Seneca County Historian Walter Gable will give a presentation on the history of the Willard Asylum for Insane at 2 p.m. April 21 at the Wayne Town Hall, 9772 Silsbee Road, Wayne. The program, sponsored by the Town of Wayne History Group, is open to the public; donations accepted. Refreshments served. Call 607-292-3450 for details.
Gable will provide information to help answer these questions:
• Why did a portion of land in Seneca County become the largest state mental institution in the United States?
• Why was the Willard Asylum called “a great experiment”?
• How were patients treated?
• Do the “Willard suitcases” give us a realistic insight into the nature of patients there?
• What led to the closure of the Willard Psychiatric Center?
• What has happened to the hospital grounds since the closure of the Willard Psychiatric
• Why has it been so difficult to find out information about Willard patients?
• What about ghosts and other paranormal activity at the former hospital?
• What do we know about patients buried in the hospital cemeteries?
For many years, local people would rather derisively comment about a person who said or did something rather odd by saying the person “belonged in Willard.” The place referenced was the Willard Asylum for the Insane, which became the largest mental asylum in the entire United States.
The Willard Asylum for the Insane was located on state-owned property along Seneca Lake west of Ovid in Seneca County. It received its first patients in October 1869. By 1877, the Willard Asylum had become the largest state mental institution in the entire United States.
Willard became well-known for treating insane patients differently than previous mental facilities. The Willard facility closed in 1995, for some clear reasons, causing great economic hardship to the local area.
After the closure of the Willard Psychiatric Center, some of the grounds were largely abandoned, with several buildings deteriorating. Part of the grounds became the Willard Drug Treatment Campus. On another note, over 400 suitcases of Willard patients admitted between 1910 and 1960 were found. This discovery became the basis of the 2009 book The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, as well an exhibit at the Museum of disABILITY History in Buffalo.
Nearly 6,000 Willard patients are buried in the hospital cemetery. One patient, Lawrence Mocha, dug the graves for an estimated over 900 Willard patients buried in the main hospital cemetery.
Also buried there is a member of the famous Dover Eight, as well as a member of the military party that captured John Wilkes Booth. Collen Spellecy in 2011, launched the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project to erect a memorial with the names of Willard patients buried in the cemetery.