In Rockland County, NY, straddling the border between the towns of Stony Point and Haverstraw, and only three miles from where I live, lies one of the most tragic places in all of New York State.
And likely one of the most haunted.
It is Letchworth Village, and its history is one of murder, death, and failure.
Letchworth Village opened in 1908 as the Eastern NY State Custodial Asylum, a place for the ‘feeble minded and epileptics’ of New York State. In 1909 the name was changed to Letchworth Village Home for the Feeble Minded and Epileptics. At some point in the 1960s it became just Letchworth Village, which is what I grew up calling it. Originally, it was built as a state-of-the-art treatment center for the physically and mentally disabled of all ages, ranging from newborns to the elderly. At its peak, it comprised more than 130 buildings spread across 2,362 acres, with its own farm, reservoir, electrical plant, and more.
Growing up, I only knew it as a home for the disabled, a nice, tree-lined campus you had to drive right through in order to get to the highway. It was common to see the residents wandering the grounds or sitting on benches, waving to the passing cars. Many people in town worked there, and although you heard a few whispered stories about abuse or poor conditions, no one really talked about anything that happened within the buildings. It was the town’s secret place, guarded not by weapons but by the small town credo of “we don’t talk bad about our employer.”
Then, in 1972, all hell broke loose. Geraldo Rivera (he was still a real reporter back then!) did an in-depth expose, revealing decades of overcrowding, fiscal mismanagement, unsanitary conditions, abuse, rape, and more. During that report, and in its aftermath, some terrible facts came to light, including:
* From the 1930s to 1960s, Letchworth was first a testing ground and then a frequent utilizer of electroconvulsive (shock) therapy, both as a treatment model and to see what effects it had on the brains of the “feeble minded, morons, imbeciles, and idiots,” to use the official medical terms of the times. Many of these patients didn’t survive, or they ended up far worse than they started.
* In the early 1950s, Drs. Hilary Koprowski and George Jervis tested Koprowski’s live virus polio vaccine on humans, including children.
* In the 1930s and 40s, trepanning and lobotomies (physical and chemical) were carried out on in secret, often as a part of research studies.
* Numerous female residents were raped by both other residents and/or orderlies, and the babies either given up for adoption or disappearing quietly.
* Families in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, especially those who were not able to pay for their children or relatives to live at Letchworth, would often commit individuals to the facility and then never return and never pay, leaving the patients, who were mostly unable to make their own decisions, as wards of the state, often without a real identity. These individuals often ended up as experimental subject
* More than 800 adults and children died as a result of abuse or experimentation, and they were buried in unmarked graves at the far end of the Letchworth property, in a wooded area that can only be reached by walking a ½-mile trail that until the late 1990s didn’t even have a marker announcing the presence of the cemetery where the trail met the main road.
It’s rumored more individuals were buried deep underneath the buildings, but this has never been confirmed (it does, however, form the basis of my novel Cemetery Club).
Letchworth closed its doors for good in 1996, and the state forced the facility’s administrators to locate all the names of the dead in the cemetery and erect a plaque at the entrance. The memorial stone shows the words “THOSE WHO SHALL NOT BE FORGOTTEN” and all 800-plus names. Behind this memorial T-shaped markers bearing numbers mark the graves of the nameless victims who perished at Letchworth.
As a writer living so close to this dark and likely haunted place, I couldn’t help but explore the grounds, which are now public land and used during the day by hikers, dog walkers, and bike riders. An entire section has been converted into offices and a recreation center, another into a set of school buildings. But many of the structures still sit abandoned, the gothic stone facilities slowly falling into disrepair. These include the morgue, a laboratory, a dental office, dormitories, classrooms, and administrative offices.
Over the years, I’ve been inside each of the abandoned buildings. In the basement of the largest structure is the morgue, where I’ve seen the chambers where the dead were kept and the autopsy table (this was a scene I described in my next novel, The Wakening, coming out in 2021) the coroner used. Next door is the dentist’s office, with several old-fashioned chairs and boxes of X-rays strewn about by vandals. Up one floor you find the room where the shock therapy sessions took place, and some of that equipment (and the chair) are still there. As you walk through the halls, you can’t help wondering what it must have been like to spend your entire life in that place, hearing the screams of tortured, brutalized patients echoing off the cinder block walls and wondering what was in store for you. For me, a place like that, filled with the lingering dark energies of the mistreated, the lonely, the sad, and the bewildered, is far more terrifying than living on top of an ancient burial ground (I happen to know of at least one neighborhood in town built right over a Revolutionary War cemetery!)
Entering the buildings gives one a sense of the history of the place. The atmosphere is disturbing, to say the least, and you can feel the ominous weight of decades of death and torment. In one attic room, I found dozens of file boxes filled with patient records dating back to the 1940s.
Wait, did I mention that when the state closed the place, they escorted everyone out, relocated the patients to other facilities or halfway houses, and just shut the doors?
None of the furniture has been removed. Some has been stolen. The files are still there. In one building, there are rooms filled with plastic-wrapped, brand new filing cabinets. In another, hundreds of computers are piled in a giant bin. In the warehouse, rooms are stacked floor to ceiling with couches, chairs, and beds.
One of the files I read detailed the life of a man from his commitment in 1939 until his death in 1982 at the age of 74. It even had pictures. Flipping through it, I felt almost as if I’d been meant to find that file. Here are a few passages that stood out when I first rifled through those pages
“…free from behavioral disturbances, clean in habits…talks in brief coherent sentences…general knowledge and memory are poor…unable to make decisions on his own…”
“Emotionally unstable…inadequate mental capacity…mentally deficient…imbecile…” “Poorly developed and nourished white male with stigmata usually associated with mental deficiency – narrow upper palate, small teeth, etc. Fall from third floor window at age 2 years seems to have affected his head. Enjoys bowling and other sports, but because of arthritis in left hand, not adept at table craft activities.”
Patient X was listed with a third-grade reading/writing capacity, and worked for over 40 years at the institution, performing manual labor such as sweeping and setting up tables in the cafeteria. He reportedly didn’t enjoy the company of other inmates, and desired to be placed in an outside group home, but his brother, who’d had him committed, wouldn’t allow it. From the time of his commitment at the age of 17 until his death at 74, no one in his family visited him, although his brother and sister called infrequently to check on his status.
Staring at Patient X’s ID card, I felt a bridge to the past that linked me to this poor man who spent his entire life surrounded by people that made him uncomfortable, hoping to one day leave the confines of the institution and live with a family, or in a halfway house. Cast aside by a family that wanted nothing to do with him, and most likely suffering from abuse at the hands of orderlies and perhaps even doctors.
I couldn’t put the file down. It now resides in my research drawer, along with several others, including one that details the repeated rape of a woman not only at the facility, but from various relatives every time she went home for holiday visits. Nothing was ever done to stop it from happening.
I still walk those grounds sometimes, and I’ve guided a few unofficial tours for some small groups.
Perhaps the most chilling thing about Letchworth is that from the road, it’s a beautiful, if slightly eerie, campus that gives no clue as to the atrocities that happened there.
But when you’re inside, in the dark… you can feel it.
And it just goes to show that if you look deep enough, every town has its secrets to tell.
A life-long resident of New York’s haunted Hudson Valley, JG Faherty has been a finalist for both the Bram Stoker Award (THE CURE, GHOSTS OF CORONADO BAY) and the ITW Thriller Award (THE BURNING TIME). He is the author of eight novels, 11 novellas, and more than 75 short stories. He writes adult and YA horror, science fiction, paranormal romance, and urban fantasy. He grew up enthralled with the horror movies and books of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, and as a child his favorite playground was a 17th-century cemetery. Which explains a lot. His latest novel is SINS OF THE FATHER, a Lovecraftian tale of suspense, terror, and romance set in Victorian New England.