On a hillside overlooking Binghamton stands a towering Gothic castle. Although the intricate exterior stonework, stained-glass windows and medieval turrets make it seem like something out of a fairytale, this castle has a very dark past. It is the former New York State Inebriate Asylum, once informally known as the Binghamton Asylum for the Chronic Insane.
The asylum has a strange history shrouded in tragedy, speculation and mystery. Designed by New York architect Isaac Perry in 1858 and completed in 1864, the castle was built to house and treat alcoholics under the experimental theory that alcoholism, like insanity, was a disease that required institutionalization. The asylum faced financial woes for a decade after a great fire broke out in March 1870. Gov. Lucius Robinson deemed it a “complete failure” in 1879, suggesting that the asylum be closed down and renovated to house the insane. In 1881, its doors were reopened as the Binghamton Asylum for the Chronic Insane, later renamed the Binghamton State Hospital. Hundreds of patients were transferred to Binghamton from Utica, Poughkeepsie and Middletown; those patients lived, suffered and died in the palatial asylum. Treatment methods only worsened with the turn of the century.
In 1942, the hospital instituted electric shock therapy, hydrotherapy and later lobotomy as methods of treatment for the mentally ill. These “treatments” were nothing short of brutally inhumane. Patients were restrained in wet canvas for up to six hours at a time and forced into seizures by means of electric shock. The worst and most terrifying of these treatments was the prefrontal lobotomy, a form of psychosurgery that involved scrambling the frontal lobe of the brain with a sharp metal instrument inserted through the upper eye socket.
The hospital fell into steep decline in the late 1900s with the introduction of modern medicinal treatments, until it finally closed its doors in 1993. Aside from a few remaining historical documents, the dark history of the castle and its patients has long been obscured, ignored and forgotten. Richard L. Diffenbach relayed a few of his experiences as a former aid at Binghamton State Hospital to The New York Times in 2008.
“These people are encased in my memory,” he said of the patients. “I worked on the violent ward. We had a patient who sat all day in a chair and shuffled his feet back and forth and wore a considerable size depression in the wood floor. The patient used to call himself ‘ZZZ Wafe Rainmaker Father Mother Simon Joseph Francis Carl.’ He said he was the maker of Heaven and Earth. He sat in his chair in the hallway and shuffled all day.”
The original hospital grave site, which contained 1,500 bodies marked with numbered stones, was moved to an open field to make way for a new highway in 1961. It is said that in early spring, the melting snow collects in the basins of the shallow anonymous graves, leaving what little evidence of those who lived and died there in plain sight. The castle itself is awaiting another phase in a series of renovations geared toward preserving it as a historic landmark. Once the renovations are finished, a portion of the old ward will be made into a museum in honor of its former patients.