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James Thornton Correspondence

An inventory of the collection at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: MRC
Date: 31 Mar 2009

Biographical History

The New York State Asylum for Idiots was authorized in 1851 in Albany. Hervey B. Wilbur served as its first superintendent (1851-1883). Wilbur was a student of and later collaborator with Dr. Edward Seguin; another of Seguin's students was Maria Montessori. In 1854 a new building was constructed in Syracuse and the asylum relocated there in 1855. From that point until 1891 it was known as either the New York Asylum for Idiots or as the State Idiot Asylum; in 1891 it was renamed the Syracuse State Institution for Feeble-Minded Children, then later the Syracuse State School for Mental Defectives and finally simply the Syracuse State School. In the 1970s the building was torn down and a new residential facility (the Syracuse Developmental Center) constructed; due to the de-emphasis of institutionalization in favor of community living, the Center was closed and the property sold in May of 2008.

James (Jimmy) Thornton came to the asylum in 1855 from his home in Cincinnatus, New York. His age is unknown but he is described as "a little boy," and quickly became "a great favorite" with the staff. His mother Mary Thornton remarried in late 1856, becoming Mary Wheat, and moved to Caton, New York. Jimmy went home in 1862 for a visit and does not seem to have returned to the asylum.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The James Thornton Correspondence consists of letters concerning James (Jimmy) Thornton, a pupil at the New York Asylum for Idiots in Syracuse, from Dr. Hervey Wilbur and other staff at the institution to the boy's mother, Mary Thornton (later Mary Wheat). Jimmy was a resident at the asylum from 1855 to approximately 1862.

Arrangement of the Collection

Letters are in chronological order.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


Thornton, James, fl. 1855-1866.
Wheat, Mary.

Corporate Bodies

New York State Asylum for Idiots.


Children with disabilities -- Institutional care -- New York (State)


Syracuse (N.Y.)

Genres and Forms

Letters (correspondence)

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

James Thornton Letters,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Purchase, 2009.

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