Syracuse State School & Cemetery

Syracuse State School – New York State Custodial Institution for Intellectually Disabled Children. The children who died at the Syracuse State School are buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, New York.

1916 Syracuse State Custodial Institution For Feeble-Minded Children.

State Idiot Asylum at Syracuse 1858

State Idiot Asylum at Syracuse 1858

“AN ACT making an appropriation for the purchase of grounds for burial purposes for the use of the Syracuse State Institution for Feeble-Minded Children. Became a law February 11, 1896, with the approval of the Governor. Passed by a two-thirds vote. The People of the State of New York, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows: Section 1. The trustees of the Syracuse State Institution for Feeble-Minded Children are hereby authorized to purchase sufficient grounds, in Oakwood cemetery, at Syracuse, for the burial of four hundred and eight of such inmates of the institution as may die while residing therein; and the sum of nineteen hundred and fifty-eight dollars and forty cents, or so much thereof as may be necessary, is hereby appropriated out of any money in the treasury belonging to the general fund, not otherwise appropriated, payable to the order of the treasurer of the institution, for carrying out the purposes of his act; subject to the approval of the comptroller as to the value of the grounds, and of the attorney-general as to the form and terms of the conveyance thereof. § 2. This act shall take effect immediately.”
SOURCE: General Laws of the State of New York, Volume I, Chapter 16, Page 10, One Hundred Nineteenth Session, January 1, 1896 – April 30, 1896, Google Books

The New York State Asylum for Idiots was authorized by the New York State Legislature in 1851, acting upon a recommendation contained in the 1846 annual report of the New York State Asylum for Lunatics. Hervey B. Wilbur, M.D., was appointed the first superintendent and remained in that position until his death in 1883. First located on rented land in Albany, it admitted its first ‘pupils’ in 1851. The cornerstone was laid in 1854 for a new building in Syracuse, and the institution removed to Syracuse in 1855. After 1855 it was generally known as either the New York Asylum for Idiots or just the State Idiot Asylum, but in 1891 it was officially renamed the Syracuse State Institution for Feeble-Minded Children. In 19?? the name was changed to The Syracuse State Institution for Feeble-Minded Children, and later became just the Syracuse State School. Wilbur collaborated with Edward Seguin, M.D., the originator of the physiological method of training. Maria Montessori was also Seguin’s student and much of the ‘Montessori Method‘ is based on foundations laid by Wilbur and Seguin in Syracuse. In its 85th annual report (1935), the Syracuse State School rightly noted that it was ‘the pioneer institution in the United States for the care and training of mentally deficient children.’ Surgery was done in the old building, and at least one child was born there. The School also operated a farm and a number of satellite cottages. In the 1970s, the Syracuse State School building was torn down and replaced by a residential facility called the Syracuse Developmental Center. With the growing emphasis on community living rather than institutionalization for developmentally disabled persons, no new individuals were placed at SDC and there has been a gradual movement of residents into the community. In early 1998, there were about six persons left. SDC is to be closed, and it is not clear what will happen to the building.”
SOURCE: Upstate Medical University, Health Sciences Library, A Short History of Selected Hospitals in Syracuse

Syracuse State Institution for Feeble-Minded Children

Syracuse State Institution for Feeble-Minded Children

Photograph courtesy of The Museum of disABILITY History

“The first of these institutions, The New York State Asylum for Idiots, was established near Albany in 1851. The idea for such a school had originally been proposed in 1846 by senator Frederick F. Backus, a physician from Rochester. However, because many legislators reserved skepticism about the educability of ‘idiots’ and had concerns over the cost of such an experiment, the measure took five years to pass. These doubts proved to be unfounded, for the students achieved such favorable progress that the school’s Board of Trustees declared, in 1853, that the experiment had ‘entirely and fully succeeded.’ The legislature responded by funding the construction of a new building, which opened in 1855. This building, located in Syracuse, was the first in the United States designed specifically for children with developmental disabilities. Under the dedicated leadership of Dr. Hervey Backus Wilbur, superintendent for the initial thirty-two years of operation, this institution provided inspiration to many other states seeking to establish similar schools of their own.”
SOURCE: Museum Of disABILITY History, Early State Schools in New York by Thomas Stearns, Contributor.

Account of the ceremonies at the laying of the corner-stone of the New York Asylum for Idiots: at Syracuse, September 8, 1854.

Seventh Annual Report of the New-York Asylum for Idiots to the Legislature of the State of New York 1858.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE VIDEO They’re Buried Where? by Seth Voorhees

THE BAD NEWS: Thousands Remain Nameless! 6.15.2015.

THE GOOD NEWS: One Man Is Remembered! 6.14.2015.


4 thoughts on “Syracuse State School & Cemetery

  1. Lin, I have been looking for the better part of a day and can’t find any reference to a cemetery for this institution, which has had many name changes over the years. It seemed to be mostly a place for children, young adults. Will post a couple links of interest later.


    • Thanks, Sue! The problem with many of these cemeteries is that they are forgotten. It may look like an open field, that’s what Willard looks like. On the other hand, they may not have had a cemetery at all but used a local cemetery in the area. The Rochester State Hospital used Mt. Hope Cemetery in the City of Rochester. Could this be a possibility? Thank you again for all your hard work! If you find anything, please be sure and let me know. -Lin


    • I live north of Syracuse and am familiar with Oakwood. Morningside is I believe just across the road from Oakwood and newer but they are it seems one cemetery association. They are in the neighborhood of Syracuse University and the other side of town from the former SDC. Oakwood is the burial place of many of Syracuse’s earliest and most famous. It’s a garden type cemetery and tours are offered monthly except in the winter. I know someone involved and will ask them if they know of any burials from the State School.

      Here is the latest news on the property:


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