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In 1859, New York established the nation's first institution for insane criminals on the grounds of Auburn, later (1892) moving the Asylum for Insane Convicts to Fishkill as the Matteawan State Hospital.
In 1886, a legislative commission recommended the purchase of the 246-acre Dates Farm in the village of Matteawan for $25,000, or just over $100 per acre. The site was accessible by rail and offered good tillable land, pure water and pleasant scenery between the Hudson River and the Fishkill Mountains. An architect was hired to draw plans for buildings with "an abundance of light and ventilation" to accommodate 550 patients. In April 1892, the Asylum for Insane Criminals, with 261 patients, was relocated from Auburn to its new site. The following year, it was renamed Matteawan State Hospital,
But 550 beds were not enough. Seven years later, in 1899, another prison mental hospital was built on the grounds of Clinton. Dannemora would hold male convicts becoming insane while serving their sentences, and had the power to retain them if they remained insane at expiration of their sentences. Matteawan would hold unconvicted males as well as females in both categories.
Except for tighter security, Matteawan functioned the same as the state's civil hospitals. Until the 1950's and thorazine, doctors prescribed the program of "moral treatment" developed in the early 1800's. It consisted of kind and gentle treatment in a stress-free, highly routine environment. Patients who were capable were assigned to a work program (often called "occupational therapy"): cooking, maintenance, farming and making baskets, rugs, clothing and bedsheets.
Patients were given outdoor exercise in the courtyards twice daily and motion pictures were shown weekly. Radios and phonographs were available on the wards. Patients played softball, tennis, bowling, tennis, handball, shuffleboard, volleyball, chess, checkers, cards, gymnastics, ping pong and quoits (similar to horseshoes but with iron rings). At Christmas and other special occasions, there were teas for the women, smokes for the men and "vaudeville entertainments" staged by patients and staff.
The New York State Archives has the following records:
A1500. Inmate case files from Matteawan and Dannemora State hospitals, ca. 1880-1960. R 273 cu. ft.
This series contains case files documenting the commitment, diagnosis, and treatment of inmates at Matteawan. Case files are also included for inmates transferred from Dannemora State Hospital. The files primarily contain legal papers documenting the commitment process, admissions forms containing basic information on the inmate, physical examination records, and criminal identification records. Some of the case files also contain inmate correspondence, dental records, autopsy reports, and reports regarding the inmate's early life compiled by a relative.
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