Abandoned places are undeniably spooky; long forgotten, crumbling derelicts of another age, often haunted by painful memories, violence, and perhaps even ghosts. Among these decrepit, feral locations, perhaps the spookiest kind is abandoned insane asylums. These are places that even in life were infused with a thick air of suffering, madness, loneliness, and despair, and when they pass on into the realm of desolate abandonment, with maybe some ghosts thrown in for good measure, they transcend merely spooky to become terrifying places echoing with the pain and specters of times past. Already naturally haunting places, insane asylums metamorphose into frightening, dark locales of dread in death. There are many abandoned asylums in the world, but perhaps the one that reverberates with the most sinister sense of hanging, unbearable evil is a place by the name of Letchworth Village. It is a place with a horrifying history that seems to have imprinted itself onto its now cracking, crumbling walls, and rates as one of the most haunted abandoned places there is.
Letchworth Village Rehabilitation Center opened in 1911 in a quaint, quiet suburban area of Haverstraw, New York. Named after the humanitarian and philanthropist William Pryor Letchworth, the institution was originally created for the purpose of housing the physically and mentally disabled and the feeble minded of all ages, from very young children to the elderly. Letchworth was opened with the best intentions. Sprawled out over 2,362-acres of picturesque, immaculately landscaped rolling fields, serene park-like meadows and forests, and comprised of 130 attractive, fieldstone neoclassic buildings, Letchworth was originally envisioned as a more humane alternative to the crowded high rise insane asylums that were common at the time.
The facility meant to pay strict attention to the comfort and well-being of its patients, and to this end had very specific rules in mind when it was first opened that were groundbreaking and revolutionary at the time. No building was more than two stories high, with a maximum capacity of only 70 patients and the buildings were placed at least 200 feet apart in order to create a spacious atmosphere and allow room for parks, leisure areas, and playgrounds. Additionally, the buildings were clearly separated into groups of similar mental capacity and vigor, who were not allowed to come into contact with each other. The entire campus was divided into two halves separated by a scenic meandering stream, with one half housing female patients and the other male. Among the numerous buildings scattered about the peaceful grounds were offices, staff housing, doctor’s residences, dormitories, schools, state-of-the-art laboratories, hospitals, kitchens, dining areas, workshops, a refrigeration plant, a laundry facility, a gym, and a theater. Patients were encouraged to make use of the leisure facilities, and they grew their own crops on small farms and even raised their own livestock. The facilities were so revolutionary, so beautiful and well thought out, and so much effort had been made to ensure the utmost quality of care, that Letchworth was initially lauded as one of the nation’s most prestigious and top-notch mental care facilities. However, this was sadly not to last. Although started with the best intentions, these are what the road to Hell is paved with, and Letchworth was to soon begin its descent into darkness and despair.
It started with rumors of mistreatment; whispers of cruelty towards the patients and horrific experiments conducted within the dank basements and underground tunnels of the facility. Healthy adult male patients were also allegedly put to work doing hard, often dangerous labor such as loading tons of coal into storage facilities, building roads, and being forced to work brutally long hours doing backbreaking work on the village’s many farms. Stories of staff abusing or mistreating patients were rampant, riddled with tales of harsh punishments, beatings, and rape. The general attitude of the doctors there towards their patients was one of disdain. This can be seen in an annual report from 1921, an official document in which a Dr. Charles Little explained the three main groups of patients as the “imbecile group,” the “moron group,” and the “idiot group.” Eerily, Little also mentions in his report his desire to use these outcasts of society as test subjects.
In addition, over the years the institution became underfunded, and was forced to stall construction of more buildings to house the ever increasing population of the village. In the 1920s, the dormitories were already becoming cramped and by the 1940s the population of the facility had reached double its intended maximum occupancy. Patients were forced to live and sleep in squalor, pressed together in rooms that were packed wall to wall with cots, and there were reports that there was a shortage of water, food, and other basic necessities. The increasingly harsh conditions were most noticeable in the institution’s many young patients, children ranging from under 5 years old to 16 that shockingly comprised more than half of Letchworth’s total population. Visitors to the facility reported that the children looked malnourished or sick, and displayed morose, lackadaisical behavior. Rumors that staff shoved food down the throats of kids who were unwilling to eat what they were given and the use of a single communal spoon to administer medicine abounded. Sadly, not much help came in the way of families, as many of the patients had more or less been dropped off by relatives at the institution to be abandoned and forgotten, as such a disabled person in the family was often seen as a disgrace in those days.
All of this was merely rumor and hearsay at the time. The staff and doctors presented a face to the public that all was fine and the institution was operating without any problems. Rumors of abuse and mistreatment were summarily dismissed by staff, and accusations of secret human experimentation were vehemently denied. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the public would get its first real look at the atrocious conditions within Letchworth, when a man by the name of Irving Haberman did a series of photographs within the facility that were shocking to say the least. The photos depicted neglected, unbathed patients wallowing in filthy living conditions, as well as naked patients forced to huddle in special day rooms. Letchworth Village began to garner the nickname “The Village of Secrets.”
Despite the outcry these photos instilled in the public, Letchworth remained open for business as usual, indeed it continued to maintain a fairly good reputation among health care professionals at the time. By the 1950s, the village was overflowing with over 4,000 patients and living conditions were worse than they had ever been before, with masses of people sleeping on mattresses in hallways and even on the bare floor, yet even still it remained open and in good standing. It was at this time that one of the most horrifying cases of human rights abuse at Letchworth would rear its ugly head. On February 27, 1950, the first human trial of the polio vaccine was carried out on an abandoned 8 year old patient who was too young and too mentally disabled to give consent, and when no side effects or symptoms were apparent the vaccine was subsequently tested on 19 other young patients at the facility. These trials would pave the way for the polio vaccine that is still used today, with this success being likely the only reason that public outrage over the experiments was somewhat muted. Patients were allegedly used as human guinea pigs for a wide variety of other clinical trials, and there is the persistent rumor that brain samples were taken from many patients against their will and put into storage.
Letchworth continued to remain in operation despite all of the evidence that it was a hotbed of human rights violations, mistreatment, abuse, and atrocities. In 1972, ABC News featured Letchworth in a report titled “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace,” which was an investigative piece meant to look at the treatment of people with mental disabilities at institutions around the state of New York, particularly children. The documentary focused mostly on Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, but looked at other institutions as well, including Letchworth. Reporter Geraldo Rivera found that the conditions at Letchworth were “backward and cruel,” with disgustingly filthy living conditions, rampant overcrowding, a lack of clothing and bathing, and a general neglect of the patients’ basic needs. It was additionally found that the facility was hopelessly understaffed by woefully underpaid staff with little interest in the patients’ wellbeing, and that the patients were offered no schooling, training, or indeed any activities to educate them or keep them occupied. The footage from the report shows a miserable picture of naked children curled up on the floor, children wailing and crying, children in wheelchairs or with other disabilities looking decidedly underfed and gaunt, and children staring forlornly out of windows, perhaps wishing they were free or perhaps wishing they were dead. These were poor souls that were in a sense already ghosts. Rivera said during his report:
This is what it looked like. This is what it sounded like. But how can I tell you about the way it smelled? It smelled like of filth, it smelled of disease, it smelled of death.
This documentary would open a lot of people’s eyes to the conditions of mental institutions at the time and pave the way for later reforms within the field, yet amazingly Letchworth still remained operational. It would continue on, its reputation growing more and more sinister as funding gradually dried up and living conditions spiraled downward. In 1996, after decades of increasingly fervent human rights campaigns were forcing the doors of other such establishments to be closed around the country, Letchworth was finally put out of its misery. In addition to almost nonexistent funding, traditional methods of segregating the mentally challenged from society were being replaced with the new idea of normalization and trying to help these individuals once again rejoin it, making sure Letchworth was a dying breed and a throwback to an older, crueler time. The patients of Letchworth were relocated to other homes and its doors closed for good.
In the ensuing years, some of the Letchworth property was sold and redeveloped to become a golf course and a middle school, but much of the land and the structures that sit upon it have been simply abandoned and left to the elements to rot. Nature has come to reclaim much of the old institution, with vines, poison ivy, and overgrown brush creeping around weathered walls, windows and doors. The decayed, abandoned buildings are boarded up with rotting planks with “No Trespassing” scrawled across them, and gates help to keep people out of some areas. Over the years windows have been smashed in by vandals and some of the buildings bear charred evidence of arson.
Inside, the halls and rooms have the appearance of having been abandoned suddenly, with moldy beds and rusty chairs remaining where they were. There are also old photos, clothing, shoes, and other personal effects scattered about, discarded and left to rot by some long forgotten souls. Pictures still hang on walls, there are long broken TVs sitting in rooms as if waiting for someone to come home and watch them, medical equipment strewn about, and even now dead houseplants still hanging on the walls. One room holds the eerie sight of stacks of cardboard boxes threatening to topple over that simply read “Deaths,” which bulge with the files of patients who were admitted to Letchworth but never made it out. Most people who come here to walk among the buildings report feeling a overwhelming, almost unbearable sense of sadness permeating the area.
A half a mile from the main campus of Letchwood is a cemetery, now known as Old Letchworth Village Cemetery, that was used for patients who died there. Creepily, only anonymous numbers are written upon the grave markers, as it was considered at the time to be inappropriate to advertise a person’s mental disabilities and families did not want to be associated with their mentally challenged kin. In modern times, a memorial stone has been erected in the graveyard which reads “Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten,” and is etched with the proper names of the hundreds of patients who are interred here, although there are some dead patients who still remain nameless. These graves were rarely ever visited, and even now remain mostly devoid of visitors. The only people who come here now are maintenance workers who come to mow the grass or clear away garbage, thrill seekers looking for a peek of the macabre, and vandals. The dead themselves remain forgotten, just as they had been in life, despite what the memorial plaque says.
Considering the spooky atmosphere of this dilapidated place and its history of human suffering, you can probably surmise by now that the grounds are said to be heavily haunted. The list of weird, unexplainable phenomena at Letchworth is long. Visitors to the area have reported hearing furniture scraping across floors, heavy footsteps, disembodied whispers, and tapping, knocking, and rapping on the peeling, stained walls. Some rooms become suddenly and remarkably cold, even in the dead of summer, and there is a wealth of EVP phenomena recorded here. The spirits of children seem to be particularly active, with reports of mysterious giggling, pattering footsteps, and playful poltergeist activity such as personal belongings flung across rooms or electrical equipment turned on and off common. Orbs or flitting lights are often seen. There are also more ominous signs of haunting. Some have described being pushed, shoved, or even held down on the floor by some unseen force. One group of thrill seekers reported seeing something horrifying while exploring the grounds when they came across a 7 foot-tall apparition with legs bent backward and piercing, glowing white eyes that walked towards them. One of the rooms of the old medical building allegedly has a prominent pentagram on the floor and is the reported site of Satanic activity.
The institute’s hospital seems to be particularly haunted, with intense sightings of apparitions, anomalous sounds, or even phantom physical assaults happening here with frightening frequency. Numerous mysterious photos, videos, and audio recordings have been made of alleged ghosts at Letchworth. Perhaps the most famous investigation was made by the TV show Ghost Adventures. While undoubtedly played up for scares and dramatic effect, the crew allegedly experienced all sorts of weird phenomena, from unexplained noises to EVP, and allegedly one interviewed witness was even followed home by one of the ghosts.
Nowadays, the area is quite active in the daytime. Joggers and people walking their dogs are common here all year round. At night, there is a strict no trespassing policy, with the police patrolling heavily and apparently not hesitating to arrest anyone caught snooping around there. It is hard to imagine who would want to be here in darkness. Nevertheless, the intense amount of paranormal activity reported from Letchworth and the publicity generated by the Ghost Adventures episode have ensured that there are plenty of people willing to risk it for a chance to glimpse something bizarre.
There is no denying that Letchworth is a spooky place encumbered with an agonized history of strife. But is it haunted? Do the spirits of the mentally disabled and forgotten still prowl these crumbling halls, just as abandoned as the buildings they stalk? Is this all mere folklore that has sprung up around this eerie place? Or is it that the agony, torture, and despair that pervaded this place for so long has lingered and somehow imprinted itself onto its very being, like an image onto a photograph? Can the suffering of the past impose itself onto the present? Whatever the answers to these questions, if abandoned, haunted places are scary, then Letchworth Village has to rank up there as one of the scariest.