Urban Legends

The American Horror Story of Willowbrook

Image by Antranias at Pixabay.
(Trigger Warning: Child Abuse)

The American Horror Story of Willowbrook haunts me. So much so, I had to take a break from it for a day before I could finish.

My high school World Lit teacher introduced me to Charles Dickens and his novels. Since then, I’ve often pondered the harshness with which adults treat children. But I dispelled this mistreatment as mere fiction. Until I became a teacher.

One would think America would do a better job of protecting her children. However, from the lack of protection in our public schools, to the lack of funding for eduction, to parents who neglect and mistreat their offspring, America is woefully remiss.

One such example of negligence incorporates two urban legends. Unfortunately, the American Horror Story of Willowbrook and Cropsey are true blemishes on our history.

The American Horror Story of: Willowbrook

Perhaps one of the saddest of photos. It honors those who suffered at Willowbrook and those who fought for the rights of our disabled citizens.

The New York State Department of Mental Health designed the Willowbrook State School, on Staten Island, for children with mental disabilities. Originally, the state designated it for 4,000 children. By 1965, it housed 6,000 persons and became the largest state run institution for people with disabilities.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy labeled it the “snake pit” because of the school’s conditions, and its questionable medical practices and experiments. Sounds like something from the dark ages, however, this is a twentieth century genuine horror.

The school opened in 1947 and operated for forty years until journalist Geraldo Rivera exposed the truth. Public outcry forced the school to close in 1987.

There was one attendant for perhaps 50 severely and profoundly retarded children. Lying on the floor naked and smeared with their own feces they were making a pitiful sound, a kind of mournful wail that it’s impossible for me to forget. This is what it looked like, this is what it sounded like, but how can I tell you about the way it smelled?; it smelled of filth, it smelled of disease and it smelled of death.

Geraldo Rivera, from Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, circa 1972

The Willowbrook Experiments

To control outbreaks of hepatitis, the medical staff at Willowbrook consulted Physician Saul Krugman. Krugman found that hepatitis developed in 90 percent of children admitted to Willowbrook soon after their arrival.

In exchange for enrollment in Willowbrook, Krugman requested parents to sign consent forms allowing certain procedures. Krugman told the parents the procedures were vaccinations. However, these procedures involved infecting the children with viral hepatitis. He did this by feeding sixty healthy children an extract derived from the feces of patients already infected with the hepatitis.

Pediatrician Paul Allan Offit, who specializing in infectious diseases, described the results in the following way.

Krugman watched as their [the children’s] skin and eyes turned yellow and their livers got bigger. He watched them vomit and refuse to eat. All the children fed the hepatitis virus became ill, some severely. Krugman reasoned it was justifiable to inoculate retarded children at Willowbrook with the hepatitis virus because most of them would get hepatitis, anyway.

Truly horrific, in 1972, Krugman became the president of the American Pediatric Society. Additionally, in 1983, the Lasker Foundation awarded Krugman the Mary Woodard Lasker Public Service Award, worth $250,000, for his contributions to medical research and health sciences.

From 1950 to 1980, an estimated 12,000 patients died at Willowbrook. Jane Kurtin, Staton Island reporter, and photographer Eric Aerts documented the conditions at Willowbrook. This documentation helped to promote better care and treatment for disabled persons.

ProbeNote: Willowbrook is the basis for the second season of the TV series, American Horror Story, Asylum.

Author’s Note

Having been a teacher who earned her Master’s in Special Education, I want to voice my outrage at this discovery. However, here is not the place. Perhaps, one day, I’ll develop another website devoted to public education. Its pros. Its cons. And what needs to be done. I have many thoughts.

Another Willowbrook Horror

In this Urban Legend, which is also true, Cropsey lurked beneath Willowbrook after its closure and abandonment. Some legends describe Cropsey as an axe murderer, others as a monstrous boogeyman. He is based on an actual creeper, who stalked lost children.

Andre Rand worked as a janitor at the school until its closure. Some legends report him as an attendant. Others say he was a patient. Nevertheless, he continued to inhabit the abandoned school. Several children went missing. Though investigators found no physical evidence, police arrested Rand for kidnapping. They convicted him in 1988 and again in 2004.

Amazon Prime offers a documentary titled Cropsey, for those who want to watch. I was not brave enough. Yet. Too real for me. Here’s the link to a short trailer. It provides an image of Willowbrook and an eerie atmosphere.

And I thought the Russian Sleep Experiment Urban Legend was bad.

A Silver Lining… maybe

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The horrors of Willowbrook produced reforms for the disabled. Judy Moiseff, a former Willowbrook patient for eight years, founded Judy Speaks and offers disability awareness trainings.

Clara Bush
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