Idiot or Autistic? New York’s 19th Century “Idiot Asylum”

New York’s Idiot Asylum Was A School / Prison For Children Who Were Often Not “Idiots”

The New York Asylum for Idiots Report 1867 coverWithout discussing the question how far down in the scale of idiocy the work of education can practicably go, this much may be said: that some idiots are teachable to an extent which will fully compensate for the amount of labor involved in their instruction. These certainly should be cared for by the State.

It will be seen by the report of the Superintendent, that according to the last census, there were in the State, 303 idiots under 15 years of age. No one can examine these returns without being convinced that the actual number is at least double the number so returned. Were only a third of these fit subjects for management and training in a public institution, even then it is obvious that the present provision made by the State falls short of their needs.

– from the 1867 Sixteenth Annual report of the New York Asylum for Idiots: transmitted to the Legislature, January 17, 1867

Today it would be politically incorrect to label anyone with mental disabilities or deficiencies as an idiot. The word mentally retarded has also fallen out of common usage.




In the early 20th century these words took on new psychiatric meaning, which has since been expunged from the nomenclature of psychiatry. In the 19th century those words were pretty much interchangeable for anyone considered mentally deficient or inherently stupid.

What Do We Do With “Idiots”?

The study and understanding of psychology and medical conditions related to learning and developmental disorders was virtually nonexistent before the 20th century. In a large state like New York, a facility was developed at public expense to deal with so-called idiots. Hence came the “Idiot Asylum.”

The Idiot Asylum Syracuse NY circa 1860Often parents couldn’t understand why a child wasn’t speaking. paying attention, responding to social cues, or learning like other children. Sometimes children had obvious physical signs of being different. What is now known as Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy was grouped into the same bucket as mentally deficient.

When children displayed developmental delays parents often came to the conclusion that their child must be an idiot. For affirmation, a doctor might concur that problem child  was simply an idiot.

And when parents got so frustrated that they couldn’t handle their “idiot” child anymore, they made a difficult decision and applied to have their child institutionalized to the Idiot Asylum. If admitted, sometimes the child was in the asylum temporarily, other times permanently.

Dr Joseph Parrish Photograph of Imbecile Inmate 1859

A “Imbecile” child inmate 1859, photo: Dr Joseph Parrish

Today, reading about the children that ended up in the Idiot Asylum, you come to the horrible realization that many of these children were probably on the autism spectrum. Or the child may have had attention deficit disorder, or dyslexia which stunted advancement in school.

Many of the children labeled “idiots”in the 19th century, would be treated infinitely better today than they were 150 years ago.

What constituted admission to the idiot asylum? Here is a frightening example, again from the New York Asylum for Idiots Report: a typical letter from a parent asking admittance for their child:

New York City.

“Dear Sir—

Mrs. ______, from this city, known to you as a lady whose child has been left under your charge in the Idiot Asylum at Syracuse, and with whom I have become acquainted, has advised me to make application to you for the acceptation into your establishment of one of my own children which is so unfortunate as to be idiotic, so much so as to be a heavy charge upon us.

I am over fifteen years in tin’s country, duly naturalized, and a mechanic, since many years employed by the firm of _________. I have six children, three of whom attend school, one is about three years of age, and my youngest a babe. The sixth child is that unhappy child aforesaid, a daughter of about six years old. She is otherwise perfectly healthy, not liable to fits, well built, tolerably clean, has a perfect eyesight and hearing, but cannot speak.

She understands only to a certain extent, and cannot be left alone or out of sight for a moment, as she is constantly in some mischief. Her playing with her younger sister is frequently interrupted with attempts at injury, of the wrong of which she has no conception.

She likes to upset the baby’s cradle, to play with fire, attempts to choke the babe, climbs up to the reach of household articles which she throws about, and also opens drawers for the same purpose.  She screams frequently to the annoyance of the tenants of the same house, and causes us to be in constant anxiety, that the landlord may not allow us to stay on account of complaints from the other tenants, who, on their part, are also much afraid of a possibility of fire through her mischief. You may easily imagine our sufferings, and the slavish life of constant watching my wife is caused to live, to the serious neglect of her other children and herself.

Our desire is to place her under the charge of such an one as you are represented to be by Mrs.______, and beg you to advise me as soon as convenient, whether and when you will be ready to grant our wish of seeing her placed in your excellent institution, and of the consequent conditions.

With the assurance of my deepest respect,

_______   ________ (names expunged)

The superintendent of the Idiot Asylum, Dr.  Hervey B. Wilbur commented on this letter:

The child to whom reference is made in the letter as being already in the asylum, deserves a passing notice. He is not a promising case so far as the work of instruction is concerned. But
the relief to the parents by having him cared for away from home can hardly be estimated, except with a knowledge of the circumstances connected with it. The father an industrious mechanic, with a wife and two or three other children, occupies rooms in the third story of a tenement house in New York City. Noisy, restless and troublesome, he kept his mother in perpetual fear, lest he should do some mischief or meet with some accident. She could not
exercise him in the street, for the attempt to do so attracted a crowd of children to notice his – strange actions and singular cries.

In the house the windows must he fastened down to keep him from falling out. The other children were not safe at his hands. In fact, such a nuisance in the house had he become, that the landlord was compelled to give them notice that he could not retain them longer as tenants, unless some disposition could be made of this boy. Nor are such as these solitary cases.

The demand then for greater accommodation for this class is obvious. The State is just now erecting several new establishments for other classes of its unfortunates, and perhaps is hardly ready to supply a new institution to meet this demand. Meanwhile a moderate addition to the present structure would furnish the quickest relief, and certainly the most economical mode of providing for the care and education of an additional number of idiots.

“A Success” in Education, New York City’s “Idiot House”

The 19th century public viewpoint towards mentally disabled children was, out of sight, out of mind. Put the feeble minded in institutions and treat them the way the expert in charge sees fit.

So how did Idiot Asylum Chairman Henry Pohlman view the purpose of the idiot asylum? To sift through the more capable inmates, and educate some of the idiots. The educational aspect of the Idiot Asylum needed to be expanded to other facilities. He points to New York City’s “Idiot House” as a success. In the long run it paid for the state to spend money on education. Then at least the idiots could learn a menial trade to engage in labor and not be a total burden on society.

Pohlman writes in the Asylum report:

One of the most important steps taken by society, in the treatment of its dependent classes, has been in the way of classification. By this means the needs of each class—the sick, the aged,
the infirm, the insane, the intemperate and vicious, orphan and destitute children, and all with special infirmities-—are better seen, and as a consequence can be more fully and economically met.

This is certainly true in the case of those mentally deficient. If no thought of educational measures had occurred to those who originated asylums for idiots, we venture to say that the mere collecting them together in an institution would speedily have been followed by such efforts. No intelligent persons could long have had the care and custody of such an assemblage without seeing that the trouble and expense of their management could be reduced by some degree of instruction. It would be seen at once, unavoidably, that their habits could be improved; that they could be made to help themselves somewhat; that they could he taught some simple occupations; that they could be rendered more manageable and obedient It would soon be seen that it was worthwhile to give a portion of them some special training that would impart to them dexterity, make them capable of more intelligent labor, and confer such a degree of self-control as would obviate the necessity of a constant supervision. And it would be found, if the experiment were once begun, that each step would prompt another and
higher one. The wide difference in degree of mental endowment would have produced these progressive measures.

In view of precisely these conditions, the intelligent commissioners of charity in the city of New York have lately established a school in connection with what was known as the “Idiot House”
among their charities, where something more than their merely physical wants could be supplied. They already regard the experiment as quite a success.

We don’t have the “Idiot House” in 2019. We should bring it back. Not for the mentally disabled, but for the proponents of idiocy who are turning this world upside down.

3 thoughts on “Idiot or Autistic? New York’s 19th Century “Idiot Asylum”

  1. Gary Ward

    We might start filling one of these institutions with the members of Congress and the State Houses of the United States..

  2. Fernando Rivalenti

    I found this website by accidente during my teaching Prep periods…and I fell in love with it. I am one of the exceptions to its title… since this is stuff that I (and many of my friends) care about.


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