The Old Letchworth Village Cemetery
This is a sad video of perhaps the saddest place I've ever been. I almost didn't make the video because I wondered if it might be disrespectful to the deceased.
In the end, I decided that the finished video conveyed a sad piece of the complicated history of Letchworth Village, but one that needs to be told. G-d forbid that we should ever forget what happened there.
Letchworth Village was a residential care center for people of all ages with mental and physical disabilities. It opened in 1911 and closed in 1996. The links to other pages on this site about Letchworth Village can be found here.
This cemetery was opened in 1914, three years after Letchworth Village opened, and was replaced by a new cemetery on Thiells Mt Ivy Road in Thiells. The remains of those buried in the old cemetery were not moved.
The village was designed to be a working farm and a self-contained community that sought to enable each patient to live as normal and fulfilling a life as their abilities allowed. It was, for those times, a radically different and forward-looking approach to caring for and empowering the disabled.
Unfortunately, the founders' lofty goals were soon eroded by the natural tendency of large institutions to become closed societies wherein whatever happens can go unseen and unchecked by the greater community. The facility was also severely under-funded by the state, resulting in terribly insufficient staffing and an impossible workload for the nurses and attendants.
As early as 1940, pictures had begun to circulate of patients ranging from toddlers to the elderly huddling naked, filthy, unfed, and unattended in squalid day rooms; and living in cramped dormitories with more than 70 beds or cribs to a room. Meanwhile, some dormitories were empty for lack of money to staff them.
By the 1960's, Letchworth Village had deteriorated to a grossly-overcrowded human warehouse where more than four thousand patients were neglected, and some were abused or used for medical experimentation.
Senator Bobby Kennedy toured many state-supported facilities, possibly including Letchworth Village, and pleaded with state and federal legislators to properly fund them. His pleas fell on deaf ears. As long as the voters didn't know how bad the conditions were, the politicians didn't give a damn.
It wasn't until 1972, when lawyer and journalist Geraldo Rivera visited the facility with a camera crew as part of his investigation of the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York, that most people outside Letchworth Village had any idea what was really going on there: and they were outraged.
One former staff member at Letchworth Village told me that Geraldo's visit was the best thing that ever happened to the patients. Once the voters saw what was going on, the politicians started tripping over each other to reform the facilities. They didn't care when Bobby Kennedy told them; but once the voting public saw the conditions, they cared mightily.
I can't help but wonder how family members of the patients, especially the children, never raised a stink about the conditions at Letchworth Village. Perhaps an answer can be found in the grave markers at the old cemetery.
You'll notice in the video that very few of the graves have stone markers, nor any kind of markers bearing the decedents' names. Letchworth Village marked the graves using only sequentially numbered, T-shaped markers made of steel, almost all of which remain to this day. Very, very few families chose to erect stones or markers with the decedents' names in remembrance of them.
Surely there were some families who couldn't afford headstones. Others may have been ashamed to bring attention to the fact that their loved ones had been in, and died at, what was widely (and incorrectly) known as a psychiatric hospital. But it's hard to ignore the sad probability that many of the families simply didn't care about their disabled family members any more while they were alive than they did after they died.
The old cemetery closed in 1967 and was replaced by a new cemetery that was used until shortly before Letchworth Village itself finally closed in 1996, and is now used by the Hudson Valley office of the New York State Office For People With Developmental Disabilities.
The old cemetery in this video is now maintained by the town of Stony Point as part of a park. It's open to the public and accessible by a short hike from Carl Hollow Road in Thiells, where the entrance is marked and parking is provided. If you're interested in visiting, you can find it here.
Screen Shots from this Video
The screen shots in the gallery that follows are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC BY-SA). In other words, you are free to use them pursuant to the terms of the license.
Special thanks to Idri and Mother Rita for setting me straight and correcting me with regard to the history and other facts surrounding Letchworth Village.