Hudson River Hospital for the Insane
Layout and Construction
The Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane in Poughkeepsi, was first designed and discussed in 1867. The first state psychiatric hospital was the New York State Lunatic Asylum (later Utica State Hospital, Utica Psychiatric Center) in Utica. Following the Civil War the asylum had reached maximum capacity and the state needed to look for another hospital to house more clinically unstable patients. Frederick Clarke Withers designed the blueprints and layout for the building, and Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted (designers of Central Park in New York City) designed the grounds. The hospital in Utica had Greek Revival Architecture and in an attempt to upstage it, the architects decided to use High Victorian Gothic Architecture which was a sub-style of Gothic Revival. This was the first institutional building in the entire country that was designed in this style of architecture. The campus was comprised of a series of buildings, some of which did not relate to psychiatry. The Kirkbride Building was used for administration and patient intake. There was a Presbyterian church and Catholic church on the premises which patients could attend for service each Sunday. The buildings were divided into blocks, each building having their own wing on different floors. The women’s building and the men’s building was separated by a chapel so that neither one could see into the opposite sexes’ windows. There was also a power house with a large smoke stack that still stands to this day. As with every hospital, there was also a morgue building that had numerous refrigerating rooms. Each ward had bathrooms, closets, rooms for attendants and nurses, common areas, dining areas and the main visitor room. There were nine wards all together. The total square footage was five-hundred thousand feet, and each ward could house up to two-hundred patients.
After the blueprints were made and the architects were ready, the board needed a plot of land in order to execute this mass project. The Roosevelt estate located north of Poughkeepsie, had been badly burned in a fire. They purchased over two-hundred acres of land for $85,000. They later acquired over eighty additional acres of land. The budget was modest, however, it was not modest enough to support the lavish visions of the board. A water tower was constructed that automatically flushed all the lavatories every two minutes, and a dam was created nearby. Gas was also provided since there wasn’t electricity, and the kitchen was underneath one of the wards. Shockingly, the meals were prepared and transported through underground tunnels around the campus by tram-railway. These visions were made into realities, but at an exorbitant cost. In 1870, Three hundred-thousand dollars had already been spent, but New York State Legislature appropriated half of a million dollars more! Even more shocking, the construction was halted only eleven months later because of lack of funds, and a quarter of a million dollars more was sought. Even after most of the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane was completed, another quarter of a million dollars was appropriated and used to finish the other part. The entire project was only supposed to cost $800,000, but because of unrealistic expectations and glamorous visions, this was not the case. When only a quarter of the construction was completed, a staggering $1.3 million dollars had already been spent. The first annual report in 1868 included a statement from Dr. Cleaveland saying, “future operations on the hospital must depend on the amount of money granted”.But by the end of construction it is estimated that between $3-$4 million dollars had been spent. Six years after 1968, in an annual report one of the board members stated, “The Hudson River Hospital might easily have been completed during the five years which have elapsed since the erection of it was begun. It bids fair to take ten years more. In the course of these wasted ten years, how many unfortunate sufferers from the disease of insanity will become confirmed lunatics and non-producing paupers for the want of timely treatment?”.
In order to ship and receive supplies, the hospital had to have a dock constructed on the nearby Hudson River, this increased spending. For only one-hundred and fifty patients, eighteen-thousand pounds of coal were burned everyday for heating. Even more unnecessary, flooring was made from yellow southern pine, a very expensive material, and was custom cut which increased spending even more. The New York Times exposed these frivolous spendings in a scathing article entitled, “An Astonishing Job” in 1873. Female nurses were paid $10-$17 a month while male nurses were paid $16-$22 (talk about gender pay gap).
New York Times: An Astonishing Job 1873
“The managers have entirely disregarded the law by which they were authorized to act. They have altered the plans and specifications ... Some of the details of the extravagance of the board are amazing. For instance, the first part of the work undertaken was the construction of a reservoir, into which the water was pumped from the river through an eight-inch (20 cm) iron pipe; from the reservoir the water was carried to the hospital by a twelve-inch (30 cm) iron pipe, the engine and machinery employed being on the scale of those used in supplying a neighboring city of 20,000 inhabitants. The cost of the reservoir was $100,000. Thirty thousand dollars was expended in blasting some rough rocks jutting into the reservoir, and the Superintendent gave as a reason for this that, if some of the patients were missing, they might want to rake the bottom of the reservoir to find the bodies, and with this the rocks would interfere ... The floors are laid in yellow Southern pine, the most expensive of the flooring, fitted and cut in a way greatly to enhance the cost. The heating is arranged on a scale that, with only 150 patients, ten tons (9 tonnes) of coal per day is consumed. The mention of these items sufficiently explains the disappearance of $1,200,000 of the people's money”.
In 1871, although not fully complete, the hospital officially opened and admitted seven patients. In 1872, when construction was completed, the hospital had one-hundred and eighty-five patients.
The facility was built on a treatment called “moral treatment”, a treatment that strayed away from aggressive, once “normalized” treatment that walked on the boarder of abuse. They had many different outlets for patients: sporting, games (including a very strange game called “catch the greased pig”.. no explanation needed), and gardening after they bought the nearby farm. They also had field day, which comprised of sprinting, bicycle riding, and they unintelligently offered hammer throw...
The Hospital went from holding hundreds of people to thousands. In 1893, they received three-hundred patients from Willard Asylum. At one point, it is reported that the hospital held as many as six-thousand patients.
The Investigation of 1893
The Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane had been investigated once before, but there was a second investigation led by The State Commission of Lunacy in 1893 after questionable numbers showed up in an audit. The commission found that the hospital was overpaying on coal and using significantly more coal than any other hospital in the state. They were also overpaying on meat, and the most damning evidence of all: the staff had hired a private chef paying him a salary of $1,200 a year ($35,000 in 2020). Besides the frivolous and unnecessary spending, the hospital had generally missmanaged their budget entirely.
The commission deemed the hospital “disorderly and demoralized with a looseness in expenditures and the audit of bills”.
The State Commission of Lunacy was not the only entity that criticized and protested the hospital’s financial decisions. New York senator Charles P. McClelland stated, “I think the resident officers lived extravagantly, like so many lords.
Because of this scandal, Dr. Cleaveland (superintendent) resigned in June of 1893, four months after the case had opened. Following the resignation, The State Commission of Lunacy wrapped up and closed their investigation.
They closed their case stating, “this institution has been grossly mismanaged”. The board quickly replaced Cleaveland by electing Dr. Charles W. Pilgrim, author of the academic article, “The Hour of Death”.
“The Hour of Death” by Dr. Charles W. Pilgrim
In the midst of a $52,000 lawsuit against the hospital because of damages caused by the dam that was created earlier in the hospital’s history, Dr. Pilgrim decided to be blissfully ignorant and write an article entitled “The Hour of Death“ for the American Journal of Insanity. The article focused on the analysis and statistics of when patients died and what time.
Dr Pilgrim said within the article, “An examination of the hour of death showed that 26% died between midnight and 6 a.m., 19% between 6 a.m. and noon, 31% between noon and 6 p.m., and 24% between 6 p.m. and midnight. The deaths were evenly distributed between the hours of darkness and light, 115 patients having died between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and 116 between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.”
He took into account the more recent ratio of deaths to patient population conducted in 1894. The results showed that the patient population was a little over fourteen-hundred, and the deaths amounted to a little over two-hundred. He also took into account the earlier years of the hospital’s history and analyzed fifteen-hundred more deaths. The death rate, considering the ratio of patient population to patient deaths with an alarming fourteen percent.
Shocking Patient Details
As talked about previously in this article, a 14% death rate amongst patients is quite alarming. On top of this, they were very questionable types of therapy that could have resulted in patients dying. As with any hospital, there were also claims of abuse. In the book “Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors” by Steven J. Taylor, he claimed that the attendants in the building for the criminally insane were “brutal and cruel towards patients”. Insurance fraud was also prevalent and resulted in a psychiatrist being arrested in the 1970’s because of a Medicare fraud. The hospital was also no secret for overcrowding their facilities for the sake of money. At one point, the hospital was overcrowded by twenty-five percent. This is not only a fire hazard but a health hazard. Such densely populated areas are highly affected when disease strikes. In the early 1900’s, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and later in 1918, Spanish Flu plagued the hospital.
Tub therapy/hydrotherapy was “proven” to be effective and humane, but it was later proved to be ineffective, and flat out cruel and bizarre. Cold and hot tubs were used depending on a patient’s insanity.
Nurses claimed, “this is no ordinary tub. Within it is a canvas hammock with a head rest… You lie down in it and the water is turned on… There you lie, with the warm water softly enveloping you. The nurse puts a rubber pillow beneath your head. ‘Now, go to sleep’ she tells you. ‘We’ll wake you at supper time.’ You sleep. At supper time there is a dainty tray with just a sliver of chicken and a bit of lettuce, a slice of toast and a dab of strawberry jam. You haven’t eaten for a month. You have slept, however, for perhaps two hours. You are hungry. You start to get out of the bath. ‘No, lie right where you are,’ cautions the nurse…”
Another staff said, “This is going to be your home until we get you well again.”
Patient recounts differed, “
“He was forced to sit there all day long with the water covered by a canvas fastened around his neck. Furthermore, he was forced to eat his meals while sitting in the tub of hot water.”
Another patient stated, “One man was kept in hot water for a month”.
Public opinion highly criticized this practice and deemed it immoral.
The standards for admittance were lower than low. Anyone who claimed to be insane, with any reason, no matter how utterly ridiculous, was allowed in. To put it in perspective: a woman was hospitalized because she loved Irish music too much, a man got committed because he got hit by a snowball and “went crazy”, and a woman was admitted because she indulged in cigarette smoking. These were just a few ludicrous “cases”. If you lost your job, or even argued with your spouse you could be admitted and deemed insane.
Worse yet, the food was completely contaminated. With all of the money that was being sucked from taxpayers, you would think that the food offered would be pristine. However, this was not the case. A state commissioner stated that the eggs were rotten, beef was decaying, and the milk was beyond expiration (they didn’t even pasteurize either).
Medicine wise, Bromide, although it was an anti-epileptic, was used as a sedative. However, this was problematic because Bromide caused chronic toxicity in patients, and even caused Bromism. Bromism was a syndrome that negatively affects the membranes of neurons and can cause psychological problems (which is defeating the purpose of giving patients Bromide), skin problems, gastrointestinal issues and even death. To put it in perspective of how serious the drug Bromide was: in Nazi Germany, food at concentration camps were laced with Bromide to haunt women’s menstrual cycles and to restrain people. Chloral Hydrate, Phenobarbital, and Paraldehyde (which is even used in rubber and plastic)
Help Me!.. I Cut My Children’s Heads Off
I had heard of a very disturbing case involving a mother who beheaded her two children, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I was not able to find significant information. However, what I did find was a newspaper article describing the crime. In 1898, Lena Sporri beheaded her two children for unbeknownst reasons. I could not find any information about the crimes, why she did it, and what exactly happened. What I do know is: the judge declared her insane and she was taken to the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane. According to my research, Ryon Hall was used to house violent or criminally insane patients. It is very safe to assume that Mrs. Sporri was housed in Ryon Hall. It is unknown whether or not she ever got out, but assuming the nature of her crimes it is safe to say she lived the rest of her days in the hospital. Unfortunately, I cannot find any information regarding her mental illness. During this time period, it was not uncommon for people to fake mental illness or claim insanity under ridiculous notions. She did in fact kill her children, but who knows whether or not she was actually insane or playing a part. Since knowledge was lacking in the mental health field they would’ve never been able to understand and know whether or not she was faking it to get out of prison (or the death penalty, or if she was actually insane. Perhaps, she could’ve suffered from some type of schizophrenia, or perhaps a personality disorder. Unfortunately, the newspaper article was the document I could find. It seems that this macabre case has been lost to history.
Types of Therapy
There were different kinds of therapy offered at the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane. Hydrotherapy/tub therapy, was highly criticized yet deemed effective. Patients would spend anywhere from hours, days, weeks or even months submerged in very hot or very coldbaths (depending on their cases of “insanity”). They would have their meals and even sleep in their bathtubs. Another form of the tub therapy, was when a patient with stand upright in a shower and hose down with a high pressure hose spraying either very cold or very hot water. The patient would be sprayed continuously for several minutes. The only positive thing about tub therapy was increasing your blood circulation, however, patients being confined for such long amounts of time usually resulted in them being even more mad than they were to begin with. If that seems shocking, you’ll be horrified to read of insulin therapy. Insulin therapy is listed under “shock therapies” (electroconvulsive therapy being the other). Insulin therapy, however, seems more shocking to me than it’s counterpart, electroconvulsive therapy. Insulin therapy takes place over the course of several weeks and involves a nurse administering enormous amounts of insulin into the “patients” (more like victims). These large doses of insulin would trigger comas. Patients who were mainly schizophrenic would receive this therapy, slipping into comas every single day for weeks and weeks on end until they were “better”. This was not the case. Doctors claim that there was an 80% success rate, however this was just an over exaggerated report. It was later revealed that there was only a 50% success rate, but that to his exaggerated. The side effects from insulin therapy were horrific. Patients would become extremely sweaty and restless following procedures. And almost every single patient who had undergone the full treatment of insulin therapy came out of therapy morbidly obese. On top of this, insulin therapy had a death rate of almost five percent. Most of the patients who did not respond to treatment were given insulin their sister-therapy, electroconvulsive. Parachute therapy was also used. This therapy was actually sort of helpful. It distracted patients from their problems, a type of DBT skill called “avoidance”, and also allowed them to be active and interactive with one another. These were the only recorded therapies that were used, and lobotomies were not on record of ever being conducted.
Ryon Hall was opened in 1934 to function as a building designated for the criminally insane or violent. Most of the accusations and claims of abuse revolves around this unit and the nurses and attendants working. The building was demolished in 2019.
The Cheney building, named after Clarence oh Cheney, was it 10 story building erected in the 1950’s. It was named after Cheney in honor of his contributions to the mental health field. He served as president of the American Psychiatric Association in 1935-1936.
Herman B. Snow Rehabilitation Center
The Herman B. Snow Rehabilitation Center was erected in 1971. This building functioned more as a recreational building, and shockingly had a basketball court, a swimming pool and even a bowling alley.
Decline and Abandonment
After progress and innovation in the mental health field, the hospital began to decline in patient intakes. This became a strain financially, and the opening of other, more equipped mental hospitals in the state forced the hospital to decline and later close it’s doors in 2003.
In 2007, a little before four in the morning, a huge fire broke out at the Kirkbride administration building. Nearly one-hundred firefighters responded, and a $5,000 reward was offered to anyone who could give information on the suspected arson (according to the Poughkeepsie Journal). However, it was later determined that the fire was not caused by any mischievous conduct, but was a result of a lightning bolt to the building.
Demolition and New Project
Little by little, the campus is in the process of demolition and has been over the past few years. In 2013, the site was bought by an unnamed buyer and the project, costing roughly $300 million, will entail the development of apartment complexes, conference centers, and a hotel. Ryon Hall, the building for the criminally insane, was demolished in late 2019. Demolition continues but not much progress has been made because of winter and the recent COVID19 outbreak.
From the capital region the hospital is about an hour and a half drive. We decided to leave in the afternoon and got there shortly after, however since it is not an actual address because it’s not operating anymore, we found it very hard to locate. When we put it in our GPS it actually did come up with a location, and so we decided to drive to it. When we got to the road that it said it was supposed to be on there was a sign that said private road and no trespassing, we assumed that this was definitely the road because of the sign. We drove down the road and up a hill where there were two “do not enter” signs. We were about to drive past the signs when a red truck emerged. She stopped right in front of us and pointed towards the signs so we backed up, turned around and left. We were driving down the road and decided to park our car somewhere and walk, but when we looked in back of us the red truck was following us. It was really creepy and the truck followed us for a good twenty minutes before turning the opposite way. We parked at a gas station and sat down and waited a good half an hour before venturing back out. We found, strangely enough, a homeless shelter that was in close proximity so we drove there and parked our car. I thought it was really creepy that we are parking outside of a homeless shelter but my friend insisted, and it was not that far away from the hospital according to the map. But why is it the right location? We passed by a sign that said campus ahead, and I knew that mental hospitals are often called campuses because of the many different buildings on the property. There was also a community college in the area so I thought that we might’ve stumbled upon it by accident. While walking down the road we passed numerous trees that had posted signs. The signs read “Rockland County Psychiatric Hospital”. I thought “are we already here?”. When we came to a large building it in fact looked like a hospital, but there were cars and trucks and it didn’t look very abandoned. We were very confused and thought that maybe the hospital had been fixed up and up and running. That, however, did not make any sense because the building looked nothing like the building in the photo. We soon realized that the building was an actual running psychiatric hospital. My friend thought that maybe if we walked into the fields nearby it must be out there somewhere. I, however, did not think that the GPS was accurate. I stood in the field with my friend and went to the Internet praying for a signal so that I could look up the coordinates of the abandoned hospital. I pinpointed the exact coordinates and it said it was only an eight minute drive. I wanted to make sure that this was true, so I zoomed in on satellite and I saw series of buildings from the aerial view. The name on the map read Hudson river psychiatric hospital. These were the right coordinates. The hospital was right down the same road of the gas station that we had parked prior. There were only two hours until sunset and so we knew we had to find it as quickly as possible. We got back to the car and disturbingly enough, there was a homeless man in full joker make up sitting on the bench right next to our car. I was completely horrified, and we jumped into the car and sped off. We drove down the street and came to a dead end where there was a little road with a barrier in front of it. The barrier read “no trespassing. Do not enter”. The road went on and on until it was out of sight. It also looked like the road hasn’t been used in a while and there was a lot of brush, we knew that this was the pathway to the hospital. When you’re on the street there are signs that say no on street parking and that it is police patrolled. I’m not sure why those signs are there (maybe because people frequently park on the street to explore). There is what seemed to be some type of nursing home, or apartment building only a few yards away from the pathway. We decided to park our car there because there were not many cars, and we walked to the barrier. After reading the sign, we hopped over and made our way down the road. Since the road kept going straight and was visible from the main road, we decided to run for it until we got out of the clearing so that no police car would see us. After our short run was done, we kept walking and I looked on the map and apparently there was a church that was somewhere nearby. This made absolutely no sense because there was no way to access an actual running church from the blocked off road. There was no way anyone could go down this back street to get to a church. We then came to another barrier with fencing. We hopped the fence and continued on. Down the road we came to a little shock with Satanic symbols spray painted all over, and a very long stone staircase leading up to what looked like a stone wall encircling a hill. There seemed to be a church but it didn’t appear to be the same church that was on the map because we were not close enough. We didn’t know if this was part of the hospital or if it was something entirely different that was abandoned. After we got past, we came to one last barrier with a stop sign on it and another sign that read, “police patrolled. Violators will be prosecuted”. Of course, it was just a bluff to scare off trespassers. Police wouldn’t by any means drive down the rocky road with shrubs just to detain trespassers that may not even be there. There hadn’t been cars down that road in a very long time. In the distance we could see a series of buildings On the right side we saw the skeleton of a building. We knew we had finally reached the hospital. After hopping over the fence we came to a street stretched all the way through the campus. It almost looked like a small town and even had a bus stop with a bus shelter. It almost looked like a post-apocalypse town that once operated and was busy, but was now a ghost town. Many of the buildings were completely disheveled, and of no interest in exploring, but there were several that had doors and windows that were open and easily accessible. There were lots of hills of logs and shrubs, the ground was wet and muddy, and it didn’t look like any trucks had passed by anytime recently. We went into a series of buildings, explored, and picked up some cool trinkets to take back with us (an old piling can and an old document). We finally reached the front of the hospital, the Kirkbride Building, which was the administrative building. It’s Gothic architecture was stunning, and although it was crumbling into ruins, and there was fire damage, it was still very beautiful and photogenic. In the distance was the Cheney Building, and we noticed that there was a few construction vehicles that were running! They were either demolishing, or cleaning up the Cheney Building. We feared getting caught and the sun was now setting. We walked back in the cold, got to the car and drove to a nearby motel to crash.
Our Lady of the Rosary Chapel
in 1906, Our Lady of the Rosary Chapel was the first Catholic Church built at the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane. Today, it is separated from its neighboring buildings that have fallen into decay. The church is active, and the only remaining building that is functioning today. The chapel has mass every Sunday. The property is decorated with numerous shrines and statues of religious figures.
As with any abandoned place, especially abandoned mental hospital, there are always rumors and legends of paranormal activity that are often started by exuberant youth. People claim to hear whispering and feel very cold and feel the hairs on the back of their necks stand up when exploring the hospital. On a blog, a photographer claimed that while he was walking through the administrative building (the Kirkbride Building) he heard a stern voice tell him to leave. Some say that the ghosts of patients are heard running around talking and screaming in the dead of night. One man said that he did an overnight stay with his buddies, and his friends left him to explore at dead time (3 am) and they came back freaked out because they had they “saw a woman with long black hair walking around”. Others say that orbs chase trespassers, and one woman and her sister said that in the Ryon Hall (the building for the criminally insane) they took a photograph and in the background there was a man with a clear face and they ran out of the building screaming. Many say that it is not haunted but just creepy, and the unnerving vibes are the feared threat of police patrol. Many claim that there have been arrests made, and shockingly there have been alleged sexual assaults that have taken place on the premises. I went twice in order to explore, photograph, understand the layout of the property, and gather important research. I didn’t run into anything that seemed out of the ordinary. I am not a superstitious person by any means, however, I am not close minded and judge only by physical proof. At one point we thought we heard screaming but it just turned out to be a flock of turkeys nearby. There was one instance when we heard a very loud noise from one of the buildings but we assumed that it was either wildlife, a homeless person, a squatter, or another trespasser. Even when we entered the morgue, the atmosphere didn’t seem to be eerie. We did go into a church ( I think it was the Catholic Church that divided the men and women’s units) and when I was taking a video there was something very strange that seemed to fly past my phone, but I do not know if it was dust floating because we disturbed the old building, or perhaps, it really was the alleged orbs that “chase trespassers“. On one of the blogs I was reading, there was a poll and 90% of voters claimed it was haunted. My own experience says otherwise, but I will leave my video “proof“ up for interpretation.
Urban exploring is not only dangerous, but without express permission from owners or the county, it is illegal. Trespassing is a misdemeanor punishable by fines or even jail time. Explore at your own risk.
All photos are photographed by me unless cited by an outside source.
© 2020 Elijah DeVivo