Renee Meckler: Tragedy at Willowbrook State School
Without knowing its name, you have probably heard of the infamous Willowbrook State School. Serving as an inspiration for psychological horror films and TV shows alike, the legendary institution is known for its unparalleled inhumane conditions and the tragic deaths that consequently took place there. One of the most well known incidents was the untimely passing of Renee Meckler, a 12 year-old girl who resided at the school and happens to be buried at Mount Hebron Cemetery.
Willowbrook State School was located in Staten Island, New York and operated from 1947-1987. The state supported school was an institution for children with physical and mental disabilities, and in 1972 its name was splashed on the headlines of news outlets nationwide after journalist Geraldo Rivera did an exposé on the school’s horrific conditions. Stories of neglect and abuse in relation to Willowbrook are rife and well-known to this day. In February 2020, the New York Times found that alumni of the school continued to suffer long after the institution was shut down and were later abused in smaller group homes. The New York Times’ investigation found that “Many of the institution's 2,300 alumni who are alive today still suffer from mistreatment" (Weiser). The Times reported that in 2019 there have been "97 reported allegations of physical abuse by group home workers against Willowbrook alumni..." and also "34 allegations of psychological abuse and hundreds more of neglect and other mistreatment, like improper use of restraints or seclusion, medication errors and theft" (Weiser). Some of the buildings were incorporated into the College of Staten Island.
Renee Meckler, the daughter of Ethel Meckler, was both mentally disabled and physically handicapped. She resided at Willowbrook State School until her death due to strangulation on June 21, 1965. Her death, deemed accidental by the staff of the institution, occurred because she reportedly “slipped through the arm of the chair causing the restraining device– somewhat like a seatbelt– to work up around her neck” (“Retarded Girl Strangled by the Strap”). Meckler was found at approximately 3:30pm by an attendant, Charlene Ellam, on the patio at the back of the building. The school director, Dr. Jack Hammond, told newspapers that “the girl, a resident of Willowbrook since 1955, was subject to epileptic seizures and was unable to sit without being strapped into the chair” (“Retarded Girl Strangled by the Strap”). Hammond also stated that, “That kind of device is not permitted and our employees learn that in their training courses. We have special safety tests and safety harnesses that should be used” (“Blame Safety Strap in Death of Child”). After the story of Meckler’s tragic passing broke, stories of abuse at Willowbrook took the nation by storm, and investigations into the conditions at the school were opened by the authorities. After her untimely passing, Meckler was buried at Mount Hebron in the Paritzer Brotherhood society. Her grave is located in Block 28, Ref 6, Sec G/H, Line B, Grave 2.
While Meckler’s death was unfortunately overlooked and overshadowed by others, her tragic passing will not be forgotten, and her memory is preserved at Mount Hebron Cemetery. Fortunately, no others will ever be subjected to her fate, as Willowbrook closed its doors long ago and its victims are finally free. To visit Meckler’s grave, come to Mount Hebron Monday through Friday, anytime from 9AM-5PM, and on Sundays during the same time range.
~Blog Written by Maya Mehrara