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February 15, 2014

Experiment to treat inebriates began 150 years ago

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The Daily Star

---- — 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.

Conversion completed, patients from asylums in Utica, Poughkeepsie and Middletown were transferred to Binghamton, as the hospital re-opened in October 1881. It was renamed Binghamton State Hospital in 1890. A farm was developed on the grounds and flourished for decades, employing many patients.

To put it gently, treatment methods could be considered frightening and inhumane by today’s standards during several decades into the 20th century. A visit to www.nysasylum.com, run by Roger Luther, to a page called “voices” can narrate many examples. Electric shock treatment and prefrontal lobotomies began during the 1940s, and drug therapy began in the 1950s.

The Binghamton State Hospital expanded markedly with the opening of a new medical-surgical building, known as the Garvin Building in 1953. During the 1960s the number of patients began to decline, and by 1974 the hospital was again renamed, the Binghamton Psychiatric Center. By the early 1990s, as was the case around the nation, patients were deinstitutionalized. The old “Castle” was being only used for office space in 1993, when pieces of concrete tumbled from its façade in May, closing the building completely and its future became uncertain.

Not wanting to lose such an attractive landmark, the Preservation Association of the Southern Tier and other groups got together to save the grand old building. In 1996 it was included on the National and State Registers of Historic Places, and the next year it was named a National Historic Landmark.

In the early years of the 21st century, the building’s restorations began and an effort is underway to turn the castle into a medical school campus for the SUNY Upstate Medical University.

On Monday: An Oneonta neighborhood aimed for historic status nearly 35 years ago.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.