The Castle On the Hill

This is a continuation of our last article on a member of Dale’s extended family, Isabelle, who spent many years in the state hospital at Binghamton. Her biggest fear was to be buried there and be forever known only as a number.

The Castle On the Hill was opened in 1864 as an inebriate asylum where alcoholism was considered a mental disorder. This was a first in the country and initially attracted the wealthy. The original 250 acres were donated by Binghamton citizens.

The main structure architecture was Gothic Revival and designed by architect Isaac Perry who was also the architect for the Walton Armory and Oxford’s First National Bank. This medieval-like stone building with turrets earned it the name Castle On the Hill. Inside its 85,000 square feet were many outstanding architectural features such as dual staircases marked by intricate hand-carved acorns. A stained-glass eye over the top of the chapel door, reminiscent of the Masonic “all seeing eye,” reminded those who entered they were under constant scrutiny. On the front lawn sits a huge bell with a historic plaque stating its ring regulated each day at the asylum.

In 1879 the Castle became an asylum for the insane. Many county poorhouses had residents with mental health issues, so as psychiatric hospitals opened across the state, many people were transferred to the institutions. In poorhouses, as hard as it is to believe, the “mentally deficient” or “lunatics,” were often horrifically confined in cages, and even restrained with chains or shackles. Sarah Lewis, at age 19, was in the Broome County Poorhouse but later became a resident “on the hill” which we hope was an improvement for her.

In 1887 a farm was established allowing the residents – or inmates, as they were called – to do some productive work and make the facility more self-sufficient. There was a cow barn, stables and a garden. In 1890 the facility became the Binghamton State Hospital. Later, a nursing school was opened, and a tuberculosis wing established. On the grounds were also a laundry, power plant, chapel, bowling alley, bakery, nurse’s home, morgue, repair shop, fire station, and greenhouse. At its peak in the 1950s, the facility housed 3500 patients.

In the late 1800s three types of mental illness were identified: mania – chronic and acute; dementia, and epilepsy. Treatments included hydrotherapy, insulin therapy, shock therapy, and in 1942 the first lobotomy was performed in Binghamton.

In the hospital, as a testament to treatment or lack thereof, is a spot in the hallway showing a worn floor where one patient sat day after day, moving his feet back and forth.

The Castle stopped housing patients in the early 1970s and became an office building. By the 1980s and ‘90s there was a general decline in psychiatric patients, reflective of practices across the country as psychotropic medications were used, and people were moved to group homes, integrating former residents into the community. In 1993 a portion of the Castle’s façade fell off and the facility was closed, but it became a National Historic Landmark.

The status of the building, owned now by Binghamton University, has been undetermined for years, In September of 2014 thousands of glass plate negatives were discovered offering glimpses into the facility’s past. They are in a climate-controlled facility and are being professionally cleaned and preserved.

When we visit abandoned state hospitals and poorhouses we try to find the cemeteries associated with them. On the Binghamton State Hospital grounds, we found its cemetery near a water tower that holds a dedication plaque dated 2001. Nearby we found a gap in the trees and stonewall that led into a mowed field with a lone tree. Near the entrance was a small, numbered marble marker, so we knew this was a cemetery.

As we walked we noticed many recessions in the ground and wondered if they were sunken graves or graves that were dug but never used. The rest of the field revealed only one more numbered stone and three granite markers with names and dates. We have discovered unmarked institutional graves aren’t uncommon and we are never happy about that. Numbered stones are indignity enough, but no markers at all displays a total disregard for human life. A commemorative plaque on the tower and nothing at the cemetery did not seem adequate.

Not long after that visit we received an article and a picture from a friend, and we learned that in 1961 the building of Interstate 81, north of the hospital buildings, necessitated the relocation of half of the old cemetery. Over 1500 graves were moved to a nearby side hill.

We went back and discovered a closed gate across the road from the cemetery with posted signs and a road that went into the woods leading into a clearing. There we saw gravestones – the site of the original cemetery. It was a flat, mowed area above the interstate with a few scattered trees. We noticed five types of markers – seven or eight granite or marble stones with names and dates, all others had only numbers. The newest type was a six-inch marble square buried about 15 inches in the ground.

The oldest markers were the most interesting. They are made of cast iron about 30” tall and came to a point at the bottom. They were designed to be pushed into the ground with the numbered part remaining above. Cast iron can become brittle and many were broken. This style reminded us of 1850s Gothic markers we have seen. Another common one was a cast iron plate attached to a concrete block buried in the ground. We dug and uncovered some of these. There were also cast iron markers with a vertical piece going into the ground and a horizontal piece on the top with a number.

When patients died at the Castle On the Hill, over 80% received autopsies. For early burials, shrouds were used and the deceased placed in homemade coffins. It is documented that water flowed into some of the graves before they could be filled.

Augusta Gallook, who died in 1914, has one of the few marked stones in the hospital cemetery. In census records, I found 93-year-old Sarah Vaughn, born about 1827 in Virginia, had been an inmate there. A black woman who could neither read nor write, died in 1924 with no recorded stone or number that I could find.

We concluded that the first cemetery we found is where the remains displaced by the new road had been relocated. What happened to the grave markers? Was it too costly or too much trouble to move them along with the remains? This is disturbing, as is the fact there are no signs for either cemetery or a memorial dedicated to the forgotten souls buried there. People deserve better than that.

June 24, 2020