Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Utica Insane Asylum

In the heart of Utica stands an enormous Greek Revival edifice rivaling in size and grandeur the palaces of European royalty. Opened in 1843, the building is 550 feet long with a central portico of 120 feet, dominated by six limestone columns 48 feet high and eight feet in diameter.

In keeping with the values of the young American republic, this grand structure was built not for a privileged aristocracy, but for the care and treatment of the most forlorn and neglected of our citizens. When it was opened, the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica was the first such institution in the state and one of the first in the nation, part of a nationwide response to the call of reformer Dorothea Dix for humane treatment of the mentally ill, who were previously housed in jails or in private homes. Thomas Kirkbride, an early psychiatrist, echoed Dix’s concern by calling for huge institutions across the nation that could provide "a special apparatus for the care of lunacy, whose grounds should be highly improved and tastefully ornamented."

The first director of the Utica Asylum was Dr. Amariah Brigham, who believed that useful agricultural and other manual work could provide excellent therapy for the hundreds of patients who were soon sent to Utica from all parts of the state.  The outbuildings that once contained therapeutic workshops still stand, in good repair, on the asylum grounds, and some are in use by various state agencies. According to Marc Harf, writing in 1981 for an exhibit at the Munson Williams Proctor Institute: “The prevailing medical theory of the 1830's advocated that patients be segregated by sex and type and degree of illness, with each group housed in a self contained unit. As far as possible, the interior layout of the building was arranged to provide optimum conditions for the patients.”

Dr. Amariah Brigham

Mr. Harf  described the vast scope of the asylum: “In 1850, a listing of accommodations noted: 380 single rooms for patients, 24 for their attendants, 20 dormitories each accommodating from 5 to 12 persons, 16 parlors or day rooms, 12 dining rooms, 24 bathing rooms, 24 closets and 24 water closets. The mechanical systems of the original building incorporated the latest improvements. Hot air woodburning furnaces in the basement provided heat for the building. Ventilators opening from the rooms to flues in the walls allowed air to circulate constantly. Hot and cold running water was supplied to each floor, the cold water coming from the roof while the warm water was pumped by a steam engine from basement storage tanks.”

19th century outbuilding now housing an addiction services center

Dr. John Gray, another leading psychiatrist of the era, took over as director in 1854.   Gray’s national reputation was such that he was called in to ascertain the sanity of Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield in 1881. (Guiteau was ruled sane and subsequently executed.) In contrast to Brigham’s belief in “moral” causes of insanity, Gray believed that mental illness was rooted in brain functions.

Dr. John Gray

Under Dr. Gray, however, the great optimism regarding such institutions began to dissipate.  Long before the insights of Freud and other pioneers, and without the medications provided by modern pharmacology, the kind of treatments pioneered by Dr. Brigham did not produce the envisioned improvements.

The definition of mental health was also, of course, conditioned by 19th century mores. Same sex orientation or any form of sexual expression, particularly by women, beyond traditional monogamy could, and did, lead to a diagnosis of insanity. Even non-traditional religious beliefs, such as those of the "Millerites," whose beliefs in an imminent Second Coming have since become a part of the American mainstream,  could be grounds for committal.

Frustrated by attempts to “cure” mental patients, other and harsher methods were tried. The “Utica Crib,” a device meant to confine patients who might harm themselves or others, may have been well-intentioned but was soon criticized widely as the equivalent to putting human beings in cages. Abuses of patients occurred, including the murder of one by an employee, and were the subject of widely publicized hearings at the state legislature. And Dr. Gray himself was shot by a former patient in 1885 and never fully recovered.

The "Utica Crib," courtesy University of Iowa Medical Museum

Other abuses were uncovered in succeeding decades and the once bright hopes of reformers grew ever dimmer, until eventually huge buildings like the Utica Asylum came to be seen as obsolete and by 1978 the Utica asylum, known locally as “The Old Main,” was closed.

In 1989 the asylum was named a National Historic Landmark and in 2005 major renovations of part of the building  took place, and now house the Records Archive and Repository for  the New York State Office of Mental Health.

Director's house on the Asylum grounds, currently vacant

The asylum grounds on Court Street today present a peaceful picture, with little to remind the visitor of the immeasurable human misery of the past. A bunch of flowers placed on the front steps, however, suggests that one anonymous visitor, at least, remembers the thousands who were incarcerated here over a period of 135 years.

 Flowers left by an anonymous visitor

Dr. John Gray appears as a character in my novel based on a notorious murder that took place only a few miles from the Utica. Asylum.  Available for $19.95 at Wilderness Hill Books. and $2.99 on Kindle.


  1. Is there a list of deaths at the asylum? I am looking for the death of John F. DeWick.

  2. There is a book written my a minister who was committed to Utica in the mid 1860's. He titled it "Two Years and Four Months" - the time he spent there.

    It is available here:

    1. Thank you for posting this reference.

  3. I'm also looking for a list of deaths. I had a relative who wasn't from the Utica area. His interment record states he died in Utica of "insanity"

    1. the state hospital records is the only place you can get a death certificate for someone who died there -

  4. My Great, Great, Great Grandmother spent time as a patient here in the 1840s. It's unclear just how and why she was admitted. The patient records are in the NY State Archives, but remain unavailable even for family descendants more than 160 years later. I was able to see the Asylum Visitor's Log and found record of several visits from her husband and an adult son while she was a patient. I also have read that they held regular fairs at which patients sold craft items made as part of their therapy. Our family has an interesting hand drawn and decoratively painted family record and I often have wondered whether my ancestor might possibly have made it while she was a patient at Utica....

    1. Are these patient records open to the public now? I found a link on WorldCat referring to 104 volumes of the records 1843-1898.

  5. i was told my grandfather had died here as well but i have no proof of this, he was admitted for killing my grandmother in the 50's, does anybody know if there are any records i could check out?

  6. I too am looking for a death record of my great-great grandfather's brother who is listed there in the 1940 U.S. Census as being 92. Would like to know when he died and where he is buried. He had no children.

  7. Shannon JohnstonJuly 9, 2014 at 12:50 AM

    Where do you go to look for records? I was told my great grandfather and great grandmother met here.

  8. there is lots of history on the utica asylum but none on a more well known asylum that originally started as a branch of the one in utica. im talking about the much bigger marcy asylum or what was known as marcy state hospital it's campus was much larger then the one in utica. it started as a farm colony of the utica one in about 1905 or so. the main marcy campus opened in 1923 i believe as more peaple from syracuse went to this asylum