I’ve rang bells and buzzers, talked into intercoms, and even called down a private elevator via an old red phone that gave me the feeling of being on a secret mission – but today was the first time I’ve entered through the gates of what seemed otherwise to be the private entrance to a grand home in order to conduct archival research.
In actuality, the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY is a grand home entered via a private gate — the archives operates within Hillcrest, the home built for Martha Baird Rockefeller, second wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Completed in 1963 the house has the feel of a much older era with nineteenth century portraits on the walls and Victorian furnishings. The lockers for researchers are neatly hidden inside M.B.R.’s closet and the reading room on the second floor was originally designed to be a sitting room. The dining room has even been converted for use by researchers in need of a break, complete with a coffee machine and a tin of cookies (!!) on the table. Hardly a shabby environment in which to spend some time searching through boxes of archival documents.
Cookie and décor distractions aside: I’m on the trail of a new(ish) project. I’ve recently begun focusing my attention on the history of “criminal insanity” – how it was defined and the institutions that were specially designated for those assigned with the title. As part of this larger project, I jumped when an opportunity presented itself to spend the week at the Rockfeller Archive Center and consult the papers related to the New York Police Psychopathic Laboratory (H/T to Jeremy Burman for the invitation to tag along on his dissertation research trip).
The New York Police Psychopathic Laboratory was opened in 1916 for the purpose of testing individuals arrested for various crimes who were suspected of being “abnormal.” Drawing on popular tests of the period – particularly the version of the Binet-Simon test translated by Goddard (see mislabelled image at left) – the Laboratory sought to identify individuals who were designated as “mental defectives”; “imbeciles”; “feebleminded”; etc, and (sometimes) recommended treatment in specialized facilities. A major focus appears to have been compiling statistics. Funded through the Bureau of Social Hygiene, it was one of a series of projects geared towards studying and improving identified social problems.
Day 1 was interesting with page after page of case file notes related to the prisoners tested at the Laboratory. There were a few disappointments (the photograph folder contained only a single image – sigh!) but I have high hopes for the remainder of the week.