It doesn’t matter what you call them: psychiatric or mental hospitals, mental asylums, lunatic asylums, or loony-bins. For the most part, the institutions of yesteryear and their inhumane methods signify the very worst of how we treated those suffering from mental disorders.
It’s no coincidence that many horror films revolve around these torture chambers because that’s what they, in essence, were. Part of what made these asylums so frightful were the types of people they admitted. But most of our fears lie in what we know of the devices utilized by hospital staff to employ their “treatments,” such as lobotomies, the procedure that involved cutting away the anterior part of the brain’s frontal lobes, as well as electroconvulsive therapy, the psychiatric treatment in which seizures were electrically induced.
We will explore these terrifying aspects of asylums by including disturbing pictures taken when these “treatment centers” were still in operation (so you can see the patients themselves wallowing in filth and mental anguish) as well as modern-day photos of psychiatric hospitals that have been abandoned (and left to rot), adding a “haunted” appeal to further embellish the freaky factor.
15. Napsbury Hospital’s Creepy Graffiti Remains Mysterious
It’s quite possible that some wise-a*s wrote this rather disturbing, albeit convincing text on the wall of this particular insane asylum after it closed. So, no, this probably isn’t the product of a patient who, in a state of excitement, was able to express his inner anguish by writing his deepest desire to leave the confines of the hell hole in which he was trapped.
Ever since the building’s creation in 1905, it had steadily grown in size due to a continual influx of patients. It was originally designed to accommodate 1,205 poor souls with a separate building for “acute” patients.
Even though the hospital’s “focus” changed to treat soldiers during World War I, there were still enough mentally incapacitated people for the hospital to reserve 350 of the available 1,520 beds for these particular patients. Troops who were healthy and physically capable were encouraged to entertain the mentally insane by doing theatrical and musical performances.Though the hospital officially closed in 1998, one building was still used to treat psychiatric patients.
14. At Rancho Los Amigos, Something Disturbing Was Discovered In The Freezer
The name Ranchos Los Amigos (which means Range of the Friends) kind of gives this particular asylum a rather lighthearted feel, doesn’t it? Designations that more appropriately portray the institution are Downey Insane Asylum and Hollydale Mental Hospital. The more interesting stories about Ranchos Los Amigos are ones that probably aren’t true, like the one about the doctor who went crazy and caused a massacre that included both patients and staff, or the one about a patient who killed a guard and freed all the patients.
The real story about the late-1800s asylum is as follows. It was originally called the Poor Farm because its “tenants” were homeless drunks who did farm work to pay for room and board. But soon that role changed when a one-story “insane ward” was erected to house 25 “harmless” patients. The sudden arrival of insane people is most likely why the Poor Farm renamed itself to “Sunny Acres” in 1931, as the name was more appealing.
After World War II, the ward became a “long-term care facility” in the 1950s, filled with iron lungs (which the picture shows). What’s interesting, however, is that the abandoned site was later used for military tactical training and the military officers made a rather “intriguing” discovery in 2006: a freezer with a package full of mummified body parts.
13. Fulton State Hospital Used Terrifying Methods To Treat Patients
Sure, while this may be a picture taken in 1910 of patients in Fulton State Hospital’s laundry room doing non-crazy things (unless you think laundry is crazy), it’s still eerie seeing an actual photo of people inside an insane asylum. It was around this time when Fulton State Hospital began engaging patients in occupational and recreational therapy, such as normal everyday tasks such as laundry, in lieu of restraining techniques.
This isn’t to say, however, that employees didn’t perform more “acute” forms of therapy on the more serious patients. In the 1900s, these severely ill people received electrotherapy, insulin and metrozol shock treatment, as well as prefrontal lobotomies.
Before these “advances” in modern medicine, Fulton employees ran cool water over the wrists and ankles of patients to reduce their metabolic rate, strapped them in “sensory deprivation” chairs and covered their head with a hood to deprive them of their senses, spun them around rapidly in twirling chairs to separate the “humors” of the brain and placed them in steel boxes called needle cabinets, which released high-pressure water onto their skin. Straitjackets and shackles were also commonly used to restrain certain patients.
12. Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center Espoused Many Horrific “Treatments”
Before drugs like thorazine led to the eventual demise of Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center in 1994 (which consequently led to its abandonment), the center was built “for the care and treatment of the insane.” The most “insane” people that received the aforementioned “care and treatment” was a whopping 5,000. At least there were 5,000 not-insane staff members to look after them.
Freakishly enough, most of the 80 buildings across the center’s sprawling 900 acres featured the old infrastructure of a defunct jail, Wingdale Prison.
Within the prison-like center, patients were treated with insulin shock therapy for schizophrenia and compulsive disorders in the 1930s, electro-shock therapy in 1941, and then frontal lobotomies, for which the center became New York’s preeminent institution after neuropsychiatrist Walter Freeman developed the technique in an effort to “treat” a plethora of psychological conditions.
11. Creedmoor Psychiatric Center Was One Of The Most Violent Asylums Ever
While these pictures were all taken after Creedmoor Psychiatric Center closed its doors, we couldn’t include photos (if any still exist) from the 1970s. Why? Because they would be much too graphic. Within 20 months, the campus of Creedmoor experienced three s*xual assaults, 22 regular assaults, 52 fires, 130 burglaries, six suic*des, a shooting and a riot. Following these events, building 25 (which is featured in both pictures above) was abandoned.
However, many parts of the psychiatric center still functioned, even in the wake of these aforementioned atrocities. In fact, more horrific events later occurred. In 1984, a patient, while restrained in a straitjacket, was hit in the throat by a staff member and died.
With details such as these, you might be surprised that the center is still in operation today. However, it’s no longer wracked with scandals, mostly because it only houses a few hundred patients. However, building 25 remains untouched… and completely freaky, as a result.
10. Forest Haven Asylum Mistreated Children
We didn’t just include a random picture of a crib to freak you out. It was not only used, but used the way in which it was originally intended (for the most part). The 250-acre Forest Haven Asylum in Maryland opened its doors in 1925 to treat children who were mentally ill, handicapped or unable to function in society. The children, while suffered from unfortunate maladies, at least “enjoyed” recreational activities and learned crucial job skills by working on a communal farm colony. Well, they did at first. That all changed when the asylum became afflicted with cutbacks in the 1960s.
These afflictions negatively impacted the patients in more ways than one. Sure, they discontinued the recreational programs, reduced the staff and replaced them with unqualified employees (undoubtedly because people without qualifications were cheaper to hire). Frustrated by these changes, the doctors and nurses began to take out their anger on the children. And not just verbally. Most members resorted to physical violence, the details of which we cannot relate here. But many times, the children were just ignored.
9. Letchworth Village Used Its Young Patients In Barbaric Medical Experiments
“The segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded” was what we could essentially call the “mission statement” of Letchworth Village. While true, the majority of epileptic and feeble-minded patients who were segregated were children. What’s worse: conditions were far from “good” and these people were treated abysmally. For starters, they were used as guinea pigs in clinical trials.
While horrible, the asylum was at least upfront about their intentions and made sure everyone knew this. Plus, some good came out of it because it was here where the polio vaccine was successfully tested on an 8-year-old boy in 1950. The last remaining evidence of the poor souls who “lived” here can be found in a small cemetery about one-mile away that’s filled with 900 shallow graves. Many of the graves are small enough for children.
As you can see, the buildings at the now-defunct asylum are quite dilapidated (not to mention, creepy as all heck). But what’s especially strange is that most of the grounds have been “recycled” into a golf course and public park.
8. Utica State Hospital Used A Crib For Adults To Calm Down Violent Patients
Utica State Hospital in New York was the state’s first venture into “treating” mental maladies within an institutional setting. Patients were treated for having “bumps on the head,” being overwhelmed with the grief over the loss of a loved one, experiencing “religious excitement” and suffering from various mental maladies, such as schizophrenia, or committed crimes due to mental health challenges.
Utica is also known for being one of the first asylums to utilize the Utica Crib (and, no, it wasn’t invented at Utica). The crib is thusly named because Utica brought its usage to the forefront. In those days, the crib was described as a “covered bed” (even though a more accurate direction would be “wooden cage”) that could fit (rather cozily) an average-sized adult, measuring 18″ deep x 6′ long x 3′ wide. The crib was supposed to calm down those who were, as Utica staff termed, “overly excited” to the point of violence. The third superintendent at Utica, however, thought the crib was inhumane and did his best to get rid of them. By 1887, the cribs had been disposed of entirely.
7. Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital Had Abysmal Health Conditions
Before Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital became a gruesome prison for the mentally insane (and America’s oldest public hospital), it held equally if not more gruesome roles, such as “pest house,” execution ground and New York’s first city morgue. Ever since Bellevue erected a pavilion for the insane within the confines of the hospital grounds, the name “Bellevue” has become synonymous with “psychiatric hospital.”
In the 1800s, Bellevue’s destitute imposition earned these words from Harper’s: “The wards are filled with wasted souls drifting through the agonies of disease toward unpitied and unremembered deaths.” So many people were stuffed within the pavilion (including alcoholics, victims of epidemics and the homeless) that beds were usually shared by three people. And the conditions were so ghastly that 48% of amputations ended in death due to the “poison in the walls.”
Then in 1931, another building was constructed on the hospital grounds: the Bellevue psychiatric hospital, wherein insulin shock therapy was practiced for the first time. But at least patients got to see the Barnum and Bailey once a year, as evident in the 1919 picture above.
6. Bethlem Royal Hospital Is The Most Famous Mental Asylum For Its Cruelty And Barbarity
You know that the goings-on at a particular insane asylum must’ve been especially awful if a word meaning “uproar and confusion” was derived from its designation. Such was the case with Bedlam, officially known as Bethlem Royal Hospital. More insanity: Bedlam’s infamous history has inspired various books, films and TV series, such as the 1946 film Bedlam. What undoubtedly helped Bedlam’s rise to infamy is the fact that it is Europe’s oldest mental institution, founded in 1247.
It was rough being insane in London back in the day. The “mentally fit” Londoners not only mocked them, but actually made full-day events out of it by going on little mini-vacations to Bedlam. According to César de Saussure’s 1725 account, “On holidays numerous persons visit this hospital and amuse themselves watching these unfortunate wretches, who often give them cause for laughter.”
Doctors and nurses didn’t help the patients at Bedlam either. One inmate had been confined and chained to a particular space to years, a place that eventually became his deathbed when his intestines eventually burst. Many only had beds of straw.
5. Ospedale Psichiatrico Di Volterra Was More Like A Horrifying Prison
It was at Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra where 6,000 people were subjected to electroshock therapy, induced into comas with insulin, and became test subjects for pills and poisons from 1888 to 1978. Out of those 6,000 patients, every 200 had access to 20 sinks and two toilets.
Probably the most obscene “treatment” was when patients were put in tanks full of ice. Patients couldn’t even “escape” or find respite in their room. They were small and had prison-like grates. Patients also had to address the nurses as “guards” (like a prison) or “superiors.”
One particular patient, Fernando Oreste Nannetti (as pictured in the top photo), became “famous” for his graffiti, although he never referred to himself as a graffiti artist, instead calling himself “astronautic colonel of astral mining.” Without any form of writing utensil, Nannetti resorted to utilizing the buckle of his waistcoat as such, which he also used to sign his work as “NOF4, NOF, or Nanof.”
4. Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum Is Believed To Be Haunted Because Of The Horrifying Things That Happened There
The barbarisms that manifested behind the stone walls of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum were so severe that many believe it to be haunted. In fact, those who’ve visited the asylum have sworn they’ve seen ghostly apparitions, such as Lily, a young girl who “wanders the halls, looking for a playmate” and who supposedly is responsible for the “display” in the right picture.
But Lily isn’t the only one that haunts these grounds because it was essentially “stuffed” to the brim with patients when it was still in operation. The building was originally designed for 250 mentally unstable people when it first opened its doors in 1864. But soon that number grew to 717 by 1880, then 1,662 in 1938, then to 1,800-plus in 1949. In the 1950s, it became dangerously overcrowded, with 2,600 mentally deranged souls!
This over-abundance of patients unsurprisingly led to many tragic happenings, including murder. But the walls were made especially dense (they are 2.5-feet thick) so that the screams of the insane would be muffled.
3. St. Elizabeths Hospital Used Bizarre “Hydrotherapy” On Patients
Originally known as the Government Hospital for the Insane when it opened in 1855, the asylum treated many people (the number is believed to be over 125,000), many of whom are well-known, including Richard Lawrence, who attempted to kill President Andrew Jackson and John Hinckley, Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan.
These patients were subjected to hydrotherapy in showers, baths (as pictured on the right) and in wet wrapped-up garments. Apparently, hot water was also used on patients who exhibited manic behavior. Other treatments included electroshock and lobotomies (as pictured on the left), which was meant to calm the patients. Staff at St. Elizabeths also performed dance therapy. We could’ve included a picture taken in the 1960s of such an event here, but that’s a little too jovial for this kind of a list.
2. Willowbrook State School Cruelly Mistreated Its Patients And “Students”
Yes, you read that correctly. Willowbrook was called a “school” even though, as one can imagine, there were rarely any classes. The reason why everyone now knows about this hellhole can be blamed on Geraldo Rivera, who wrote his famous 1972 exposé on the squalid conditions of the institution. Even before Rivera’s expository, a man named Robert Kennedy described the facility as a “snake pit,” during a time when it was populated by over 6,000 patients (it was designed to hold a maximum of 4,000). The ratio of resident-to-attendant was around 50-to-1.
Journalist Rivera described the footage from his 28-minutes news report as follows: “How can I tell you about the way it smelled? It smelled of filth, it smelled of disease, and it smelled of death.”
One inmate named Bernard Carbello says that he was beaten with sticks and belt buckles. His head was also kicked into the wall numerous times. Carbello also detailed a place known as the day room where kids usually sat naked.
Patients who wanted to stay hygienic only had five minutes to do so in the showers (all at the same time in one room) and didn’t have access to soap, toothpaste or individual towels. Patients also could only go outside during the summer because it was “too dangerously hot.”
1. Philadelphia State Hospital At Byberry Was Compared To A Concentration Camp
The atrocities that manifested within the confines of Byberry were so despicable that some have made comparisons to Nazi concentration camps.
Tales of patient neglect, abuse, and death at Byberry led to the governor of Pennsylvania launching a slew of investigations. Due to how “atrocious” and “irreversible” the conditions at the hospital were, the institution was closed in 1989.
But Byberry had been dogged by scandals long before the 1980s, which makes one wonder why it had been allowed to last for so long. One such story occurred in 1919 when two employees murdered a patient. One staff member testified that one of the accused held down the patient while the other “choked him till his eyes popped out.”
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