Glimpses of the Past
People, Places, and Things in Letchworth Park History

William Pryor Letchworth: Humanitarian


In 1897 Mr. Letchworth resigned from the State Board of Charities after 24 years of service. Soon after, the following tribute appeared in the Thirtieth Report of that body to the New York State Legislature:

"Entering into this office well equipped by nature and research for the efficient discharge of his duties, Mr. Letchworth has, without remuneration, devoted the maturer years of his life to the amelioration of the condition of the suffering, unfortunate classes in the State of New York. Every branch of the work devolved upon the State Board of Charities has felt the uplifting impulse of his wise and persistent efforts. The insane, the poor in county houses, the blind, the orphan and destitute children, the juvenile delinquent are all now more intelligently and humanely cared for in consequence of his initiation and unfailing and practical support of measures instituted for their relief."

Such praise and recognition was well deserved, for his extensive work in the field of social reform helped to lay the groundwork for the progressive efforts New York and other State governments would take to improve the condition and care of the needy of society.

Mr Letchworth was appointed to the Board after his retirement from business in 1873. In 1875 he had inspected all the orphan asylums, poor-houses, city alms houses, and juvenile reformatories in the state which had an aggregate population of 17,791 children. He recommended the passage of law to remove children over two years of age from such demoralizing situations and was successful in the effort. In 1878 he was elected as President of the Board.

In 1880 and 81 he spent seven months abroad in the study of the care of the insane. He visited institutions in Scotland, Belgium, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France and the German states. From this research he wrote a book entitled "The Insane in Foreign Countries" which became a standard reference.

He made the same effort on behalf of epileptics for whom no treatment existed. He published a work titled "Care and Treatment of Epileptics". This was a report of the different views of the many distinguished specialists in therapeutics related to the condition. Many of these new methods of treatment would be used in Craig Colony, a State epileptic hospital he helped to establish in Western New York in 1896.

Letchworth served on many state and national associations that had formed to promote care for the needy. He served as President for the National Association for the Study of Epilepsy and the Care of Treatment of Epilepsy, and as President of the First New York State Conference of Charities and Corrections, as well as President of the National Conference of Charities and Correction held in St. Louis in 1884.

His tireless work won him the respect and friendship of many of the leading reformers of the day, including Dorothea Dix. He was also awarded the honorary "Doctor of Laws" degree by the University of the State of New York in 1893, "in recognition of his distinguished services to the State of New York as a member and president of the State Board of Charities and as author of most valuable contributions to the literature pertaining to the dependent classes." Dr. Letchworth's diploma still hangs in the Glen Iris.

Much of above information is contained in the 1907 report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. These are reports of only the most obvious works of this great human being with respect to the less fortunate in society. We know he was active in historic society affairs, the Monument Commissions, Benevolent Societies, the encouragement of school children, and the preservation of historic objects like the Jemison Cabin, Council House, Parade Grounds, Boyd & Parker Memorial, and the Dragoon Monument.

In June of 1911, a few months after Mr. Letchworth's death, the Association of County Superintendents of the Poor and Poor Farm Officers of the State of New York met in convention at the Columbian Hotel, Thousand Islands Park. One of the sessions of their three day conference was titled "Reminiscences of William P. Letchworth" Six thousand copies of the proceedings were published pursuant to a Resolution by Mr. Platt which became an Act of the State Legislature of March 26, 1912 .

Various speakers shared their knowledge of Mr Letchworth and his works which have been outlined in the paragraphs above. I hope to share with you their poignant feelings for William Pryor Letchworth, the man.

Mr W. R. Stewart, Pres. Of the State Board of Charities said, "I unhesitatingly claim,...that no one, living or dead, has done more in his generation to improve almshouse care in the State of New York. All his honors came because people recognized his absolute unselfishness; they felt he was to be trusted in anything with which he might be connected... He disliked and avoided strife, and chose rather to yield than to take precedence; but his opinions, carefully formed, were tenaciously held."

Charles Dow, Chairman of the Letchworth Park Committee of American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society when addressing the meeting added: .. "The title of "Doctor" in the original sense of teacher, eminently fits his character. I have seen the tender feelings of this man express themselves in tears when speaking of matters which appealed strongly to his sympathies."

Honorable Truman L. Stone of Sonyea also spoke during the program as follows: "I had the privilege of a personal and somewhat intimate acquaintance with Mr Letchworth for nearly thirty years and that during the period of his life when the brightest qualities of mind in him were at the best. During that time I learned to know of his uprightness of character and purity of friendship. He had a heart as intensely kind and a nobly true as ever God gave to one of his creatures. I never heard him say one depreciating word of any man or men's work; I never knew him to let pass without some remonstrance, or endeavor to mitigate, a blameful word spoken of another. His greatest characteristic was firmness of mind and body which rendered him capable of the most delicate sensations and sympathies"

Mr. John Smallwood was the last to speak, and he said in part, "He believed in work and he believed in work all his life, and he not only believed in working himself but he believed in everyone who worked for him doing that work ... He could smile and he could show his teeth, the latter when wrong was being committed and he felt he must stop it . He had that peculiar combination more than anyone I know, ­ a woman's heart in a man's bosom; he could be gentle as a woman and as sympathetic, and he could be as brave as any brave man anywhere."

Further reports of Mr. Letchworth's activities in charity work and varied public service can be found in the book by Irene A. Beale titled " William P. Letchworth, A Man for Others" published in 1982 and cited in the bibliography of this web page.

Although Mr. Letchworth is best remember for his gift of Letchworth Park, it can be argued that his work as a humanitarian is his greatest legacy.

(See The Works of William Pryor Letchworth for a complete list of his writings.)

Tom Breslin


ASHPS, 12th Annual Report pp 126-133

Beale, A Man For Others

Doty, Livingston County, pp 576-581

Larned, Life and Works

Memorial to William Pryor Letchworth, Authorized by the (NY) Legislature March 26, 1912.


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