History and Overview of Letchworth Village
This page provides a bit of history about Letchworth Village, along with links to pages with videos of some of the individual buildings and the two cemeteries operated by the facility. My interest in shooting the videos was historical, not paranormal. There are many reports of paranormal activity at Letchwoth village and many pages on the Web dedicated to that topic, but these pages are about the history.
If you lived or worked at Letchworth Village or are otherwise knowledgeable about its history, please contact me if you find an error or have something you think should be added to these pages. I want them to be as historically accurate as possible. Thank you.
Located in the hamlet of Thiells, near Haverstraw, in Rockland County, New York, Letchworth Village opened in 1911 with a vision toward revolutionizing the way disabled people were cared for. The complex was named after William Pryor Letchworth, a Quaker businessman and philanthropist who advocated for more modern, humane, and scientific care of the disabled and who was instrumental in planning the Village. Unfortunately, he passed away before it opened.
Letchworth Village nominally was a residential treatment facility for adults and children with all kinds of physical, mental, and emotional disabilities; but most of the patients were what we now call "developmentally disabled". Back then they were called "feeble-minded," "retarded," "imbeciles," "morons," and other names that are now considered pejorative. The first patients were admitted on July 11, 1911. The facility closed in 1996.
The founders of Letchworth Village envisioned a self-sufficient community where disabled people would be encouraged to maximize their abilities, rather than being defined and limited by their disabilities. Back in 1911, that was nothing short of a radical idea. In fact, the opening of Letchworth Village marked an historic point in the care of disabled people.
The original facility covered more than two thousand acres, much of it farmland where able-bodied, high-functioning patients grew food, trees, and ornamental plants, and raised livestock and poultry. The farms were closed in the 1960's. The land they once occupied has been sold and converted to golf courses and country clubs.
As Usual, the Politicians Ruin a Good Thing
Unfortunately, although opened with the noblest of intentions, it didn't take long for Letchworth Village to start deteriorating into a warehouse. Not surprisingly, the blame for this deterioration fell on the New York State Legislature, who failed to adequately fund Letchworth Village, but simultaneously pressured the facility to accept more patients than it could properly care for.
Or to put it more bluntly, the founders of Letchworth Village envisioned a therapeutic community where residents would be treated with respect and encouraged to achieve all that they could, with an eye toward their maximizing their independence and enjoying a sense of pride in their achievements. The New York State Legislature, on the other hand, was content for Letchworth Village being a warehouse where the disabled would sit around, waste away, and die -- hopefully sooner rather than later.
Letchworth Village was barely a decade old when the trustees had to plead with the state to not increase the facility's resident load until they appropriated enough money to properly care for the residents. Page 19 of the Thirteenth Annual Report of the Board of Managers of Letchworth Village, submitted to the New York State Legislature in 1922, read in part:
"While we now have bed capacity, nearly completed, for 1,800 children, other parts of the institution are far behind. In fact, we have become one-sided. With this dormitory capacity of 1,800, we are without any hospital facilities to take care of the sick; we are without any administration building to do the vast amount of work which is necessary under our complicated State system; we are without school, industrial buildings and assembly halls for more than one-half of this population....
I should advise very strongly against the erection of any more dormitories until these needs, which I have enumerated, have been met, for unless you can obtain and retain the services of good employees; unless you can have good schools; unless you can have good medical supervision, there is nothing that can be done for the mental defectives more than is being done in their own homes."
By the mid-1920's, widespread rumors of overcrowding, abuse, and neglect of the patients at Letchworth Village had begun to circulate among physicians and others involved in making arrangements for the care of disabled people.
By 1940, pictures had begun to circulate of the squalid conditions, including naked, emaciated patients huddled together in severely-overcrowded dayrooms and dormitories.
In short, it took less than 30 years for the New York State Legislature to corrupt and destroy what had once been the most radically progressive, forward-thinking approach to the care of the developmentally disabled in the nation's history.
Bobby Kennedy's Visit
In 1965, Senator Robert F. Kennedy visited state-run facilities for the disabled in New York. I don't know whether Letchworth Village was one of them. He made impassioned pleas to anyone who would listen to increase support for these facilities so adequate staff could be hired and meaningful treatment and training provided.
Unfortunately, Kennedy wasn't allowed to take pictures during his visits; and as long as the voters couldn't actually see the horrific conditions behind the stone walls of these facilities, the politicians didn't care. In fact, after Kennedy's visit, Governor Rockefeller and the New York State legislature repeatedly reduced funding for Letchworth Village and other facilities for the disabled in New York.
This is important to keep in mind when viewing pictures and videos of Letchworth Village, Willowbrook, and other state-supported facilities for the disabled. Remember that the profound neglect of the patients at these facilities was not the fault of the hopelessly-overworked staff. The blame lied at the feet of New York State politicians who simply didn't care. There's no nicer way to put it. Bobby Kennedy had told them what was going on in these places, but they simply didn't care.
Geraldo Rivera's Exposé
In 1972, attorney and journalist Geraldo Rivera visited Letchworth Village as part of a scathing documentary about the Willowbrook State School, another state-supported institution in Staten Island, New York.
As previously mentioned, Senator Bobby Kennedy had visited a number of state-supported institutions, possibly including Letchworth Village, in 1965; but he wasn't allowed to take pictures, and no one in state or federal government paid much attention to his impassioned pleas for reform.
Geraldo Rivera, on the other hand, arrived with a full camera crew; and when ordinary people -- and voters -- saw with their own eyes what was going on at Willowbrook and Letchworth Village, they were outraged and demanded reforms. Only then, once the voters saw the horrific conditions at the facilities with their own eyes and were furious with their elected officials for allowing it, did the politicians start making long-overdue reforms.
Or to put it more bluntly, after having not cared about what happened at Willowbrook and Letchworth Village for so many years, once the voters cared about it and their own jobs were on the line, the politicians started tripping over each other to bring about reforms. They couldn't have the voters pissed off, after all.
I remember when that documentary came out. People everywhere, but especially in New York State, were both horrified and furious to learn of the profound neglect of patients at facilities that the State funded using their tax dollars. It was a really, really big deal.
Former staff members at Letchworth Village have told me that although they were worried when they learned that Rivera would be visiting, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them and to the people they cared for. The public outcry following the airing of the documentary, along with many lawsuits filed on behalf of developmentally-disabled people, forced the politicians to finally fund Letchworth Village and other facilities for the disabled at more realistic levels.
Rivera's report also led to an end to the large-institution model of care for the disabled in New York State. Residents of Letchworth Village and similar facilities were gradually moved into small-group homes where they could get more individualized care. Letchworth Village closed its doors for good in 1996. Most of the buildings still stand empty and decaying, memorials to both what could have been, and to what actually happened.
Misdiagnosed Patients at Letchworth Village
Letchworth Village's founding documents spoke of it being a facility for "mental defectives." But there also were a number of people, perhaps many, who had been erroneously diagnosed as being mentally retarded. Rivera's visit brought attention to those people's plight, as well as the deplorable treatment of residents in general.
People suffering from cerebral palsy, in particular, were especially likely to be misdiagnosed. Cerebral palsy can cause idiosyncratic body movements, urinary and bowel incontinence, and the partial or complete inability to control the tongue and facial muscles, which makes it difficult or impossible for people with cerebral palsy to speak clearly and understandably.
On the surface, these patients resembled people with mental retardation; and when misdiagnosed, they were treated as such. Cerebral palsy, however, does not affect intellect. These CP patients were therefore trapped by a system that believed they were "profoundly mentally retarded" and unable to learn even basic life skills, and which treated them accordingly.
Such a tragic mistake might have been forgivable when Letchworth Village opened in 1911, when tools for differential diagnosis were limited. The fact that it was still happening in 1972, when Rivera visited the facility, is harder to accept.
Sub-Pages About Letchworth Village
Here are links to the videos I've taken and the pages I've written so far about Letchworth Village. This is an ongoing project, so check back once in a while for more. The existing pages are also frequently updated as I come across more accurate and reliable historical information.
Reville Hospital Building
The "Old Cemetery"
The "New Cemetery"
Stewart Hall Building
Building E Women's Dormitory
Whitman Hall Office Building (Building 11)
Franklin Hall Building
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.