The Willowbrook State School of Staten Island was like the setting of a horror movie, except the agonizing screams, filthy rooms, and the stench of death in the air was very real. The school staff was entrusted to teach and care for mentally disabled children, but instead they exposed them to diseases and subjected them to horrifying abuse.
It’s no surprise that an institution like this would become the center of creepy lore. Every town has its local urban legends, and in the case of Staten Island, New York, their biggest legend is that of Cropsey, the child-killing lunatic who dwells in the tunnels beneath the ruins of the infamous Willowbrook School and its surrounding forests. Unlike most small-town lore however, this horror story happened to come true.
The Willowbrook State School on Staten Island housed children with various developmental disabilities. Its inhumane conditions landed it in the national spotlight multiple times before its eventual closing. Its population reached 6,200 residents at its peak, in buildings designed to house no more than 4,000.
Budget cuts led to a loss of 600 staff members, leaving a ratio of one caregiver to 50 residents. With numbers like that it was impossible to keep everyone clean, fed, supervised, or even clothed. Patients would rip their cloths off, run around nude, masturbate in public, or just roll around in filth and feces on the floor. The severe overcrowding fostered the dehumanization and neglect of residents and eventually led to a public health crisis as literally every resident admitted quickly contracted hepatitis.
Former resident Bernard Carabello described getting beaten with sticks and belt buckles. He recalled being kicked into a wall by staff members and he went on to say sexual abuse was rampant at the hands of staff and other residents.
Residents were rarely taught much of anything despite Willowbrook’s claims of being a school. No behavioral modification exercises, social skills, or hygiene and grooming skills of any kind were taught to anyone.
On the rare occasion that showers were given, they’d be given in groups and residents would only be given five minutes to clean themselves with no soap, no toothpaste, and no individual towels. Many residents needed help eating, but the lack of staff led to a cut in mealtimes. What should have been 30 minutes of relaxing while enjoying a meal turned into a three-minute ingestion of gruel. There was no comfort, no structure, no hope for any of the residents at Willowbrook.
Back in 1965, Senator Robert Kennedy sprung a surprise visit on the Willowbrook staff. What he found was a disgrace. Thousands of mentally and physically disabled residents forced to live in filth and dressed in rags (if dressed at all). He likened the cramped rooms to cages in a zoo and called the facility a “snake pit.” Kennedy demanded reform and allegedly an improvement plan was in effect. However, conditions quickly reverted back to snake pit status.
Willowbrook received another surprise visitor in 1972. Investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera and his camera crew were invited in (unbeknownst to administrators) by Dr. Michael Wilkins. The exposé documentary revealed the horrific living conditions and the neglect of the mentally disabled children left in the care of this facility. Rivera ended up winning a Peabody Award for this documentary and he repeatedly followed up with the facility and documented their continual backslides into abusive behavior and the uninhabitable living conditions until their eventual closure in 1987.
Ask those living on Staten Island where the legend of Cropsey began and they’ll tell you it’s always been around. Cropsey is the escaped mental patient that lurks in the tunnels beneath the old Willowbrook State School and comes out to hunt children at night. He’s the axe-wielding lunatic, the killer with a hook for a hand, he’s the boogeyman. He’s been a campfire tale meant to keep kids out of the abandoned buildings and surrounding woods. Parents would warn their kids to behave and to not wander off or old Cropsey will snatch them up with his hook and slice them to bits. But the creepiest thing about the legend of Cropsey is that it turned out to not be a legend at all...