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New York State Asylum For Idiots, Second Annual Report Of The Trustees

Creator: n/a
Date: February 10, 1853
Source: Steve Taylor Collection


New York State authorized an asylum for idiots in 1851. It was the first public institution for people with cognitive disabilities in the United States. Dr. Hervey B. Wilbur was named its first superintendent and remained in that position until his death in 1883. First located in Albany, a permanent building in Syracuse opened in 1855. Wilbur’s annual reports and those of his successors outline a transition in nineteenth-century America from hopeful optimism and educational promise to fearful pessimism and segregation. Wilbur put into practice Edouard Seguin’s physiological training, a technique by which idiocy would be cured by exercising the will. Later superintendents stressed the threat of the feeble-minded and the need to protect society from their assumed criminal tendencies.

The Second Annual Report is firmly planted in the optimistic period. Wilbur maintained that idiots could be educated and become productive members of society. His motivations were both social and religious. He believed that such people could be taught to be “burdens” neither to their families nor to the larger society.

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State of New-York
No. 29.
IN ASSEMBLY, FEB. 10, 1853.


Of the Trustees of the New-York State Asylum for Idiots.


To the Legislature of the State of New-York:


In compliance with the act establishing the Asylum for Idiots, the subscribers, trustees of the institution, respectfully submit this their second annual




For a history of the organization of the asylum, the measures adopted to make a fair and equal selection of pupils from the different judical -sic- districts, and for an account of the system devised for the government of the institution, and for an accountability for all moneys received and for all property in charge of its officers, we respectfully refer to our first annual report to the Legislature of 1852, which is printed in No. 30, of Senate documents of that year.


The suggestion there made of an additional appropriation of $1,500, for the support of ten additional pupils, was approved by the Legislature, and a law was passed to that effect. The whole appropriation for the present year (1852), amounts to $7,500, and the whole number of State pupils is limited to thirty. The original appropriation of six thousand dollars for each year, made by chapter 502 of the Laws of 1851, expires on the 10th of July, 1853; while that made by chap. 407 of the Laws of 1852, of fifteen hundred dollars, was only for the current year. The Legislature of 1853 is therefore to determine whether the institution shall be continued or abandoned; and if continued, whether its capacity shall be enlarged to meet the urgent demand for its advantages to the most helpless of our race.


A recurrence to our first report will show with what caution, not to say doubt, the trustees entered upon the discharge of their duties. The popular and current opinion that this class of afflicted humanity were incapable of any essential improvement, had not been entirely changed by the imperfect information we possessed of the efforts made in other countries. Still, enough had been ascertained to justify an experiment on a moderate scale. It had been discovered that the term "idiot" very inaccurately described the different conditions of imbecility of intellect; that there were grades and degrees at great distances from each other; that the effects of bodily injuries had been confounded with original organization; that ill treatment and neglect had obscured minds naturally healthy, and finally that by proper discrimination and training, adapted to each case, in many instances the intellect had been aroused or developed, and new creatures born into the world. Fearing to trust too much to the sympathies and glowing hopes which such facts were calculated to excite, the trustees determined to test the experiment which the Legislature had authorised, by the same rigid rule which they would apply to any new theory in physics, viz: to see for themselves how it worked; to compare the condition of the pupils when admitted, with their condition at subsequent periods.


They have done so; and they now say, as the results of their observations, of their comparisons and of their deliberate convictions, that the experiment has entirely and fully succeeded. All the pupils have improved, some in a greater and others in a less degree. But the single fact of some improvement settles the question; for all experience shows that if a lodgment in the mind can once be made, it furnishes a foundation upon which further ideas, facts and combinations may be erected. This first, lodgment is the turning point, and when it is accomplished, every thing follows with more or less rapidity, according to circumstances. We have witnessed this rapidity in some instances with surprise, not to say astonishment. The process is as curious as it is interesting, and the manner of it, by commencing with efforts to teach what many animals are capable of learning, and advancing gradually and carefully, from step to step in the, scale of intelligence, is admirably described in the appendix to the report of the superintendent which accompanies this paper, and which will be found exceedingly interesting.


The trustees therefore repeat and confirm absolutely what they intimated as their belief in their first report; that in almost all cases, and with very few, if any exceptions, those usually called idiots, under the age of 12 or 15, may be so trained and instructed as to render them useful to themselves, and fitted to learn some of the ordinary trades, or to engage in agriculture. Their minds and souls can be developed so that they may become responsible beings, acquainted with their relations to their Creator and a future state, and their obligations to obey the laws and respect the rights of their fellow citizens. In all cases, we believe, for we have seen what has been accomplished in apparently desperate cases, they can be made cleanly and neat in their personal habits, and enabled to enjoy the bounties of Providence and the comforts of life, and to cease being incumbrances and annoyances to the families in which they reside.

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