The tragic tales of history’s most notorious insane asylums

Gothic palaces of abuse and neglect that will send a chill down your spine.

Before 1844, the mentally ill were stashed away in prisons and the basements of public buildings. But in the middle of the 19th century, reformers like Dorothea Dix pushed to improve the standing of those with serious mental illness, an effort that led to the construction of sprawling psychiatric hospitals with names like the State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers and the Athens Lunatic Asylum.

Many of these new facilities were built under the Kirkbride Plan, an architectural guideline which ensured the maximum amount of privacy and comfort for the patients. However the concept of “building as treatment” soon fell out of favor, and most American mental asylums became overcrowded Gothic palaces of abuse and neglect.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the invention of anti-psychotic drugs like Thorazine triggered a movement toward “deinstitutionalization” — so much so that by the year 2000 almost all of the Kirkbride buildings had been abandoned or downsized. The shells of the grand structures, and tales of the horrors they housed, still remain. Read on to check them out.

Danvers State Hospital

Built in 1878 to house 500, Danvers State Hospital (formally known the State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers) had over 2,300 patients at its peak in the 1940s. Needless to say, conditions were hellish. Danvers is the rumored birthplace of the lobotomy, and doctors used that barbaric procedure, as well as electroshock therapy, to the keep the inmates in line.

By the early 1880s, Danvers began to get a bit overcrowded, with the hospital housing around 626 patients in 1881 and around 788 patients in 1885. And by 1939, the population of the hospital was well over 2,000 patients.

An annual report from 1939 highlighted the crowding problem:

“During the last year the problem of overcrowding became more apparent than in past years, Beginning in August, there was a marked increase in the admission rate of elderly psychotic persons, and for the first time, this group outnumbered the younger group….

This hospital, for the last several years, has received nearly (1,000) new admissions per annum, which is altogether too large a load considering space, personnel, and the close attention that the newly-admitted patient requires. We are constantly looking forward to the improvement and recovery of the newly-admitted patient by means of all modern methods of treatment, but overcrowding makes this very difficult indeed…

There is a need of a large number of nurses, both male and female, to give proper ward supervision to our patients….

The generating equipment located in the power house has long reached its peak of efficiency and letters have been sent to the Department of Mental Health reporting the fact that our generating equipment is aged and may fail at any time in its function…

The problem of destruction by disturbed patients has received careful attention. By means of better segregation of patients, better supervision on the part of nurses and attendants, the use of special garments and the use of bed care for denudative patients, a considerable reduction in destruction has been obtained. Occupational therapy and sedative forms of hydrotherapy have also contributed to this program… ”

Conditions for the inmates went downhill because the hospital was so overcrowded. Instead of properly treating the patients, nurses resorted to inhumane medical practices and the patients’ symptoms worsened.

Patients walked through hallways naked. They lived in their own filth from a lack of basic hygiene. People weren’t being cured. Their symptoms got worse.

Shock therapy and straight jackets became the norm. The thinking was that jolts of electricity could either alter a patient’s brain or make the patient afraid of shock therapy and scare them into submission. When they misbehaved, they were put in straight jackets and forgotten.

When shock therapy failed, the lobotomies started. In 1939, the medical community was looking for a permanent fix to the crisis facing mental health facilities. The population of the hospital swelled to 2,360. A total of 278 people died at the hospital that year.

Medical science saw lobotomies as a cure for anyone’s insanity, and as a way to stop the deaths.

The facility closed in 1992, but a plan to turn the building into condos stalled when it promptly burned down. The structure’s cursed history shouldn’t be that much of a surprise: It was built on plot of land once owned by John Hathorne, the most unforgiving of the Salem Witch Trial judges.

The Athens Lunatic Asylum

The Athens Lunatic Asylum, or The Ridges, has been considered one of the more haunted places on Earth ever since an incident in 1978, in which the lifeless, naked body of a missing female patient was found in an unheated room that was locked from the inside. Her corpse left a stain, and legend has it this darkened silhouette has remained ever since, despite numerous attempts to scrub it away, according to Jezebel.

Shilling was dead in the middle of the floor in the attic room, which had reportedly been searched twice. She was naked, her clothes stacked neatly on the windowsill. It was early January of 1979, in one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record, with an unprecedented 34 inches of snow that month alone.

It took awhile to move the body—the state highway patrol had to be called, the coroner—and after the body was removed, something remained.

Workers scrubbed at the concrete floor. At a certain point, they gave up. You can see in the stain where they gave up.

It’s also interesting to note that in 1876, two years after The Ridges opened, the number-one-listed cause of insanity among its male patients was masturbation, while menstrual issues were high up on the list of ills for committed females. Patients with other conditions like epilepsy were also falsely diagnosed with insanity.

The first patient of the Asylum was a 12-year-old girl with epilepsy, thought to be possessed by a demon. Epilepsy was considered a major cause of “insanity” and reason for admission to the hospital in the early years. The first annual report lists thirty-one men and nineteen women as having their insanity caused by epilepsy. General “ill health” accounted for the admission of thirty-nine men and forty-four women in the first three years of the hospital’s operation.

Archives about the asylum shows that doctors and nurses used inhumane treatments, like hydrotherapy, electroshock therapy, and lobotomies.

McLean Hospital

With prominent former patients like John Nash, Ray Charles, Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace, McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., has long had a reputation as the insane asylum for the rich and famous. The private facility was the setting for “The Bell Jar” and “Girl, Interrupted,” and a teenage James Taylor wrote one of his first songs, “Knockin’ ‘Round the Zoo,” about his stay at McLean.

In fact, the mellow-voiced singing legend credits the Thorazine-filled nine months he spent committed at McLean as a “life saver.” Today, McLean Hospital is one of the most well-regarded psychiatric facilities in the world.

Much like the other asylums in the list, the McLean staff used inhumane treatments on the inmates. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune:

McLean advanced a succession of treatments that reflected the prevailing wisdom (such as it was): hydrotherapy, including so-called Scotch douches in which patients were surrounded by needle-like jets of water; hypothermia caused by swaddling in refrigerated blankets; Freudian-style talk therapy; comas induced by injected insulin or metrazol; electroshock; lobotomies; Thorazine.

Pilgrim Psychiatric Center

This Long Island asylum is most famous for its sheer size — housing about 14,000 patients during its peak in the 1950s. The massive facility also featured a firehouse, a power plant, a bakery and a working farm.

Originally conceived with a “rest and relaxation” philosophy, Pilgrim’s treatment techniques become more aggressive with an increasing population. In addition to lobotomies and electroshock therapy, doctors at Pilgrim violently induced patients into comas using large doses of insulin and metrazol.

A small part of the campus is still in use today, with its abandoned acreage now fodder for photographs and urban explorers.

Topeka State Hospital

In 1913, the Kansas legislature deemed that habitual criminals, idiots, epileptics, imbeciles and the insane could be subject to castration. From then until 1961, when the inhumane procedure was banned, about 3,000 Kansans were medically rendered infertile, with majority of those castrations taking place at the Topeka State Hospital.

Forced castrations weren’t common at first, but the public eventually became somewhat supportive of the idea.

“After the infamous Buck v. Bell case in 1927, public approval of sterilization increased greatly, causing an enormous rise in the rate of sterilizations in Kansas,” according to Lutz Kaelber, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont.

“Another important factor that contributed to the popular acceptance of sterilization legislation was the existence of the “Fitter Families” contest that started at the Kansas State Fair, but quickly spread to other states… these competitions encouraged families to “breed” superior children that would fit the rigid judging standards.”

Even before the facility became a hotbed of eugenics, it had a notorious reputation. In the early 1900s there were reports of patients being strapped down for so long their skin had grown over their bounds. Thankfully, the Topeka State Hospital was shut down in 1997.

Bethlem Royal

Even on a list of American insane asylums, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Bethlem Royal Hospital in London. Bethlem, the world’s oldest institution specializing in the mentally ill, started admitting unbalanced patients in 1357. Throughout most of its history the conditions in the asylum were atrocious. For example, in the 18th century the public could pay a penny for the privilege of watching the “freaks” — they were even permitted to poke the caged patients with a long stick.

According to Daily Mail:

One of the distressing treatments invented by Erasmus Darwin – grandfather to Charles – was called rotational therapy and involved putting a patient in a chair suspended in the air who was then spun round for hours.

Meanwhile, in the 18th and 19th centuries patients were dunked in cold baths, starved and beaten.

During this brutal period a Quaker philanthropist Edward Wakefield visited Bethlem in 1814 and described seeing naked and starved men chained to walls.

A notorious aspect of Bethlem was its availability to public as wealthy patrons would often pay a shilling to gawp at the unfortunately souls locked in the asylum.

As an indication of what a house of horrors Bethlem Royal Hospital was, the word bedlam is derived from its name.