The insane asylum as we know it is a place of fear, horror, and unspeakable treatments. While we now understand a lot about mental illnesses, and how to treat them, the past has not always been so kind. Many people were subjected to barbaric treatments which did little more than traumatize them further – and some were not even mentally unwell in the first place. From homosexuals to epileptics, and from protesting women to those suffering from depression, placement in an asylum could be based on anything so long as a relative or an official agreed to put you in there.
As we learned more about mental health, we soon began to realize that the practices in these asylums were not just unhelpful, but also inhumane. As a result, many of them began to shut down. With medication, psychiatric cures, and the recognition that a differing opinion doesn’t constitute a mental illness, the demand for these institutions waned. Many of them ended up getting shut down, leaving terrifying shells of buildings that are enjoyed today by urban explorers.
We know there was a lot of creepy stuff happening back then, and the people of the time weren’t shy about collecting photographic evidence. Why not, when what they were doing was seen as the correct course of action? These chilling photographs tell a different story today, and often bring a shiver down the spine. They show mental asylums as they were before the introduction of modern medicine, and often showcase a horrific suffering.
18. Electroshock Therapy Machine
This image shows a patient who is about to receive electroshock therapy. It was long thought that administering electric shocks, particularly to the brain, could help to change the way that the brain worked. Doctors believed that you could literally shock a person back to normal. This can work in a small few cases today, for addressing imbalances that can only be fixed with electric shocks, but it had no effect in the vast majority of applications. The shocks could be painful and could leave lingering psychological and physical effects. While this patient does not have the more typical process of applying the shocks directly to his head, he is about to be shocked in a different way. His grim, blank expression says it all. Perhaps most chilling in this image is the nurse, who casually holds onto the framework while she adjusts the machine and prepares to administer the treatment.
17. Hydrotherapy Bath Room
Hydrotherapy is actually coming back into vogue, as the idea of bathing in water with particular qualities is thought to have a restorative effect in some cases. The good that it may have done would no doubt be totally wiped out by the fact that in this asylum, patients appear to have been held down and bathed against their will. Here, a patient lies submerged in a bath, with straps running all around it to hold him in place. There could be nothing more stressful than to be unable to move while the bath filled with water around you. The human body’s instinct in that situation would be to get out as soon as possible, for fear of drowning – even if the straps would have prevented that from happening, it’s an instinctive urge. The hospital worker here stands to watch, ensuring that the patient does not escape the bath before his time is up.
16. St. Elizabeth’s Mummies
The patients here look as though they have been mummified, with their whole bodies wrapped up and a cloth placed over their eyes. One of the patients appears to have moved, turning his head toward the camera, but otherwise there is nothing to indicate that they are even still alive. St. Elizabeth’s Hospital is in Columbia, and when it was opened as the US Government Hospital for the Insane in 1855, it was the first large-scale psychiatric hospital run on a federal level. It was temporarily used as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the Civil War before being converted back into a psychiatric unit. At its peak, it held more than 8000 patients, with more than 4000 members of staff to attend them. When it was shut down, there were rumours of hauntings, with strange figures seen walking the hallways as well as hot and cold spots that could not be shifted.
15. Hydrotherapy Shower Unit
These doctors are standing by to show off their hydrotherapy room, which is a little different from our last example. Here we can see a shower unit which is set up ready for a patient to stand within it. Once there, they will have water blasted down on them from above, as well as from several spouts to either side. This will be a complete immersion in running water, as if they were standing under a waterfall. They seem particularly pleased to show off this room, standing with their white aprons and looking very smart together. The floor is fitted out with drains so that the water can run away easily without flooding the room. There appears to be some other equipment nearby as well, including a table and a cabinet, but it’s not possible to make out all of the details thanks to the quality of the photograph.
14. Patients By Numbers
This photograph shows a group of mental patients all together. They wear numbers on their clothes, which suggests that they were known by these numbers rather than by their names. One of the most chilling aspects of mental asylums before modern medicine was the dehumanization of the patients, who were seen as little more than animals to be treated however the doctors saw fit. The photograph is labelled as having come from an asylum in Athens, Ohio, which was known as The Ridge or The Ridges. In fact, it was not known by this name until 1988; previously, it was called the Athens Lunatic Asylum, a name which we would now see as very un-PC. It was open for around 120 years and went through many changes throughout that time, both of an architectural nature and in terms of the treatments that were taking place inside. A large amount of records were kept about the patients, so we know a lot about their backgrounds and the treatments that they endured. There was room for 572 patients on site, with men and women separated into different wings so that they would not mix.
13. Burnt Scalp Treatment
This girl has obviously suffered a lot from the treatments that were administered to her. Despite the fact that she is still dressed in all the finery of the Victorian age, including a pair of earrings, she has a dazed expression on her face. The skin of her scalp appears to be totally burned, and she has a very odd appearance as a result – not something that would have worked in her favour. All we know about her today is that she was a patient at the Salpétrière hospital in Paris, France, and that this picture was taken around the year 1900. Her doctor is listed as a Dr Lemoine. Any doctor today would look at this and be absolutely horrified, as it is clear that her health is not being looked after properly. If the electroshock therapy had caused that much damage to her without doing any good to her mental health, then there was not likely any good reason to continue doing it.
12. The Restraining Chair
The West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum was established in Wakefield, UK, in 1818. It was set up as a place for poor people who couldn’t afford treatment, and was described as being like a prison. While the prisoners were treated for their disorders, many of the treatments were inhumane and ineffective. This image was taken by a man named H. Clarke in 1869 as part of a set of photographs showing the conditions inside the asylum. This man has been placed inside a restraining chair, which keeps his arms fastened to his sides and his head and neck in a straight position. It’s easy to see the discomfort with which he bears this restraint. He wears a tag on the chest of his asylum ‘uniform’, which was used to identify the kind of mental illness that he had been diagnosed with. At the time, everything was described as a ‘mania’ of some kind. There were lots of types of mania – for example monomania, which was obsession.
11. Self-Decorated Mania
This image shows a patient in an asylum who has been photographed for documentary purposes. He is wrapped in rags of different kinds of clothing, all of which make up a kind of shell around his body. Even his feet are encased in these rags, forming a kind of crude shoe. They are held together by scraps of rope and other pieces of fabric tying them in place. The caption for the image shows that he is a self-decorated manic patient. What this means is that he has taken the time to tie these rags around himself. The kind of mania he exhibited has not been described, so we do not know exactly what was wrong with him. The rags give him an odd shape, as if his upper body is too tall, because of the way that they drape against him. His crossed arms show a defensive attitude, as if the rags might be taken away from him.
10. Patient Number 9743
This patient was again identified only by his illness, not by his name. It’s shocking to see the badges across his chest, which were the only means of knowing who he might have been. He was assigned a patient number of 9743, which tells us nothing about his real identity. He also bears the same tag showing his illness, though it is not legible in this photograph, and a second tag which may indicate his treatment or another aspect of his illness. He appears to be struggling greatly with his doctors, who are attempting to hold him still so that his portrait can be taken. It’s also possible that they are in the process of putting him into another restraining device – a structure can be seen behind his head, and there is rope or cord already tied around his waist by which one of the doctors hefts him. This image was also from Clarke’s visit to the West Riding asylum in 1869.
9. Eliza Camplin’s Transformation
The first photograph that you see above on the left was taken of Eliza Camplin. She was admitted to an asylum in 1857 after being diagnosed with acute mania, whatever that may mean. Bethlem Royal Hospital was an asylum in London which was often referred to colloquially as Bedlam, and became infamous during its time. A Victorian photographer called Henry Hering ventured into Bedlam and took this portrait of Camplin, noting down her diagnosis at the same time. She looks reasonably normal, and appears to be enjoying a book. The photograph on the right is the one that makes this really chilling – because it is also Eliza Camplin. This was taken after she had undergone some of the ‘treatments’ that Bedlam had to offer. Some of the recorded treatments they offered included rotational therapy, or hanging someone from the ceiling and spinning them around until they vomited; starving and beating patients; leaving them in ice cold water for hours; and putting them on show for a charge to members of the public.
8. Unable To See
This patient is so far gone that he cannot even open his eyes or lift his own head up. The photograph records nothing about what he might have been suffering from, though he does wear identification tags which give him a patient number. His head is propped up from behind by a doctor or attendant, his hands just visible in the background of the image. The patient’s eyes are barely open, and his mouth also hangs open. It’s easy to see that he looks very out of it – it’s likely that he is either recovering from a recent treatment, or has been permanently left in this state by the procedures that they put him through. The tragic thing about this patient is that we do not know his name, why he was put into the asylum, or what they did to him. Even a condition like senile dementia or the menopause was enough to be thrown into an asylum in those days, so he may not have been suffering from a mental illness when he was admitted.
7. General Paralysis Of The Insane
Beneath the portrait of this woman are the mysterious words, ‘general paralysis of the insane’. It’s a term that we have no reason to be familiar with today, as it is quite an old-fashioned one. We would now call it general paresis. Looking at her, you might wonder if the horrific truth was that she had been committed simply because her eyes looked in different directions. In fact, this is not the case: general paresis is a condition that arises as a result of syphilis, when it is not treated in time to be prevented. It takes around 10 to 30 years after infection for the symptoms to arise, and they can include hallucinations, delusions, and other unfortunate side effects that would definitely have landed this woman in the asylum. Tragically, it was not until the 1880s that the connection to syphilis was discovered. This woman and her doctors would never even have known what it was that made her sick.
6. Straightjacket Screams
This haunting image may just keep you up at night if you stare at it for long enough. This patient has been put into a straightjacket of a kind, clearly an early model which is not the classic strapped type we have all seen in movies. The scream that issues from their mouth as they stand as far into the corner as possible is spine-chilling to imagine, and the torture and anguish on their face is awful. It would be a nightmare for any of us to be in that position, but for someone who already had genuine mental problems – which may have included things like depression or anxiety – it would be even more of a horrible experience. With no way out except to “get better”, many patients had no hope of getting back to a normal life ever again. This is one room in which you would never wish to find yourself.
5. Just Waiting Around
These patients are all seated in a common area, seemingly waiting around for something to happen. They are restrained to various degrees, and don’t appear to have much room to move around anyway. This photograph was taken at the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Long Island, New York. It was a huge centre which could house as many as 14,000 patients at the same time. It was described as a self-sufficient asylum, which means that patients were forced to labour in order to produce crops and other items of food for everyone to eat. The doctors used very aggressive methods to treat their patients. These included lobotomies and electroshock therapy as the norm. As these patients do not have any visible signs of scarring, they may have been lucky so far – though it was not likely to remain that way for long. Hair was often shaved not just for the placement of electroshock equipment, but to reduce the population of lice.
4. Lateral Cerebral Diathermia
The patient in this image is undergoing a type of treatment known as lateral cerebral diathermia. This was an early precursor to electroshock therapy, which involved a jolt of electricity being sent into the brain. The equipment was not very advanced, and the treatment proved to be unpredictable. It was also harmful for patients, causing long-term damage that they would not recover from. The patient in this image looks apprehensive, as if he already knows what is about to happen. Nothing about his expression or his fixed gaze suggests that he is happy to be receiving this treatment, or even that he has consented to it. Once you were within an asylum, the doctors often had carte blanche to deliver whatever treatment they saw fit, without needing to consult the patient’s next of kin. Because mental health faced a huge stigma, many patients would also be neglected by their family, left without visits for long stretches of time.
3. The Slapping Machine
The slapping machine was a device that was set up to slap a patient repeatedly and automatically. Straps or belts are fastened around a rotating pole, which would then hit the patient while they were standing in place. Note that the physical structure of the machine would make it possible to restrain a patient in place if they refused to stand. It was often used as a punishment for bad behaviour, which may have included acting out with the mental illness that the patient had been diagnosed with. Remember that this may have included a variety of things we don’t see as mental illnesses today – for example, a gay patient could be punished for refusing to express homophobic thoughts or to find women attractive. The machine could cause lasting physical damage, and even brain damage if the belts hit the head. It’s cruel to imagine what kind of punishment would be given if the patient stepped out of place to avoid the slaps.
2. The Women’s Ward
Here we can see inmates lining the walls of a room, taking a seat wherever they can find one. Their body language says a lot about their condition: they hug their knees to their chests, making themselves as small a target as possible and trying to feel safe. Their hair is unkempt and thin, and their clothes are in a poor condition. Nothing here suggests that they are being treated in such a way that they will be able to recover. There is a famous female inmate named Rhoda Derry, who helped to change the way that asylums treated patients. She was kept in awful conditions from the age of 25, living with mice and rats in a straw box, until she ended up gouging out her own eyes and punching her own face until she lost her front teeth. She was later rehabilitated in another hospital where she was treated better, but it was too late to save her from the trauma that she had experienced.
1. Staring Helplessly
This young man stares out of the frame with an empty expression, devoid of hope. It almost seems as though he has given up completely on being rescued or helped, and cannot even rouse himself to expect salvation from behind the camera. Clarke’s visit to the asylum was to document, not to make any changes, so this young man very likely died in the asylum. He is marked on the photograph’s card as suffering from consecutive dementia. Very unlike the meaning of dementia that we understand today, this was described in 1916 as “a state of permanent and incurable weak-mindedness following an acute psychosis.” The most chilling part of that definition? The fact that it could very easily describe simply the aftermath of whatever ‘treatment’ was prescribed for his psychosis. Since it is so imprecise, we can’t know what he was suffering from in the first place, or what they did to try to cure him.