If you’re like me, city living can wear you down—sooner or later, you’re itching for the woods again. The sleepy college town of New Paltz offers a cheap motel and a short proximity to Mohonk Preserve, 5,000 acres of hiking trails, swimming holes, and rock scrambles nestled deep in the ancient Palisades. The world-worn hills of the Shawangunk Ridge evoke a pleasing sense of permanence to the weary New Yorker, it’s a lifetime away from the teeming avenues of Manhattan. Time seems to stand still around here, but out in these tall timbers, the ruins of a 19th century ghost town hint at a lost way of life.
The area is known for its landmark luxury resort, the Mohonk Mountain House, which has been run by the same family since it opened in 1869. True to its Quaker roots, the hotel originally banned liquor, dancing, and card playing; until 2006, it couldn’t claim a bar, and you still won’t find a TV or radio in any of the $700 a night lodgings. It may sound old-fashioned, but it’s part of a tradition in these parts—since they were first settled in the late 1700s, things have always been behind the times.
Before the age of mountain tourism, a small subsistence community lived off this land, growing what little food the thin, rocky soil could support, raising a handful of livestock, drinking from the Coxing and Peter’s Kills. They scraped a living carving millstone out of native rock, shaving barrel hoops, and harvesting tree bark for leather tanning. In the summer, women and children joined in harvesting huckleberries, a seasonal cash crop in wild abundance at the time.
With a peak population of forty or fifty families, the settlement included a hotel, a store, a chapel, and a one room schoolhouse. Despite this progress, the population held to its old ways. So hopelessly and wonderfully at odds with the changing values of the outside world, this oldfangled hamlet didn’t stand a chance.
Starting in the late 1800s, advances in technology gradually replaced the small trades of the Trapps. Unable to sell their traditional wares, settlers found work in neighboring resorts, including the Mohonk Mountain House, building hotels and maintaining trails and carriage roads. In the late 20s, the construction of Route 44 created a short term boom in the town’s employment, but eventually led to its decline.
Many sold their property to resort owners and headed to nearby villages to find a better way of life, but one man called Eli Van Leuven stayed behind, living in a tiny plank house without running water or electricity until his death in 1956.
The Van Leuven Cabin has been lovingly restored, an unassuming monument to a largely forgotten community. Aside from this, the humble industries of the two score families that resided here have left little to mark them but shallow depressions in the ground, rubble stacked in odd arrangements, and leaf-littered tombstones. Only a settlement so bound to the earth could disappear so completely.
On the drive home, the first sighting of the Manhattan skyline elicits a kind of dull horror, signaling the inevitable return to a concrete-bound existence. As I’m plunged back into the 21st century, the scene is at once overstimulating and shockingly mundane. In that moment, I’d take an axe and a cool morning in a mountain hamlet over any day in the ad-plastered streets of midtown, but the daydreams invariably dissolve. Out of habit, obligation, or common sense, I’ll forget the plank house for the brownstone, the Coxing Kill for the coffee shop, as the stony ruins of a mountain town blanket themselves in moss.
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Letchworth Village rests on a placid corner of rural Thiells, a hamlet west of Haverstraw set amid the gentle hills and vales of the surrounding Ramapos. A short stretch of modest farmhouses separates this former home for the mentally disabled from the serene Harriman State Park, New York’s second largest. Nature has been quick to reclaim its dominion over these unhallowed grounds, shrouding an unpleasant memory in a thick green veil. Abandonment becomes this “village of secrets,” intended from its inception to be unseen, forgotten, and silent as the tomb.
Owing to its reputed paranormal eccentricities, Letchworth Village has become a well-known subject of local legend. These strange tales had me spooked as I turned the corner onto Letchworth Village Road after a suspenseful two-hour drive from Brooklyn. Rounding a declining bend, I caught my first glimpse of Letchworth’s sprawling decay—some vine-encumbered ruin made momentarily visible through a stand of oak. Down the hazy horseshoe lanes of the boy’s ward, one by one, the ghosts came out.
By the end of 1911, the first phase of construction had completed on this 2,362 acre ”state institution for the segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded.” With architecture modeled after Monticello, the picturesque community was lauded as a model institution for the treatment of the developmentally disabled, a humane alternative to high-rise asylums, having been founded on several guiding principles that were revolutionary at the time.
The Minnisceongo Creek cuts the grounds in two, delineating areas for the two sexes which were meant never to mingle. Separate living and training facilities for children, able-bodied adults, and the infirm were not to exceed two stories or house over 70 inmates. Until the 1960s, the able-bodied labored on communal farms, raising enough food and livestock to feed the entire population.
Sinister by today’s standards, the “laboratory purpose” was another essential tenet of the Letchworth plan. Unable to give or deny consent, many children became unwitting test subjects—in 1950, the institution gained notoriety as the site of one of the first human trials of a still-experimental polio vaccine. Brain specimens were harvested from deceased residents and stored in jars of formaldehyde, put on display in the hospital lab. This horrific practice has become a favorite anecdote of ghost-hunters and adolescent explorers.
The well-intentioned plans for Letchworth Village didn’t hold up in practice, and by 1942, the population had swelled to twice its intended occupancy. From here, the severely underfunded facility fell into a lengthy decline. Many of the residents, whose condition necessitated ample time and attention for feeding, became seriously ill or malnourished as a result of overcrowding. At one point, over 500 patients slept on mattresses in hallways and dayrooms of the facility, meagerly attended by a completely overwhelmed staff tasked with the impossible.
Having discontinued the use of the majority of its structures, and relocated most of its charges into group homes, the institution closed down in 1996 as old methods of segregating the developmentally disabled were replaced with a trend toward normalization and inclusion into society. The state has made efforts to sell the property, with mixed results. Most of the dilapidated structures were slated for demolition in 2004 to make way for a 450-unit condo development, but the plan has evidently been put on hold. Ringed with ballfields and parking lots, shiny Fieldstone Middle School makes use of nine buildings of the former girl’s group, an island of promise in a landscape of failure.
Today, the rest of the neglected campus retains a kind of elegiac beauty. With its meandering walkways, pleasant natural setting, and evocative decay, it’s a peaceful spot for small town dog owners and amateur photographers alike, but by night a new breed of visitors descends upon these grounds.
Embarked on by the young and curious, a moonlit pilgrimage to a haunted location promises a brush with the unknown and an affirmation of courage—it’s a ritual that’s become commonplace at Letchworth Village. Pervasive graffiti and piles of beer cans and snack packaging mark the most popular hangouts. Much of the writing alludes to the institution’s allegedly horrific past, or warns of its vengeful spirits. Is it all just for teenage kicks, or are these acts of remembrance?
Within a crumbling fieldstone facade, one of Letchworth’s most impressive structures has been reduced to an ugly black skeleton. It’s the most evident of an outbreak of arson attempts that plagues the property, but not the most successful—some blazes don’t leave a trace. Perhaps without knowing it, these amateur arsonists, vandals, and spiritualists are quickly scouring away a shameful memory, absolving a collective guilt with paintballs, matchbooks, and pentagrams.
In a little-known and easy-to-miss cemetery about a mile from the facility, amends are being made more constructively.
Off Call Hollow Road, a new sign has been erected pointing out the “Old Letchworth Village Cemetery.” Down a seldom-traveled path, an unusual crop of T-shaped markers congregate on a dappled clearing. They’re graves, but they bear no names.
Few wished to remember their “defective” relatives, or have their family names inscribed in such a dishonorable cemetery—many family secrets are buried among these 900 deceased. Here, in the presence of so many human lives devalued, displaced, and forgotten, the sorrow of Letchworth Village is keenly felt.
As part of a movement taking place across the country, state agencies and advocates funded the installation of a permanent plaque inscribed with the names of these silent dead, and a fitting epitaph: “To Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten.”
More than ghost stories, bursts of cool air, shadows and slamming doors, we fear our capacity for cruelty and our willingness to overlook those who most needed our care and understanding. Letchworth Village isn’t a house of horrors, but it has become a thing of the past, and a symbol of these failings. Now, its ruins are vanishing—any moment, they’ll powder to dust, dirt, and ash. Who will mourn when the village crumbles, and what will remain? Soot-black foundations, half-remembered histories, and nine hundred numbered graves, poignant reminders of an all-too-recent injustice.
If you pass by a graveyard on the Jackie Robinson Parkway, don’t hold your breath. You’ve got two and half miles of Queens’ Cemetery Belt ahead of you, a burial ground so vast it’s supposedly visible from space. Surrounded on all sides by an ocean of headstones, the modest Machpelah Cemetery makes up only a small fraction of the sprawling necropolis, but its arguably the creepiest graveyard in the city…
Cramped centenarian tombstones muster in rows on the hilly plot—the place is rundown and deserted, but one grave is consistently well-maintained. It’s the monument of Machpelah’s most famous resident, master escape artist Harry Houdini. Only steps from the headstone lurks an eerie cemetery office, abandoned since the late 80s. The cemetery is a dream destination for graveyard ghouls on a chilly October night, especially since Halloween marks the anniversary of Houdini’s untimely death.
The history of the Cemetery Belt can be traced back to the Rural Cemeteries Act of 1847, under which cemeteries became a legitimate commercial enterprise for the first time in New York. Non-profit organizations were authorized to buy up land and sell plots to individuals, replacing the traditional practice of burying the deceased in churchyards and private property.
Areas of then-rural Queens quickly became concentrated with new cemetery holdings. A stipulation of the act limited the acreage of land an organization could purchase in a given county, but church groups and land speculators got around this by buying up neighboring plots on the Brooklyn-Queens border, forming the region now known as the Cemetery Belt.
Between 1832 and 1849, a series of cholera outbreaks thoroughly exhausted Manhattan’s remaining burial sites. The common belief at the time was that ground water could become contaminated with the disease when infected corpses were exposed to the soil. As a result, all burials were prohibited on the island of Manhattan in 1852.
As the population swelled, new developments, including the Brooklyn Bridge, often required the displacement of grave sites. Manhattan started evicting its dead people, and sending them to western Queens—tens of thousands of deceased were disinterred and transported to mass graves in the Cemetery Belt. These ghoulish dealings were kept away from the public eye, often carried out in the dead of night.
Today, Queens’ five million “permanent residents” almost triple its living population, but their numbers are at a standstill. Most of these cemeteries reached capacity long ago, leaving many without a source of income. As a result, some have fallen into disrepair, with officials failing to provide the “perpetual care” their patrons are rightfully owed.
At the nearby Bayside Cemetery, conditions were downright shameful, and hair-raising—exposed human remains were identified at several of the overgrown grave sites. Community pressure, litigation, and the effort of volunteers have gotten the place cleaned up, albeit in a cursory fashion. Gaping mausoleums have been closed off with cinderblocks and boards.
At Machpelah, the plots are untidy, but not nearly as egregious as the Bayside grounds. The cemetery’s decline is most apparent in its ramshackle office building. The boarded-up structure is dilapidated now, but its architecture, dating to 1928, continues to impress on the surface.
Any semblance of grandeur breaks down on the inside. The striking arched windows visible in the facade are installed in rectangular frames, and their diamond panes are all artifice. The skeleton of a drop ceiling hangs askew, with most panels collapsed and reduced to a yellow paste that covers the ground. The office has apparently fallen victim to vandals over the years, furniture and safe deposit boxes have been ransacked, old burial records lie scattered in the grime. Anything of value has been removed, but a coin bank souvenir from the 1939 New York World’s Fair remains, its most recent deposits dating back to 1988.
The building is utterly unventilated, “stuffy” doesn’t begin to describe its suffocating ether. Reception rooms are boxed in with cheap wood paneling, which combines with the dizzying funk of mildew to evoke the interior of a coffin. Secluded in a cockeyed armoire, Nosferatu could feel right at home here.
Every Halloween, hundreds of devotees make the yearly pilgrimage to Houdini’s final resting place to pay their respects, party, and make an offering—around the anniversary of his death, pumpkins, broomsticks, and playing cards mount like a cairn on his headstone.
The Society of American Magicians, for which Houdini served as president until his death, was the official caretaker of the site until recently. Between 1975 and 1993, the bust that adorns the Houdini monument was stolen or destroyed four times—it’s thought to be the only graven image in any Jewish Cemetery.
For many years, the likeness was only brought out for yearly ceremonies, but in 2011, a group of magicians from the Scranton Houdini Museum engaged in some guerrilla restoration, installing a new bust with the blessing of Houdini’s family, but without the permission of Machpelah or the Magician’s Society. The group has since taken over responsibilities for the site’s care, and so far the bust remains unscathed.
With no funds to reoccupy, renovate, or demolish the old office building, its likely to stand until it falls down on its own; the same can’t be said of Houdini’s shiny new effigy. Odds are he’ll lose his head again—even though it’s screwed on. So next time you’re traveling down that graveyard highway, be sure to stop by for a look while you can. There’s no need to wait for the witching hour. At Machpelah Cemetery, the gate is always open, and every day is Halloween.