History of Hudson Valley’s Letchworth Village’s Progressive Mental Hospital

Letchworth Village served as both an example of compassionate care and a representation of institutional abuse, and it also contributed to the widespread recognition of Geraldo Rivera.

History of Hudson Valley's Letchworth Village's Progressive Mental Hospital

Ileana Eckert took a part-time job at Letchworth Village in Thiells during her time in high school and college in the 1970s before she was appointed superintendent of the North Rockland Central School District. Since 1911, adults and children with mental and physical disabilities have resided in this community within a community.

It once enjoyed a reputation as one of the most cutting-edge centers of its sort on a global scale, making it one of the largest employers in the region. Working at the café, Eckert recalls a kind and welcoming atmosphere. The patients she met every day felt secure and joyful because of the individuals she knew, according to her.

Thousands of inmates of the Letchworth Village institution formerly called a complex of abandoned buildings in the Rock County hamlet of Thiells, New York, home. The firm adopted unethical procedures, which was intended to be a progressive development, but the patients suffered as a result. The abandoned psychiatric hospital is now reduced to its gloomy, crumbling remnants.

William Pryor Letchworth came up with the idea for Letchworth Village. He was a 19th-century merchant who made the decision to spend the remainder of his life building a place that looked out for the welfare of the less fortunate after retiring at the age of 50 in 1878. Letchworth Village was supposed to develop into a cutting-edge residential facility for those with physical and mental illnesses. Letchworth sadly passed away before to the project’s completion.

History of Hudson Valley's Letchworth Village's Progressive Mental Hospital

His ideas for Letchworth Village were authorized by the state in 1907, and in 1909 they bought the land in the Thiells hamlet. 130 buildings were constructed on the 2,300-acre site of the Village. On July 10, 1911, the first patients were admitted.

However, Geraldo Rivera, a local newsman at the time, reported that residents of Letchworth Village and Willowbrook State School on Staten Island were living in overcrowded, filthy, and neglected conditions in his career-launching and Peabody Award-winning documentary Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace. The Rivera documentary was a major factor in inspiring changes that now govern how the disabled are cared for in this country. As a result, Letchworth Village was gradually emptied of patients until it closed in 1996. Such unsettling reports about Letchworth had actually started in the 1930s and 1940s.

This depressing conclusion contrasts sharply with the institution’s much-lauded origins and early years, as well as with the memories of the majority of individuals who worked there. People spent their entire lives there, and according to Eckert, they probably have happy memories. “It was rather stable there, tucked away in a loving neighborhood. People recognized and embraced the locals, who were like local characters.

History of Hudson Valley's Letchworth Village's Progressive Mental Hospital
This building in Letchworth Village has a deteriorating construction, interior, and roof. Doug Kerr/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

This institution was exquisitely planned and constructed, according to amateur Letchworth Village historian Corinne McGeorge. Around 10,000 native New Yorkers were employed by Letchworth at its busiest. Nearly every family in North Rockland had a member employed there, and numerous members of the same family had positions in various structures, according to McGeorge.

History of Hudson Valley's Letchworth Village's Progressive Mental Hospital
Most of the buildings at Letchworth Village were left to be reclaimed by nature following its closure in 1996. (Photo Credit: Darryl Moran / Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

Letchworth was designed to be self-sufficient because it was situated on such a huge amount of land. Many of the structures had separate rooms for sewing, welding, cleaning, repairing shoes, and carpentry in addition to kitchens for cooking. A farm with fields of both crops and animals was also present in the village.

Letchworth patients were given jobs to assist with running the Village. They were separated into one of three now derogatorily named groups according to their deemed mental capacities, and occupations were then assigned to each group.

History of Hudson Valley's Letchworth Village's Progressive Mental Hospital
An outdoor image of a Letchworth Village building. Darryl Moran/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Letchworth ran smoothly, and the patients genuinely contributed to the facility becoming self-sufficient. However, it had a reputation for being a destination that visitors visited but never returned from. There was no need for patients to depart because care was given there.

Letchworth had achieved its maximum population by 1935. Unfortunately, more people were still being taken in despite the lack of funding or staffing. Overcrowding and miserable living conditions were the outcome.

History of Hudson Valley's Letchworth Village's Progressive Mental Hospital
Plaque commemorating those interred in Thiells, New York’s Old Letchworth Village Cemetery. GeekOnTheWing / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0, Photo

Journalist Irving Haberman revealed in a picture exposé from the 1940s that Letchworth was a place full of filthy living conditions by showing patients sleeping on mattresses on the floor while unclothed and unbathed. In the time, nothing was done about it, and business as usual at the Village.

Graves of Letchworth Village patients from 1914 to 1967. (Photo: GeekOnTheWing, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The vaccine was administered to kids. Only one of the 17 patients in the sample group who developed antibodies to the illness after the injection had any side effects. Letchworth was able to operate for decades in spite of complaints of abuse and neglect largely because the polio vaccination testing there was successful.

Letchworth was constructed on land that was sold and turned into golf courses. At Letchworth, some of the structures have been transformed into functional businesses, while the majority have been left in utter disrepair.

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