Legend Tripping in Letchworth Village

Letchworth Village is located in a tranquil area of Thiells, a rural community west of Haverstraw that is surrounded by the gentle hills and vales of the Ramapos. This old facility for the mentally challenged is located within a short distance from the tranquil Harriman State Park, which is the second-largest park in New York. Nature has quickly reclaimed control over these unholy grounds, enveloping a painful memory in a dense layer of greenery. Abandonment transforms into this “village of secrets,” which was created with the intention of remaining quiet and undetected like a tomb.

Letchworth Village has earned a reputation as the subject of several local legends because of its alleged quirky paranormal activities. After a tense two-hour trip from Brooklyn, I was frightened as I rounded the bend into Letchworth Village Road because of these bizarre stories. I first saw Letchworth’s extensive degradation as I rounded a downward curve; a ruin covered in vines was briefly visible through a stand of oak. The ghosts emerged one by one through the foggy horseshoe pathways of the boy’s ward.

This map illustrates scale. The majority of these structures are still standing, modified or vacant.

The first phase of building on this 2,362 acre “state institution for the segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded” was finished by the end of 1911. The charming community was praised as a model facility for the care of the developmentally challenged, a compassionate alternative to high-rise asylums, having been constructed on numerous guiding principles that were new at the time. The community’s design was modelled after Monticello.

The Minnisceongo Creek divides the grounds into spaces for the sexes that were never intended to mix. It was forbidden to build institutions with more than 70 convicts or more than two storeys for children, adults, and the physically disabled. The physically fit worked on community farms up until the 1960s, producing enough grain and cattle to sustain the whole population.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Letchworth Village’s Girl’s Group in a 1933 picture

The “laboratory purpose” was another crucial component of the Letchworth plan, and it was sinister by today’s standards. Numerous kids were inadvertent test volunteers since they were unable to give or withhold permission; in 1950, the facility rose to prominence as the location of one of the earliest human trials of a still-in-development polio vaccine. The brains of dead patients were removed, preserved in formaldehyde jars, and displayed in the hospital lab. One of the most popular anecdotes among ghost hunters and young explorers is about this horrifying practise.

Letchworth Village’s well-intentioned intentions didn’t work out as expected, and by 1942, there were twice as many people living there as was originally anticipated. The institution thereafter entered a protracted period of deterioration due to significant underfunding. Overcrowding led to the severe illness or malnutrition of many of the residents, whose condition required enough time and care for feeding. At one time, the facility’s dayrooms and halls housed more than 500 patients who were being cared for by a staff that was fully overburdened and charged with the impossible.

The institution shut down in 1996 after ceasing to utilise the bulk of its buildings and moving most of its residents into group homes, as the traditional practises of isolating the developmentally challenged were being replaced by a movement towards normalisation and integration into society. The state has attempted to sell the land, with varying degrees of success. The majority of the decaying buildings were supposed to be demolished in 2004 to make room for a 450-unit condo complex, but it seems that the plan has been delayed. Shiny Fieldstone Middle School, an island of hope amid a wasteland of failure, uses nine of the old girl’s group’s buildings. It is surrounded by ballfields and parking lots.

There is a new sign pointing to the “Old Letchworth Village Cemetery” along Call Hollow Road. Unusual clusters of T-shaped marks assemble in a shaded clearing along a rarely used trail. Although they are graves, they are nameless.

Many family secrets are buried among these 900 dead, because few people wanted to commemorate their “defective” ancestors or have their family names written in such an unworthy cemetery. Here, among so many undervalued, dislocated, and forgotten lives, Letchworth Village’s anguish is clearly discernible.

The placement of a permanent plaque with the names of these silent dead and the appropriate inscription “To Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten” was financed by state agencies and activists as part of a national initiative.

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