Monday, April 28, 2008
This postcard, a copy of which I own, shows Wisner Park in the small upstate city of Elmira, New York — not far from Skaneateles in the Finger Lakes region, where I grew up. The settlement of Wisnerburg merged with Newtown in 1792, and Newtown was officially renamed Elmira in 1808. (In Orange County, where my family has had roots since the 1700s, there’s a town called Wisner, a little bit west of Bear Mountain State Park. I’ve been to the park but didn’t know about the town.) I dimly remember childhood visits to Elmira, which seemed nice enough. Mark Twain married his wife there in 1870, and is buried there. But there are sinister notes in Elmira’s history. A book called Death Camp of the North describes the Civil War prison camp there, where according to Wikipedia, “a combination of malnutrition, prolonged exposure to brutal winter weather, and disease directly attributable to the dismal sanitary conditions on Foster’s Pond and lack of medical care.” A maximum-security prison, the Elmira Correctional Facility was established in 1876. Although it was billed as the first “reformatory,” the policies of indeterminate sentences and corporal punishment used by warden Zebulon Brockway resulted in prisoners ending up in mental hospitals.