a direct result of inadequate funding and the ignorant attitudes in wider society. The potential of individual patients was far from being realized. The film is available for public viewing on Geraldo's website . This confronting report helped lead to far-reaching reform of disability services throughout the United States. The attention, however, did little for the immediate needs of those living at Letchworth Village. The institution remained inadequately funded and not satisfactorily managed.
Nearing the end of Call Hollow Road, Rockland County, there is a wide path dividing thick woodland. A large memorial stone shows the words "THOSE WHO SHALL NOT BE FORGOTTEN" and a list of hundreds of names. Behind this memorial are T-shaped markers bearing numbers which mark hundreds of nameless victims who perished at Letchworth. The cemetery lays half of a mile away from the institution. The old grave markers reveal only the numbers that the dead patients had been given, because families refused to allow their names to be known.
Patients' names are buried in the archives at Letchworth Village, off limits to the public. Hardly anybody visits these graves. Few people ever did. Letchworth Village still cares for the old burial ground, sending a crew every few months to mow the tall grass, straighten the markers and clear away the garbage.
Letchworth was closed in 1996, leaving the buildings to decay. Many who worked at the Village refuse to speak of their experiences. Old methods of segregating patients and the disabled were changed to including them in society and bringing a normalization to them. Patients were moved to more up-to-date facilities in the county.
The Town of Stony Point is interested in redeveloping part of the town-owned former Letchworth Village property, currently called the Patriot Hills Complex. The 159-acre complex off Willow Grove Road includes the Patriot Hills Golf Course and the Veterans Memorial Park. The town's interest is to develop the 18-acre portion of the property that houses eight remaining buildings that were built between 1929 and 1952 for the Letchworth Village Developmental Center campus. Five of them are vacant, and the rest have been renovated and have been in use. According to the town's 20-page Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) document respondents may or may not include the existing buildings in their proposals. In 2003, the town commissioned a community survey regarding reuse of the Letchworth property. The results showed that about 71 percent were in favor of the town partnering with private parties to jointly develop the site for a combination of municipal recreational facilities as well as private uses to offset development costs.In 2009, the town hired a developmental consultant to look for a potential developer, and a plan to build a stadium with hotels, a conference center and shopping mall was proposed. But the idea died as residents were worried that they might lose the Little League fields at the Veterans Memorial Park.
In popular culture
- In 2011, Letchworth was featured on the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures cable-television series on Season 5, Episode 6, which originally aired on October 28, 2011.
- Letchworth Village was mentioned as a psychiatric hospital in Rockland County that closed down. It was later featured as a key setting in a scene on the TV series Elementary in the season 3 episode 14 entitled "The Female of the Species" which originally on February 12, 2015.
- The Norwegian band Katzenjammer used Letchworth Village as an inspiration for one of their songs titled Rockland, with their third studio album also under the same name.
- Bernard Seytre, The Death of a Disease: A History of the Eradication of Poliomyelitis (Rutgers University Press, 2005) p78
- "Competition to develop an oral vaccine". Conquering Polio. Sanofi Pasteur SA. 2007-02-02. Archived from the original on 2007-10-16.
- Koprowski, Hilary (15 October 2010). "Interview with Hilary Koprowski, sourced at History of Vaccines website". College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Retrieved 15 October 2010.
- AbandonedNYC. "Legend Tripping in Letchworth Village". Retrieved 4 December 2012.
- Corcoran, David. "THIELLS JOURNAL; Graves Without Names for the Forgotten Mentally Retarded". New York Times. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
- Oshinsky, David M. (2005). Polio:An American Story: An American Story. Oxford University Press. p. 136.
- Buteux, Lindsay. "Letchworth: The Village of Secrets". Student Outlook Press. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
- Trent, James W. (1994). Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States. University of California Press. p. 226.
- Rivera, Geraldo (1972). Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace. WABC-TV.
- Matsuda, Akiko. "Stony Point seeks redevelopment ideas for Letchworth Village property". Rockland Journal News. Retrieved 4 December 2012.