From Shining Utopia to Terrifying Asylum: The Chilling Story Behind New York's Letchworth Village

In a quiet hamlet north of New York City, darkness grew...

letchworth village
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the early 20th century, a group of revolutionary thinkers sought to change the way mentally and physically disabled people were treated. They envisioned humanistic care, a stark change from the cold institutionalism and crowded almshouses of the previous century. In 1911, a sprawling treatment facility espousing these ideals opened.

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. There were dormitory buildings, places for worship, a bakery, and more. Those who were physically able grew and harvested enough food to feed the community. 

Related: The Misery of Forest Haven Asylum 

At the time, patients were classified into three types of "feeble-mindedness": idiot, imbecile, or moron. Families sent loved ones to Letchworth with the hope that these individuals, including many children, would receive adequate care. Those who were usually cast out now had a home. Letchworth Village was a marvel for its time—until everything changed. 

Overcrowding—the institution was home to about 1,200 by 1921, then about 4,000 by the 1950s—and a lack of funding ate away at the model facility, transforming it into a nightmare mental institution. What was supposed to be a peaceful, rehabilitative setting became chaotic, dangerous, and abusive. As early as 1921, rumors began to spread about the ill treatment, abuse, and gross neglect of adult residents and sadly, even the children. 

letchworth village
  • Photo Credit: Anne / Flickr (CC)

Living conditions were bleak. There was not enough space for Letchworth Village’s growing number of residents. Mattresses lined the halls and common areas to accommodate the masses. Residents were unclothed and unclean, some even covered in their own feces.

Related: Ghostly Encounters at the Villisca Axe Murder House and Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum 

The youngest of inhabitants were malnourished, sickly, and frail. Others died of illness or malnutrition. Abandoned NYC reports that the brains of the deceased were sometimes removed, and preserved in formaldehyde-filled jars for research.

letchworth village
  • Photo Credit: Doug Kerr / Flickr (CC)

In addition, the facility performed medical experiments on patients without consent. In 1950, the live virus polio vaccine was tested on an eight-year-old child as if he were a lab rat. Nineteen more patients, likely unwilling and certainly unable to give consent to the procedure, became human test subjects. Though the trials were unethical, the polio vaccine was a success. Perhaps this helped people overlook the growing problems at Letchworth Village. 

Related: 25 of the Creepiest Abandoned Places Around the World

In 1972, Geraldo Rivera shined a light on Letchworth Village in an in-depth report for ABC News. The facility eventually closed for good in 1996, and its buildings slipped into disrepair—becoming a ghost town. A somber tribute to the unfortunate souls who lost their lives at Letchworth can be found at the end of Call Hollow Road. A cemetery filled with graves mark the remains of the dead of Letchworth Village. A memorial stone bears the inscription “THOSE WHO SHALL NOT BE FORGOTTEN” and lists hundreds of names. Grave markers bear only serial numbers assigned to the dead.   

Today, ghost hunters and daring trespassers report high paranormal activity on these eerie grounds. Paranormal investigators have experienced temperature changes in certain buildings. Spooky sounds include children’s laughter and furniture moving along the floor. Orb sightings abound. One visitor reported the sensation of being pinned to the ground and unable to move. It seems the spirits of the tortured and abused are unable to find peace even in the afterlife.

letchworth village
  • Photo Credit: Anne / Flickr (CC)

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons; Additional photos: Doug Kerr / Flickr (CC);  Anne / Flickr (CC)

Published on 14 Jun 2018