Written By: LFG
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
The Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane currently stands in Seneca County, New York, as a sad and creepy memorial of a time where mental health was severely misunderstood. People suffering from mental disorders were shunned from the public and treated with disdain, but worst of all, many were left and forgotten in psychiatric hospitals or almshouses.
Before it became the famed asylum for insane patients, the area where Willard Asylum stands used to be an agricultural college in New York. However, the Civil War put the school on a standstill, and it never had a chance to reopen. A lot of the students, including the teachers, were forced to join the war. After quite some time, the building was chosen as a government site for the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane. This was going to be a significant move since this would mean transferring the care of the mentally ill patients to the state. Reports of abuse and poor conditions of some facilities were rampant during that time, so Dr. Sylvester D. Willard, a surgeon general in New York during that tumultuous time, led an initiative to provide quality care as opposed to only housing incapacitated people. He investigated the living conditions of various jails, almshouses, and other possible places insane patients were kept. Claims of neglect were proven right, and Dr. Willard authored a bill to address these concerns. Unfortunately, he died on April 2, 1865, due to typhoid fever right before the bill was passed, but Willard was never forgotten as the institution was named in his honor.
Finally, in October 13, 1869, the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane opened its doors to the public, and patients started coming in from different parts of the United States. Among its first patients was a woman named Mary Rote, who was said to be demented and deformed. She came from a facility where she was neglected and left naked inside her room without a bed. Doctors and personnel were shocked at the state of the patients who arrived, especially when one came in a chicken crate.
By 1877, Willard hosted over 1,500 patients and was considered the largest mental asylum in the country. The facility changed its name to Willard State Hospital, and the census ballooned to 2,000.
Due to its popularity, it was checked from time to time, and patients were “treated well.” Male and female occupants were divided and placed in different sections of the building. As a form of entertainment, they engaged in various activities like dancing lessons, theatrical performances, and even gardening. But it’s not always fun and games inside as it is still a medical facility. Many patients were subject to electro-shock therapy to manage their condition, and a morgue was added in case the patients died.
The Dark Era of Willard Asylum
Somehow, things started to turn for the worse when people started to treat the facility the same way they handled the old almshouses. It became another place where citizens abandoned people with a mental health condition without the intention of going back for them. Most of the disorders ranged from anxiety, lunacy, and acute/chronic insanity.
The asylum became much like a prison than a hospital, as the administrators would keep patients until they decide they’re fit to return to society, and most of the time, no one never did.
One compelling case in the facility was a patient named Joseph Lobdell. He was born as a woman, but he identified as a man. Lobdell was never sick, but his different way of thinking led doctors to believe he had a “rare form of mental disease.” As such, he was committed to the asylum since being a transgender person wasn’t remotely recognized even then.
The personnel attending to the patients were significantly reduced when World War I and II began. The lack of care erupted into several diseases in the facility, including tuberculosis and typhus.
Since its opening, about 50,000 people passed through the asylum, with over half dying within its walls.
Willard Asylum Today
Willard Asylum ceased operations permanently in 1995, but a drug treatment center for low-level offenders was established on the same campus.
However, history buffs and curious tourists can take a guided tour inside the asylum walls. Visitors can expect to see haunting and dilapidated hallways where patients and doctors once stood. The entire area has an eerie yet lonely feeling, especially when you get to the cemetery area where graves were unmarked to avoid the family stigma of mental illness.
Some people report there are supernatural entities haunting the old asylum. Visitors have claimed that screams and voices can be heard inside, and some apparently have seen a ghost of a former nurse who worked there—and eventually became a patient in the asylum herself. None of these are confirmed reports, but it makes for an exciting tour guide story.
On the same year Willard closed, a cleanup committee found 400 suitcases in the hospital’s attic, which turned out to be owned by the former patients. Upon investigation, they saw there were personal belonging left unclaimed after the patient’s demise. In a way, it’s somehow comforting that these remnants of the past remain to serve as a reminder of how they lived their lives. No one knew much about the other patients’ identities due to inconsistent record-keeping, but the suitcases somehow give a glimpse of who they were as a person living with an illness.
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