Sunday, June 16, 2013


Anyone who’s ever done genealogical research is familiar with the term “stone wall” – a point beyond which you’re unable to travel back, blocked by the unknown. Or the unrecorded.

New York State, as with many another locations, is home to several specialized stone walls. Family researchers whose forbearers lived in areas around Rochester, Albany or Seneca Lake may lose track of their ancestors, especially those less well-off  - such as the impoverished or homeless. Especially those who might have had mental problems. Hopefully most reading this won’t have ancestors falling under the latter category. But . . .

You never know.

Michael T. Keene, author of two previous books – “Folklore and Legends of Rochester, The Mystery of Hoodoo Corner” and of “Murder, Mayhem and Madness: 150 years of Crime and Punishment in Western New York” has just released his similarly-themed third work – “Mad-House: The Hidden History of Insane Asylums in 19th Century New York”.

Beginning with the history of mental institutions, dating back as early as 792 AD in Baghdad, and covering the changing attitudes and treatments for dealing with psychiatric episodes in men and women, he tells of influential people – familiar and little-known - such as William Tuke, Dorothea Dix, Thomas Story Kirkbridge, Elizabeth Cochrane, Dr. Amarah Brigham, and Gerit Smith. (You may know Cochrane better under her pen name – you can Google her). Then there’s the Austrian immigrant named Lawrence, who lies in the Ovid-area mass grave at Willard Asylum for the Insane, along with the uncountable persons he physically placed there.

Covering different parts of the state and of New York City, Keene tells of institutions such as the latter’s Belle Vue, the Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum and the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum (on the site of today’s Columbia University). Elsewhere around the state he treats of institutions – all defunct or transformed into other types of facilities – at Monroe County, Cattaraugus County, Utica, Syracuse, Binghamton, Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, Middletown, and Mattewan.

Willard Asylum, in the Finger Lakes region, would probably prove most frustrating to those seeking missing persons in their family’s past.

Keene begins the asylum’s chapter in “Mad-House” with the appearance on October 13, 1869 of a Mary Rote, arriving by steamboat on the nearby shore of Seneca Lake. Chained by the wrists and jostled along by armed guards, the “deformed and demented” Rote became the first inmate of the Asylum for the Chronic Insane. It has been speculated that Mary Rote may not have been the woman’s real name. Even if untrue, any Rotes out there today may hit the brick wall already mentioned. If so, they are not alone.

When the facility shut down in 1995 the nearby graveyard contained 5,775 graves. Most do not have markers identifying the deceased. Most have only been marked with a number and even these are often nearly impossible to physically locate. Keene closes this mournful chapter with, “May God have mercy on their souls”.


While the above may bring to mind the old Cole Porter Kiss Me, Kate lyric phrase “. . . the world forgetting, by the world forgot . . .” a few other inhabitants of asylums were very much in the forefront of the media of their time.

On June 26, 1906 the front page headline of the New York American, one of the many illustrations in Mad-House, read “HARRY THAW KILLS STANFORD WHITE ON ROOF GARDEN!. The case will be somewhat familiar to readers who saw the1955 Richard Flesicher film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing which starred Farley Granger as Harry Kendall Thaw, Ray Milland as architect Stanford White, and  Joann Collins as Evelyn Nesbitt (the aforementioned Girl). A search of the New York Times archives turns up the following subsequent headlines (among many, many others – imagine what the so-called Yellow Press or sensationalist newspapers of the time reported along the way):
         MURDERER’S’ ROW GETS HARRY THAW – June 27, 1906
         INSANITY IN THAW’S FAMILY – February 7, 1907
         HARRY THAW BACK IN STATE ASYLUM – AUGUST 19, 1909 (referring to Mattewan State Hospital for the Criminal Insane, one of the featured institutions in Mad-House).
         Somehow the Times seemed to have missed out on the story in 1913 when, as Keene reports, with Thaw, “. . . reputedly just walking out of the hospital and getting into a hired car that took him  across the border to Canada.” He was soon extradited, ending up back in Mattewan, until a 1915 sanity trial declared him sane and he was released.

The Times did not miss out on the February 23, 1947 story:
         Harry L. (stet) THAW, 76, IS DEAD IN FLORIDA; Coronary Thrombosis Fatal to Former ‘Playboy’ . . .”.

The book also includes the accounts of undercover reporters, such as the already mentioned Elizabeth Cochrane and of Julius Chambers, both who had themselves committed in order to come up with exposés of the many horrors of residency in the state’s numerous Mad-Houses.

Author Michael T. Keene will keep you turning pages throughout these fascinating accounts.

Anyone wishing to purchase Mad-House or learn about Keene’s other books, may contact him through his website:

He mentions “For those who are not comfortable with using PayPal and who wish to purchase the book directly from me, can do so by either sending me an email or by calling toll-free. My email address and phone number are listed on my website.”

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