Haunted Buffalo Asylum
August 10, 2017
Among Western New York’s allegedly most haunted sites stands the architecturally acclaimed H.H. Richardson complex, begun in 1871 and opened in 1880 as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. Its two 185-foot towers rose from a four-story structure originally flanked on either side by five stepped wards, with its female wing being completed in 1895. Based on the humanitarian philosophy of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, the asylum was intended to provide curative hospitalization for the mentally ill. Crowded by a surge in patients, its occupancy was eventually exceeded by the thousands. In 1927 half the grounds were lost to a college, and more were claimed by modern buildings in the late 1960s.
In 1974, patients were transferred to the new Buffalo Psychiatric Center. From then (until a preservationists’ lawsuit in 2008 brought $100 million in state rehabilitation funds) the old Richardson complex was abandoned and fell into decline and disrepair (“Buffalo” 2017). (It is now under restoration as an 88-room Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center, which my wife Diana and I have toured—see Figure 1.)
During its long abandonment it became a spooky place. According to Weird New York (Gethard 2005, 250–251): “Not surprisingly, rumors abound that the castlelike structure is haunted by the ghosts of former patients who died there. They are said to roam the grounds frequently and to love most of all the tunnels that lay beneath the buildings, connecting them.” Also not surprisingly, the “mentally disturbed” are sometimes held to have “a greater tendency” for hauntings because “they have higher functions of the unconscious mind,” according to my friend, Buffalo ghost walks guide Mason Winfield (Sullivan 2016). Or as I suspect, people simply imagine them as especially scary ghosts.
I have traced the abandonment-creates-haunted-place phenomenon many times before. A site without an apparent ghost becomes dark, neglected, run down, taking on the semblance of a still from a Hollywood movie. The eerie aspect prompts whispers of ghosts, and in time lurid lore develops. With it come dares to explore the “haunted” place, and pranksters may even await those who accept the challenge. In any case, their own flashlights may spark reports of fabled ghost lights. Ghost hunters will record “anomalies” (such as “orb” photos) that they themselves may inadvertently cause, and reporters cannot be far behind, collecting stories for Halloween publication.
In Western New York, for example, I encountered this phenomenon at the once-dilapidated mansion of Bellhurst Castle in Geneva, which enticed youth into making it a sort of ghostly playground; the old octagon house now at Genesee County Village in Mumford, which only acquired ghost stories after it fell vacant; and the Van Horn Mansion at Burt, which attracted its first ghosts during a period of abandonment between 1967 and 1970 when, said a volunteer at the historic house, “it did look spooky” (Nickell 2012, 92–93; Winfield 1997). (I was quoted explaining the dynamics of this type of ghost creation in a brief article on the Richardson complex for Buffalo Spree magazine, written by a skeptical colleague, artist Bruce Adams .)
A young woman who once broke into the deserted Buffalo asylum with friends, described it as like a step back in time: “It looked like someone snapped their fingers and everyone disappeared,” leaving behind old medical contraptions and moldering hospital beds. They saw no ghosts, but it was “really dark” and as a floor partially caved, they started running. “When we saw a sign for the morgue I said, ‘Screw this! I need to get out!’” She said she was overwhelmed by fear. “All I can remember were my emotions. I wanted to die.” On the other hand, a man who explored there said he felt completely welcome (Sullivan 2016).
Yet again, considering the differences in people, hotel developer Dennis Murphy has spent an impressive amount of time there—during both day and night—but he has not had a single ghostly experience (Fink 2016). As my late friend, psychologist Robert A. Baker, used to say, “There are no haunted places—only haunted people.”
Adams, Bruce. 2017. “Long Story Short,” online at https://www.buffalospree.com/Blogs/City-Buzz/Annual-2017/Long-Story-Short-Caputomania-Richardson-Olmsted-and-a-grand-ferry-returns/ accessed July 25, 2017.
Buffalo State Hospital. 2017. Online at opacity.us/site35_buffalo_state_hospital.htm; accessed August 9, 2017.
Constantine, Jackie. N.d. Quoted in Sullivan 2016.
Fink, James. 2016. “To be expected . . .,” online at https://www.bizjournals.com/buffalo/news/2016/10/25/to-be-expected-ghost-tales-haunt-hotel-henry.html; accessed July 17, 2017.
Gethard, Chris. 2005. Weird New York. New York: Sterling Publishing Co.
Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. (Additional references are given here.)
Sullivan, Tara. 2016. Segment of “Our Area’s Most Haunted Places,” online at https://m.facebook.com/notes/everhaunt/our-areas-most-haunted-places-buffalo-ny-thebuffalo-state-hospital/1234321286597407/; accessed August 9, 2017.
Winfield, Mason. 1997. “The Octagon House,” Shadows of the Golden Door. Buffalo, NY: Western New York Wares, 56.