March 26, 2014
The New York State Asylum was opened in the mid 1800s. Originally meant to treat alcoholism, it later became a home for the chronically insane. Many patients lived and died in the hospital, and, until recently, the only documentation of their existence was a name on a census report. Roger Luther, preservationist, historian, photographer, and author of the article Windows Into the Past, talks with WSKG's Sarah Gager about a new discovery.
RL: Off in a corner room, we found glass plate negatives. And it turns out these glass plate negatives where photographs taken in the very early 1900s of life on that campus. Subject matter would be buildings, a lot of them since demolished, farm scenes, there’s a fire truck with a dozen firefighters standing in front of it. Nurses, doctors, but really the most of the pictures are of patients. And that is the real treasure of this find.
SG: When did you realize what you had found?
RL: Well, first of all, in this room where they were it’s just filled with junk. There are boxes, There’s posters, there’s instruments, all sorts of just stuff. So, to look in that room, you wouldn’t think there is anything of great value there, but, as we started digging through this stuff, all of a sudden—here’s a glass plate, hold it up to a window, and you see a person’s image. But it just continued to get even more incredible. By the time we were done, we had taken over 5,000 of these photographs out of that room.
SG: How did the photographs make you feel?
RL: It’s a profound experience. Since they’ve been moved in to the controlled environment, now the process is to preserve—clean, preserve, and digitize these images. In doing that, every one is looked at and scrutinized. To think that these things probably haven’t been seen by human eyes since the day they were developed. That coupled with the fact that you’re looking at people whose lives in the hospital and even, in some cases, in death were totally obscured from the public, a tear comes to the eye while we’re looking at these images.
SG: When do you think they’ll be released to the public?
RL: That’s a good question. This is an incred—you can imagine—this is an incredible find for people doing research. Whether it be medical research, or family research. Right now, there is no access by the public to these images. We hope that in the future there will be access—controlled access—by the public.
SG: In your article, you focus on a particular patient, Sarah. Why is her story important?
RL: We know from census records that she was admitted to the State Hospital some time before 1900. She never left. She died 28 years after that, in 1928. So, the last 28—at least 28 years of her life, she lived removed from society and in obscurity. The point I wanted to make in the article was that—for instance, we know that from the census report that she was married, and for all we know she has great-grand children living in this area right now wondering about the history of their family. Well, they can do a quick search on ancestry.com and find out that, yep, Sarah was a patient at the State Hospital, but just imagine if they knew there was a photograph of her. And they could see this photograph that was taken just a few years before she died, and she was sitting there straight, proud, and dignified.
SG: Roger, thank you so much for talking with me today.
RL: Well, thank you.
For more information, Roger Luther's article can be found here.