Max Wagner & Nick Lombardo
(Buffalo N.Y.) — Adjacent to the SUNY Buffalo State campus, sits one of the most notorious buildings in all of New York: the Richardson Olmsted Complex, formerly known as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane.
Originally built in 1870 by architect Henry Hobson Richardson, the complex, which is registered as a National Historic Landmark, spans 93 acres and takes on the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture.
The former asylum is one of many throughout the state of New York and to learn more about this history author Michael Keene appeared on the Buffalo Review May 1 to discuss his book “Mad House: The Hidden History of Insane Asylums in 19th-Century New York.”
The book delves into the stories of patients and doctors that inhabited 15 mental institutions across New York, which includes research from newspaper stories, hospital archives and patient letters.
Keene was in Buffalo to give a talk on the subject at the Iron Island Museum April 27.
While asylums may currently be viewed negatively, Keene said that wasn’t always the case.
“The technical definition of the word asylum means safe haven and that was true for many people staying within the early asylums,” he said. “To me it was totally surprising, the common thought about these asylums were that they were horrible places.”
However, as early as 1824 New York state conducted research into what life was like for the poor and insane.
“What they found was horrendous, if you were insane and poor and living in the country, more than likely you lived in cellars, in barns, sometimes even in the wild. If you lived in the cities, you lived in alley ways, you slept on piles of rubbish, you had to beg for food and often you were victims of early death by disease or violence,” said Keene.
Thus, the state mandated that every county in New York establish a poor house where all manner of people lived.
“The first mental hospitals or the first insane asylums as they were called back then were very modest affairs. They sometimes only housed 50 or 60 people, they had a very high staff to patient ratio,” he said. “It was the first time a lot of these people lived in a place where they had access to fresh water and food; actually humane treatment, so in the early years, the early asylums were safe havens for these people.”
Eventually, Keene said, overcrowding led to a number of “treatments” that would be considered inhumane today.
For example, devices such as the holding chair or the Utica crib, which were used to restrain and calm agitated patients, might be considered something akin to a medieval torture device today. Other appalling treatments included electroconvulsive shock therapy, forced castration and the lobotomy, according to Keene.
“Institutions that were originally at capacity holding 60 people, were responsible for housing 600 people decades later without a corresponding increase in staffing,” Keene said. “Many people were suffering great illness of one kind, they might have been misdiagnosed.”
The largest facility in the country was located on Long Island, which at its peak held over 16,000 people.
It is possible many people in the asylums were “railroaded” into being there or brought against their will. Some patients “received a life term, because if there weren’t any capable relatives to take them in, they weren’t able to be released.”
Keene said often the patients in the asylums were treated like inmates, perhaps, for good reason. “Most of these asylums were holding criminals along side the mentally ill,” he said.
One of the most notorious was a woman named Lizzie Halliday, a serial killer who was known to have killed at least five people and was known at the time as “the worst woman on Earth.”
However, Keene said she likely murdered many others, including other patients in the asylum.
* Jenny Annas, Christopher Baggs, Steven Epps and Will Fahlbeck contributed to this report.