Creepy Finger Lakes, Episode 3: Willard Asylum for the Insane

For this final episode of my Creepy Finger Lakes series, we’re focusing on a site that I find utterly fascinating: Willard State Hospital, formerly known as the Willard Asylum for the Insane, located on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake.

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Willard’s Main Building.

To me, there is something that oddly compels my interest in historical hospitals for the insane. Even the buildings on the hospital grounds appear malefic, huddled against the outside world, the surrounding gates holding their residents in and away from the “normal.” They look like every creepy mansion from every scary movie ever made.

Bleak House superintendent's home
The on-site home of Willard’s director, formerly, and appropriately, called Bleak House.

I guess my fascination has to do with the fact that insane asylums are meant to contain the humanity presumably least able to live amongst us—those whose behaviors are so beyond control, so self-harming, so violent, or so socially unacceptable that they are deemed unfit to reside with the rest of their kind.

But even more than that, what scares me about the idea of an asylum is its potential for anarchy and sadism. It is a place where the patients might not only do harm to themselves, but also may desire to cause others injury. And it is also an institution in which those in charge have complete jurisdiction over the patients—if the administrators and attendants are humane, then this jurisdiction can be benevolent. But if the administrators or doctors are sadistic, then the patients can be endlessly subjected to their evil abuses of power, and the hospital can become a site where no rules apply. For all of these reasons, an insane asylum seems to me as likely a place as any to harbor malevolent spirits.

Strangely enough, of all the nation’s mental hospitals, Willard should be a most unlikely contender for historic house of horrors. The New York State legislature founded Willard in 1865 as an asylum for the “insane poor” that was to treat its inmates with “kindly care” and to offer a ”safe, orderly, clean, controlled environment that created stability” for its patients. Prior to Willard, institutions for the insane, and most especially for the impoverished among them, tended to make no distinctions about the types of conditions the inmates had and so all were treated alike, with little thought to their recovery. The condition of the patients who arrived at Willard from other New York institutions offers a grim insight into the state of mental health care prior to the creation of Willard. Willard’s very first patient, for example, was a woman named Mary Rote. Mary arrived at Willard in 1869 from an almshouse in Columbia County where she’d been held for over ten years, reportedly nude, chained to a wall, and crouched in a corner of a cell. When she arrived at Willard on 13 October 1869, she was in chains and appeared “deformed and demented.” But after being at Willard for a while, reports indicate that she had received a much different kind of care, having “been daily dressed and at all times presentable,” and her “general appearance and habits of cleanliness [were] much improved.” Mary died at Willard seven years later of tuberculosis.

At any rate, over time, Willard grew to be the largest state mental institution in the United States. From 1869 until its closing in 1995, Willard admitted 50,000 patients, most of whom impoverished and having no family or friends interested in their condition. Nearly 25,000 patients died there, many from tuberculosis and other communicable diseases that spread through the institution. Neither friends nor relatives claimed the bodies of almost 6,000. These unfortunates were buried in unmarked graves in the hospital cemetery. A morgue was built on the premises in 1870, and a 30-acre cemetery was eventually required to hold all of the dead. Spirits may remain in these places, for folks who have recently stayed in Elliott Hall, where the hospital and morgue were located, report odd things happening in the building. Some report having seen dark shapes and shadows lurking in the corridors, and having heard screaming and whispering. Others claim that door knobs mysteriously turn, and keys repeatedly drop to the floor.

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Elliott Hall, which housed Willard’s hospital and morgue.
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Coolers for bodies in the Willard morgue.
Morgue photo from An Inside...
Autopsy table in the morgue. The room remained pretty much as it had looked when the hospital closed in 1995.

Lawrence MarekAccording to Seneca County Historian Walter Gable, one patient “took an interest in the cemetery,” and for most of his fifty-year residence in the hospital, served as Willard’s grave digger and cemetery caretaker. The patient, Lawrence Marek, who emigrated to the US from Austro-Hungary Galicia and who was sent to Willard from a Long Island psychiatric hospital in 1918, reportedly dug around 1,000 graves for patients. When he passed away in 1968 at ninety years of age, Marek was buried in an unmarked grave just like the other patients. Little else is known about him, but apparently his illness may have been caused by a head injury in his youth, which made him “generally noisy” and which led him to speak to God, angels, and devils.

 

Thomas Elliott Headstone .pngAnother inmate at Willard was named Thomas Elliott. Elliott had been a fugitive slave who, along with seven others, escaped from Maryland in 1857. Although they were caught at one point, all of them eventually made it to the North via the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately for Elliott, he was committed to the Utica Asylum for making “threatening actions” toward a man he suspected of having an affair with this wife. He was transferred to Willard, where he died at age 46 and was buried in the cemetery. Family members created a memorial headstone for him in 2010.

My research for this post turned up some strange incidents at Willard or involving Willard employees. In 1911, Thomas Carroll, a 24-year-old Willard electrician who was to have been married one week later, was killed by inmate Charles Conklin. According to a Geneva Expositor article, Conklin “struck a powerful blow with a hammer on the head, sinking it deep into the skull,” and then “finished his work with a pickaxe.” I could find no other details about the incident, other than reports that Conklin had previously been viewed as harmless. What set him off that day? Does his spirit still lurk in the hallways at Willard?

Ten years later, another incident cast the institution into the public spotlight. In 1921, inmate and WW1 veteran William O’Brien was found dead in his cell under suspicious circumstances. The Geneva Daily Times reported that although Willard doctors had stated that O’Brien was sometimes violent and “possessed with a suicidal tendency,” O’Brien’s family alleged that he had been “cruelly treated at times during his confinement in the hospital.” Since his body was found with several broken ribs, a punctured lung, and “the upper part of his body badly bruised,” officials agreed and launched an investigation. The 1922 Willard Superintendent’s Annual Report stated that O’Brien had been prone to “outbreaks of extreme excitement” in which he sometimes attacked others. The coroner’s investigation revealed that thirty-six hours or so before his death, O’Brien had become agitated and gotten into a scuffle with another inmate. The coroner concluded that this incident had resulted in O’Brien’s broken ribs and punctured lung, and the staff was exonerated. Several other organizations, including the US Veterans’ Bureau, also investigated O’Brien’s death and evidently concurred with the coroner’s findings. However, the American Legion at Auburn, where O’Brien’s parents resided, was not satisfied with the investigations and requested the state governor to conduct an additional inquiry into the circumstances surrounding O’Brien’s death. In 1922, the governor’s investigation exhumed O’Brien’s body, but ultimately confirmed the original findings.  (54th Annual Report of Willard State Hospital, 11-12). Did the institution cover up wrongful actions toward O’Brien by employees, or was he simply the victim of another inmate’s self-defense?

Suicide headline.pngThe oddest incident that I discovered involved William Chapman, a thirty-four-year-old attendant at Willard who in 1926 killed himself in his home in Hayt’s Corner. The Seneca County Courier-Journal stated that Chapman arranged “a double-barreled shotgun in an ingenious manner” in which he was able to blow “a charge into his body as he lay in bed.” The strange thing about Chapman’s suicide was that he deliberately planned his suicide so that his wife would see the death scene. According to the paper, Mrs. Chapman was awaiting to board a train in the Ovid station, when Chapman called the station and summoned her to return home, stating simply, “Postpone your visit and come to the house as quick as possible.” When she arrived back at her house, “she discovered her husband’s body on the bed, the upper part torn away” by the shot. Other family members were evidently present on the property when Chapman fired the shotgun, but one was deaf and one was working in the barn, and so neither heard the shot. The family offered no motive. One suspects that the wife might have informed Chapman that she was leaving him, and that bidding her home to find his shattered body was Chapman’s revenge. We’ll never know what led Chapman to take his own life, but one thing we do know is that had his plan failed and he survived the shooting, he most likely would have found himself back at Willard as a patient rather than as an employee.

Something that is important to understand in contemplating Willard and the historical treatment of the mentally ill is the fact that a person’s marginalized status—that is, being female, non-white, an immigrant, unmarried, gay, etc.—correlated sharply with the likelihood of being designated as insane. In other words, of those folks committed to state asylums in the nineteenth century, women, African Americans, the poor, and recent immigrants often outnumbered white men. Part of the reason for this has to do with physicians’ interest in eugenics during this era. The eugenics movement was school of thought in which scientists, doctors and other intellectuals perceived it as possible to improve the human race by sterilizing or institutionalizing those with “undesirable” traits or habits, such as poverty, Down syndrome, or “feeble-mindedness,” all of which they believed to be hereditary. “Feeble-mindedness” especially served as a blanket term used to describe anyone whose social or moral behaviors deviated significantly from the norm. And as you can imagine, since the physicians tended to be white men, they frequently diagnosed the behaviors of those different from themselves as abnormal. According to the patient statistics given in Gable’s history, “The Willard Asylum for the Insane,” women patients tended to outnumber male patients at Willard, at least for the years covered in the statistics table. In 1871 Willard had the most significant imbalance of female to male patients of any of the years cited: 406 females to 121 males.

Although it’s not possible to draw firm conclusions from this data, a patient card, which Gable included in his history of Willard, suggests that patient 20756, Ethel, exhibited behaviors out of keeping with the mores of her era. The card below suggests that the hospital staff may have perceived her as homosexual.

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Certainly, a female patient “having a jolly time” in bed with another woman would not be a behavior tolerated either by Willard doctors or the outside world of 1930. Since homosexuality was regarded as a mental disorder until the 1970s, this otherwise rather comical anecdote takes on a sinister hue.

I don’t know what to make of all of this, except that wherever people are treated badly, whether through discrimination or abuse or Othering of folks who are different from us, broken spirits are likely to result, and neither hospitalization or death itself might heal them. Let’s practice kindness, people. It might help a restless spirit find peace.

 

Bibliography:

Walter Gable. “The Willard Asylum for the Insane.” Available here.

“An Inside Tour of ‘Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane,” available here.

New York Times video on Willard.

All photos taken from one of the sources listed above.