A long abandoned and decaying state institution located on New York’s “Borough That Time Forgot” Staten Island, The Willowbrook State School, was known as a “snake pit” — and for good reasons. The facility which was originally designed as a hospital for children with extreme intellectual disabilities who were once called “mentally retarded” back in the non-PC era was first opened in 1947 by the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene.
During its first decade, outbreaks in hepatitis among the patients was fairly common and led rise to a series of controversial experiments conducted by two professors, Dr. Saul Krugman from NYU and Dr. Robert McCollum from Yale.
“One of (Krugman’s) studies involved feeding live hepatitis virus to sixty healthy children,” Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases, wrote detailing the heinous testing.
“Krugman watched as their skin and eyes turned yellow and their livers got bigger. He watched them vomit and refuse to eat. All the children fed hepatitis virus became ill, some severely. Krugman reasoned that it was justifiable to inoculate retarded children at Willowbrook with hepatitis virus because most of them would get hepatitis anyway. But by purposefully giving the children hepatitis, Krugman increased that chance to 100 percent.”
Reportedly, patients were force-fed the hepatitis virus in milkshakes and others involuntary ingested each other’s disease-laden stool.
Many of the doctors and the staff considered the patients to be “sub-human”. While some were considered “mildly retarded” that could be trained to performed menial labor and employ a limited vocabulary, others were considered “severely retarded” and were thought to be “un-educable” their entire lives to be spent behind institutional walls. Other suffered from physical defects as well — gruesome cleft palates, hydrocephalics and many denigrated as “mongoloids.”
By the early 1960s, Willowbrook housed over 6,000 patients — well over its allotted 4,000. While the hepatitis studies had long been discontinued, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy toured the hospital in 1965 and was utterly horrified by what he witnessed.
The patients were “living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo,” he said. Many ran through the murky halls partially clad or naked and covered in filth.
RFK quickly outlined a series of recommendations for improving conditions. The so-called school’s reputation quickly became known as a site for warehousing mentally disabled children — many of them simply abandoned by their parents to the chilling embrace of so-called state care.
After a series of exposes by The Staten Island Advance, uncovered more atrocities in 1972, a then-unknown investigative TV journalist, Geraldo Rivera, brought the horrors of the over-populated and filthy hell hole into living rooms all over the metropolitan region.
Rivera’s Peabody award-winning investigation WILLOWBROOK: THE LAST GREAT DISGRACE revealed the not only severe overcrowding, faulty and foul sanitary conditions but also the physical and sexual abuse of the hospital’s residents by attendants and other staff members. Rivera’s investigation sparked national outrage.
[The following clip may be disturbing to some viewers.]
As a result, a class action suit was filed by 5,000 parents of residents against the State of New York. The bombshell lawsuit later led to the passage of a 1980 federal law, The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
Seven years later, the blight known as Willowbrook was officially closed and the remaining children sent elsewhere. Portions of the land were earmarked for use as part of the Staten Island Community College and renovations began.
But not soon enough.
A former Willowbrook custodian, a suspected serial killer, Andre Rand who had a long rap sheet of charges of sexual assault and multiple abductions, brutally murdered a 12 year old girl who suffered from Down’s Syndrome, Jennifer Schweiger. He buried her corpse in a shallow grave on the abandoned institution’s grounds.
Long suspected of kidnapping and killing other mentally handicapped individuals, Rand was finally arrested for the Schweiger death. The jury was unable to find him guilty on the murder charges but ultimately convicted him for kidnapping. Rand remains behind bars. The grim case was explored in the documentary CROPSEY (2009).
To this day, residents of the nearby College of Staten Island as well as morbid curiosity seekers have reported seeing apparitions of former patients and hearing unearthly yowls in the night.
While rumors of Satanists conducting unholy rites in the derelict ruins have long persisted, it may very well be the spirits of the dead seeking vengeance for the horrors of past torments.