If these walls could talk: The history of Binghamton's asylum - WBNG.com: Binghamton-area News, Weather, Sports

If these walls could talk: The history of Binghamton's asylum


BINGHAMTON (WBNG) – A Southern Tier landmark has been locked up and guarded for nearly 25 years.

The former New York State Inebriate Asylum and then Binghamton State Hospital, now sits as the mysterious "Castle on the Hill" adjacent to the current Greater Binghamton Health Center. The doors may be closed, but the legends live on.

12 News was granted access inside the first through fourth floors. It was the first time media cameras were permitted above the first floor since the building closed to the public in 1993. 

"It was a city all to itself," said Roger Luther, President of the Preservation Association of the Southern Tier (PAST). "It's the only designated landmark in our area." 

The Gothic Revival-style building was designed by architect Isaac G. Perry. Founded in 1858 by Dr. J. Edward Turner and open to patients in 1864, the New York State Inebriate Asylum was the first of its kind in the country, aiming to cure alcoholism. 

"It was thought of as a resort for wealthy downstate alcoholics," Luther explained. "There was a growing opposition to his leadership. There was a major fire, he was accused of starting it. It wasn't proven that he did, but he eventually had to leave."

"Finally the governor said enough is enough – 'It was just not going to work as an inebriate asylum and we really need more space to house the mentally ill' - and so they decided to turn it into a mental hospital," Luther continued. 

The Binghamton State Hospital aimed to provide a self-sufficient environment for mentally ill patients, away from society. 

"They had farms, piggeries, fields – their own police and fire department – everything you would need," explained Luther. 

"They could live their life there without having to leave or really interact with the rest of the population," said Dr. Michael Lavin, Director of Psychiatry at Lourdes Center for Mental Health. 

A legend stands that one patient sat and shuffled his feet back and forth for years, and indents in the floor still remain. 

Doctors often took extreme measures in attempts to help patients. 

"The intentions were always wonderful...but I've got to figure as the population grew and more and more people were crammed into these facilities, things were abused. I'm sure, there's no question about it," said Luther.

"Physical restraints and procedures like lobotomies...ways that we now would consider kind of backward," Lavin explained. "For example, drilling holes in peoples heads to let out fluids...which often led to people dying."

"Electric shock therapy comes to mind as well...and not like ETC today, where there's really more of an anesthesia and humaneness to the process," Lavin continued. "It's kind of sad. Imagine the workers, not having adequate kinds of treatment to offer."

"Way back, mental illness was seen as some sort of demonic possession...They were maybe being cursed in some way," said Lavin. 

At its peak in the 1950's, there were roughly 3,500 patients. Now thousands are buried on the asylum grounds. 

The hospital stopped housing patients in the castle in the 1970's and it became home to offices. Until in 1993, "A portion of the facade collapsed, and it has been empty ever since," said Luther.

Luther has been researching the building's history for years, and said he receives many questions about the castle.

Certain legends may be disputed, but there's no mistaking the energy the building still carries. 

"I've heard it referred to as the castle on the hill and I didn't really know what that meant until I got up close to it," said Binghamton University graduate student Emily Goodell who is studying theater. "It's amazing."

"I was inspired to make a theater piece after my first visit to the castle," said Elizabeth Mozer, Binghamton University theater professor. "I could feel the lives that lived there – the lives of people who had worked there, visited this grand building. I wanted to share their voices. I have created a solo play where I play five individuals intimately related to the asylum."

Mozer's solo, titled The Asylum Project, will be performed in New York City August 3 through 8. She's also creating a piece called Castle on the Hill. It will be cast with students, and premiere at Binghamton University in the spring of 2018.

Related: What the future holds for Binghamton's asylum

Today, the building isn't the same, and neither is the treatment of mental health.

"Are we perfect? No. I mean we still have a ways to go....It's interesting though, I mean you still see some of the same kind of challenges....In terms of the funding, you know in terms of the politics, in terms of stigma," Lavin said. "I think going back, you kind of learn from things. In the current state we still have a lot to learn."

As for the future of the castle, Luther said, "Everybody in this community wants to see this building saved, no question in my mind."

While the past may be dark, the future could be a bright one with hope that those locked doors may re-open. 

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  • What should the "Castle on the Hill" be used for?

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    Art/History Museum
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    None of the Above
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