Tonawanda News

July 15, 2013

BOOK NOOK: History, art mingle in 'Abandoned Asylums of New England'

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

— I was looking through “Abandoned Asylums of New England,” my mind mostly occupied by the photographs that make up the bulk of this “photographic journey” by John Gray, when I abruptly turned the page and came face-to-face with a quote that hit me like a kick to the stomach.

“In the light of our present knowledge,” it read, “the only way to reduce the number of the feeble-minded is to prevent their birth. The perpetuation of defective family stocks should be inhibited. This would be possible to a great extent if every feeble-minded person and ever potential ‘carrier’ of the defective germ plasm could be prevented from parenthood.” 

The source? Not Nazi Germany or any of its ilk. No, those words originated from a report from the Massachusetts’ State Board of Insanity from 1912.

And just like that, the true reasons behind the republishing of the book by People Ink Press, People Inc. and the Museum of disABILITY History came clear. Yes, it’s a very interesting collection of photographs — especially to someone who’s fascinated with abandoned buildings — but at the heart of it, people worked and lived in these places. Including children.

That quote, you see, could be referring to my son, my family. It’s one thing to look at a photo of a child’s doll lying abandoned in a crumbling hallway, to see the art potential in a photograph of a line of arcane laboratory equipment or a cluster of syringes on the ground, to admire the image of a door — the words “Keep locked at all times” emblazoned upon it — surrounded by overgrown greenery.

It’s another thing to picture those you know and love in those environments. And it’s a little bit chilling.

The book features images of 12 former institutions from New England, all photographed by Gray, with historical content added by the museum in an attempt to preserve the historical record of what went on there. The introduction is written by Douglas Platt, curator of the museum and a resident of Newfane.

“As improved drug treatments and enlightened philosophies allowed community care of individuals with illnesses and disabilities to become the model treatment, once majestic institutions were abandoned,” Platt wrote. “Spires, domes, and towers that stretched to the sky grew dark and the enormous encircling arms of the wards were emptied. These monuments to man’s attempts to create an ordered environment would fall prey to a relentless foe.”

History aside, the images are fascinating (and goads the imagination). Some of the buildings seem more like castles that institutions. Fading artwork decks crumbling walls. Sometimes it seems like the occupants and staff walked away with barely a backward glance, leaving lab equipment, bedding, wheelchairs, photographs and piles of paperwork behind. In other places, nature is taking over, with greenery rampant inside the walls and former halls and auditoriums filled with still or running water. On one page, I puzzled for a moment at a wall with latched compartments ... only to realize with a chill that it was a morgue. 

The world might never know the stories from these places. But with this book, you can certainly imagine them.

“Abandoned Asylums of New England” can be purchased online at or at the Museum of disABILITY History, 3826 Main St., Buffalo. Proceeds benefit the museum. 

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at or you can follow her on Twitter at @JillKeppeler.



• WHAT: "Abandoned Asylums of New England" • BY: John Gray (with historical insight by the Museum of disABILITY History" • GRADE: A • PUBLISHER: The Museum of disABILITY History, People Inc. and People Ink Press