A Column about Historic Locations in New York's Southern Tier - by Roger Luther
Windows Into The Past
Thousands of Glass Photo Negatives Discovered in Binghamton's Historic Asylum

Sarah was led from her ward to a nearby building. Entering a small room she sat motionless in a chair facing a large strange-looking wooden contraption. In a flash, her photograph was taken. The man behind the camera told her to turn her head to the right and then… another flash. While Sarah was led away, the photographer removed a large wooden frame from the camera and inserted another for his next subject.

This camera was used at Binghamton State Hospital during the early 1900’s. Top: a negative image of the Main Building at the hospital ca. 1910 as it appears on one of the glass plates.

Pile of material as found in small storage room.

Photographic dry plates found in the storage room.

Later in his darkroom, a 5x7-inch glass plate was carefully removed from its wooden frame and washed in chemical baths revealing two black & white negative images of Sarah’s face and profile. The photographer then scribed Sarah’s name and a number on the back of the glass plate and placed it in a box with several others.

That was one hundred years ago, and according to the U.S. Census of 1900, at that time Sarah was listed along with 1,388 others as a patient at Binghamton State Hospital.

A century after her photograph was taken, preparations were being made to rehabilitate the long-vacant Main Building, known as the Castle, on the campus of the former Binghamton State Hospital. A small team of volunteers representing the Broome County Historical Society and the Greater Binghamton Health Center, took on the task of removing items of historical significance from the building, then relocating them to a controlled environment and cataloguing each of the artifacts. Early in the process an amazing discovery was made. A door at the back of the old asylum chapel opened into a small room piled high with various items and debris. Photographs, books, documents, and a variety of other items were mixed with pieces of fallen ceiling plaster, decomposed pigeon parts, and a thick mixture of dirt and dust.

Like excavating an archeological site, layer by layer the material was carefully removed. At one point a small stack of dusty glass plates was uncovered, each measuring 5x7 inches. Holding one of the plates up to a window, a negative image on the glass could be seen. These glass plates were in fact hundred-year-old photographic negatives. Soon, more plates were uncovered in a broken cardboard box, and the dig continued. At the bottom of the pile several more boxes were found. Ultimately, hundreds of glass plates were discovered scattered throughout the room, some broken, some cracked, and most covered with a layer of dirt and plaster dust. Finally a path was cleared to the back of the room where a tall wooden cabinet stood. The cabinet door was pried open and there it was… the mother lode. Over the next several days over 5,000 glass dry-plate photo negatives were removed from the room.

After relocating the glass plates to a controlled environment, a plan was established to carefully clean the plates and then package them in protective acid-free archival material. The next step would be to digitally scan and catalogue each image – an ongoing effort that continues to this day.

Taken over an approximate 25-year period during the early 1900’s, the photos show life at the State Hospital as it was in the earliest years. Subject matter includes hospital staff, buildings, farms, medical charts, and events – but by far, most of the photos are of patients.

As stated in the 1892 Annual Report of the Trustees of Binghamton State Hospital, “it is very desirable to preserve with the records of cases treated in the hospital, photographs of the individual patients.” The report goes on to say that “the modern dry-plate methods of photography are so simple that they are easily managed… the sum we should require to purchase the apparatus necessary would be $300.” Soon after that a camera was procured, and in 1894 one of the nurses at the hospital, Fred W. Ernie, took on the task as photographer along with his other responsibilities.

The trustees could not have known how significant their decision would prove to be. Thanks to their foresight, images were recorded representing thousands of lives-once-lived. Images, that according to Mark Stephany, Director of the Greater Binghamton Health Center, “restore a level of dignity to people long forgotten.”

Today, the images would be invaluable as a resource for historians and those researching family history, however, issues regarding possible public access cannot be addressed until the restoration and scanning effort has been completed. As stated by Darby Penney, co-author of The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, “the discovery, rescue and conservation of this collection of 5,000 images from Binghamton State Hospital is an incredible feat of preservation and an invaluable contribution to the historical record.”

What happened to Sarah? Nearly 30 years after her listing on the 1900 census, while still a patient at the State Hospital she died and was buried in the hospital cemetery, her grave marked only by a number. But her story does not end there. Construction of an interstate highway in 1961 cut directly through the cemetery forcing the relocation of 1,504 of its nearly 4,000 graves to a nearby field. According to records released by the Department of Transportation at the time, Sarah’s grave was among those moved. Today the relocated cemetery appears as a large empty field, its numbered stone grave markers having long ago settled below ground.

Sarah’s existence, like many of the others on that census list, was one of obscurity. But unknowingly, she and the other patients left their mark for posterity. Like a century-old Facebook, the discovery of this 100-year old time capsule has brought their images to light – and as these faces from the past are being restored and preserved, so to is the dignity of people long forgotten.

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Treasures of the Tier - A Column about Historic Locations in New York's Southern Tier - by Roger Luther