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St. Lawrence State Hospital 1886-1983 (Ogdensburg, New York)

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The psychiatric center came first. Initially, it was to be call the Ogdensburg State Asylum for the Insane, but the name was changed to the St. Lawrence State Hospital before the first patient was admitted. In the late 1970's, it was re-christened the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

The asylum was authorized in 1886 by the state Legislature after being persuaded of the need for such an institution in the northern part of the state. The governor appointed a site selection commission including Dr. Peter M. Wise (superintendent of the Willard State Hospital) and William P. Letchworth (a member of the state Board of Charities who was also instrumental in establishing what is now Groveland). They recommended Point Airy, a 950-acre tract of farmland bulging out into the St. Lawrence River The state purchased the land for $90,500 in 1887.

Later that year Isaac G. Perry, the state architect, consulted a group of experts to plan the asylum. Among them were Dr. Wise and Dr. Carlos F. MacDonald. Dr MacDonald was superintendent of the Auburn State Asylum for Insane Criminals and, when that was relocated, he became the first superintendent of Matteawan State Hospital (now Fishkill). Dr. MacDonald was present at the world's first execution by electrocution, and his graphic report on William Kemmler's death at Auburn in 1890 is frequently cited in death penalty studies.

Their ideas laid the foundation for the family-style institution that would become standard in the design and conduct of future psychiatric hospitals. Plans drawn by the architect called for three discrete groups of buildings, so that patients could be grouped according to their particular psychiatric disorder. The buildings would be small, not exceeding two floors, with sleeping quarters above and rooms for day activities below.

The St. Lawrence State Hospital opened on December 9, 1890, under the superintendency of Dr. Wise, who transferred from Willard. Dr Wise instituted a program of "moral treatment," designed to rescue the patient from the outside pressures that were widely thought to cause insanity. The "moral" inmoral treatment refers not to ethics but rather, as in the phrase "moral support," to "morale." Conceived before the advent of drug therapy and other medical interventions, moral treatment meant an attitude and an environment: a nurturing routine of rest without stress in comforting surroundings.

Recreation, as a mental stimulant, was an important component of the therapeutic program. Entertainments included stereopticon shows, musical and comedy productions, sleigh rides, popcorn parties, phonographic entertainments, camping on Lotus Island, skating and sledding in the winter and, in summer, river excursions on "Dorothy" (the hospital steamboat). Dancing was also encouraged, because it combined physical exercise with what is, in Dr. Wise's scale, "the most potent of all the factors of moral treatment - music."

Recreation was only one form of "purposeful activity" by which St. Lawrence strove to arouse previously unreachable patients from apathy. In 1908, St. Lawrence pioneered a fledgling occupational therapy program, described as "employment in various occupations for the purpose of re-educating the facilities of attention and volition." It would be imitated in state hospitals all over the country. Patients worked at weaving, sewing, woodworking and knitting (using wool from the hospital flock).

The hospital, like prisons of the day, resembled a self-supporting community. The farm was so productive that outside food purchases were seldom necessary; it also supplied the patients' tobacco needs. The farm closed in the 1960's, after changes in state law concerning patient labor. The land was sold to the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority for industrial development. In 1928, St. Lawrence instituted a beauty salon, another first that was soon widely imitated in recognition of its therapeutic value as a morale booster.

The nursing school was another first for St. Lawrence. When the hospital opened in 1890, there were only 23 schools of nursing in the U.S., and only 11 had been in existence long enough to have produced graduates. Dr. Wise reasoned that it would be easier to train his own nurses than to recruit them. In 1890, before the first patients arrived, he established a coed nursing school, the first such school affiliated with a state institution. No suitable texts were available, so Dr. Wise wrote his own which became the standard text in all Department of Mental Hygiene nursing schools. In 1913, the curriculum was expanded from two years to three.

In 1972, with its in-patient population declining, New York started phasing out its costly nursing schools. St. Lawrence's program, operating out of the Flower Building, was the last to close (in 1981).

Old State Hospital Cemetery

This cemetery was used for burials by St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center from 1890 through 1985 (?), when the cemetery was permanently closed. During this time 3,741 people were laid to rest.

To maintain confidentiality, numbers were used to mark the graves. The actual names of the deceased are referenced on a master list maintained by the hospital and available to family members.


There are three residential programs located on the facility grounds: Adult Services, a Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), and Children/Youth Services.

All residential programs offer a comprehensive range of services including individual and group counseling, diagnostic evaluation, psychological testing, crisis intervention, psychopharmacology, medical evaluation, vocational assessment, education, socialization, task and skill training, physical therapy, structured learning therapy, occupational therapy, and recreational therapy. In addition, weight rooms, a recipient resource center, a snack bar, and community programs are available.

Outpatient Clinics, offering diagnostic assessment, individual/group treatment, medication therapy, case management, crisis services, are available to both adults and children/youth in major population centers within St. Lawrence County (Ogdensburg, Massena, Gouverneur). Day Treatment programs for Children/Youth, in collaboration with B.O.C.E.S., are also offered to St. Lawrence County residents in Ogdensburg and Potsdam; and to Jefferson County Children/Youth in Watertown.

Outpatient residential programs are also operated by the psychiatric center through the on-grounds Community Residence (Northwood Manor) and the Family Care Program, a network of certified private homes located in St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Clinton counties.

In addition to its inpatient and outpatient programs, SLPC has a new, state of the art, Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) that will expand to an 80 bed capacity by the end of 2008. The SOTP's mission is to balance individual treatment needs and community safety. The treatment model promotes positive changes for individuals participating in the program in an effort to reduce the risk of future sexual re-offense.

Self-Help and Advocacy services are provided through a local consumer-run organization, "STEP by STEP, Inc." A Bridger program provides link to STEP by STEP for adult recipients.

Area Served

St. Lawrence, Jefferson, Franklin, Essex, Lewis and Clinton counties

Age Groups Served

Children up to age 18 and adults