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Columns

February 15, 2014

Experiment to treat inebriates began 150 years ago

Dr. J. Edward Turner came up with a unique idea in the 1840s on how to treat and restrain inebriates in the United States. Turner felt that inebriety, like insanity, was a disease, and could be treated medically and morally. 

While the idea never succeeded, the site of putting Turner’s idea to work is very visible today on a hillside overlooking Binghamton. It was known for generations as the “Castle on the Hill” and in more recent years as the Binghamton Psychiatric Center or the present Greater Binghamton Health Center.

The first patients to the New York State Inebriate Asylum were admitted on Monday, Feb. 22, 1864, on the grounds of a former farm of 250 acres, atop the Robinson Street hill. This event came after several years of Dr. Turner’s work that began in 1843.

Turner presented his idea of treating alcoholics, or“inebriates” as they then were called, to two influential doctors in New York and gained their support. He then traveled to Europe to observe treatment methods and obtain endorsements for his idea in the U.S. By 1854 Turner had published his idea of establishing a “thoroughly organized hospital,” and obtained a charter from the New York State Legislature.

Over the next few years, Turner met architect Isaac G. Perry to establish plans for the asylum, and traveled throughout state seeking $10 subscriptions to build what would be called the New York State Inebriate Asylum. While groundbreaking took place in June 1858, construction took six years to complete.

The first few years were tumultuous as Turner resigned in 1867. His replacement, Dr. Albert Day, was then implicated in a fire that destroyed the east wing of the hospital in 1870. During the 1870s, the hospital’s population went from a high of 334 to a low of 39 by 1878. Gov. Lucius Robinson declared the asylum “experiment” to be a total failure and a “hotel for wealthy inebriates,” recommending the building be converted into an asylum for the chronic insane.

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