By Melanie Moyer.
Since the dawn of modern medicine, mental asylums or madhouses, have earned a dark and troubling reputation. Often started with good intentions these institutions soon descended into places of abhorrent conditions, medical misconduct, human experimentation, and even torture of society’s most vulnerable citizens. But among the many psychiatric Institutions around the world, the following asylums rank above them all for their inhumane treatment and lasting legacies of fear.
Enter if you will, history’s most notorious asylums where medicine and healing went hand in hand with brutality and abandonment.
1. Topeka State Hospital
Location: Kansas, America.
The Topeka State Hospital, formerly known as the Topeka State Asylum, opened its doors in 1872 for treatment of the mentally ill. By the early 20th century, rumors of rape and mistreatment in the hospital had already begun. Over the course of decades, the hospital became the subject of investigation for unethically chaining patients and neglect. In 1951 the hospital received damaging criticism when it was revealed that John Crabb, a 59-year-old patient, was mentally sane and wrongfully incarcerated in the institution. After this period, the hospital rapidly underwent reforms to improve treatment and ensure correct diagnosis.
In 1987, a patient named Kenneth Waddell was transferred to the high-risk ward of the facility before the ward was closed and he was moved into the general population. On the night of February 23, 1992, he attacked and murdered music and activity therapist Stephanie Uhlrig, after he and a group of other patients were taken off-site to see a movie. While law enforcement did not find the hospital responsible, the incident was a final and damning blow to the reputation of the institution. In 1997, the hospital closed its doors and, as of June 2010, many of the old buildings have been demolished.
2. Metropolitan State Hospital
Location: Massachusetts, America.
When it opened in 1927, this institution was the largest and most advanced hospital of its kind in Massachusetts. The location of the hospital was chosen based on the need for mental health treatments in the Greater Boston Area. In fact, it even boasted a building entirely devoted to providing care for mentally ill minors. However, not everything about the progressive hospital was as it appeared and it soon earned a grim nickname: the Hospital of Seven Teeth.
In 1978 a patient named Anne Marie Davee was out for a walk on the grounds from which she never returned. It was not until 1980 that the truth of what happened to her was finally uncovered. Melvin Wilson, a fellow patient, revealed three separate graves to law enforcement where he buried parts of Davee’s body. To top it off, he kept seven of her teeth as souvenirs of his deed. The hospital remained open for a short time before closing in 1992 due to budget cuts. Today, parts of the campus have been converted into apartment housing while others remain open to the public as a historic site with walking trails.
3. Trenton State Hospital
Location: New Jersey, America.
Trenton State Hospital was founded in 1848 by Dorothea Lynde Dix, a mental health advocate of the time. Dr. Henry Cotton assumed directorship of the facility in 1907 with an approach that was opposed to patient restraints and worked to implement occupational therapy programs. However, his seemingly progressive tactics weren’t as clean and kind as the world might believe.
Cotton believed that physical infections were the root of mental instability and, as such, would often utilize physical means to try and “cut out” the infections. He and his staff routinely removed organs and teeth, in an attempt to cut off mental illness at its perceived root. While he claimed a 90% success rate in healing his patients, death tolls were high. His medical practices continued after he departed the facility and died in 1933. However, Cotton’s legacy and brutal practices lasted until 1960. Today, the immense building lies abandoned, falling into ruin.
4. Willowbrook State School
Location: Staten Island, America.
This Staten Island institution for mentally ill children opened its doors in 1947. From the very beginning, the Willowbrook suffered from outbreaks of hepatitis A. Medical professionals used the institution as a place to study the effects of the disease and the treatment of drugs. By the 1970s public outrage at using sick children as medical guinea pigs forced such experiments to cease. Despite the accusations of malpractice, the research did lead to minor breakthroughs in the study of the disease.
By this time, the facility had developed a reputation as a “warehouse” for the mentally disabled due to its overcrowding and deplorable conditions. Several reporters wrote pieces on the poor conditions of the facility as well as the neglect and abuse suffered by the patients. In 1972, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the State of New York on behalf of the patients. This case was partially responsible for the federal law protecting institutionalized individuals in 1980. The school was closed in 1987 with parts of it repurposed for Staten Island College.
5. Danvers State Hospital
Location: Massachusetts, America.
Opening its doors in 1878 to the mentally ill, Danvers State Hospital is probably best known today for being the set for the psychological horror film Session 9 in which a man on an asbestos cleanup crew finds himself slowly going insane while working in an abandoned mental facility. It is also believed this facility was the inspiration for Lovecraft’s Arkham sanatorium and, by extension, the Arkham Asylum in the DC universe. Its location was, in itself, precarious, as it was built upon the spot where Salem Witch Trials judge John Hathorne once lived, adding to its cursed reputation.
When Danvers opened, the facility was designed for 450 patients and the medical staff implemented policies against physical restraints and detailed a plan to cure patients rather than simply house them away from society. These noble intentions were abandoned by the beginning of the 20th century when the overcrowded hospital housed almost 2,000 patients. The overwhelmed staff struggled to maintain control resulting in the implementation of straitjackets, shock therapy, and lobotomies. The hospital closed its doors in 1992 and it remained an abandoned urban ruin for over ten years until it was purchased in 2005 by a developer planning to repurpose it as apartments. Despite the local historical society’s objections, the majority of the buildings were demolished to construct apartments and the original buildings were gutted, leaving only the facade intact.
6. Beechworth Lunatic Asylum
Location: Beechworth, Australia.
Once known as the Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum, this institution is located in Victoria, Australia and was among the top three mental institutions in the area of as of its opening in 1867. Uniquely surrounded by 106 hectares of farmland, this was one of the few institutions that also utilized “ha ha walls” which were fairly low walls that featured a trench on one side, bringing the height of the wall high enough that a patient could not escape. It served as a place of rehabilitation, with many patients put to work as farmers and landscapers for the surrounding area, as well as providing materials for pursuing work as shoemakers, blacksmiths, painters, and carpenters. Community members regularly pitched in for recreational activities and the comforts of patients throughout the decades.
During its 127 year run, it is believed that as many as 9,000 patients died in the facility. By the 1950s a change in methods resulted in physical treatment being implemented. These “treatments” involved straitjackets, restraints, and electroshock therapy to encourage calmness in patients who did not respond to recreational forms of therapy. Bone and ligament injuries became the norm from the excessive force of shock therapy that caused the patient’s body to contort in response to the electric stimuli. The darkness of this institution, however, did not truly appear until after it closed. Beechworth is said to be the most haunted places Australia.
7. Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Location: West Virginia, America.
Possibly one of the most infamous mental health institutions in the United States thanks to its robust history of hauntings. This institution was open from 1864 to 1994 in West Virginia. It was designed to treat a maximum of 250 patients but, at its peak, held over 2,000 in the 1950s. The result was neglect, abuse, and lack of treatment for the patients within the hospital. This was largely due to misdiagnosis, alcoholics, people with epilepsy, and those with learning disabilities were sent to the hospital alongside those with more severe mental handicaps.
In the 1980s, the population had lowered significantly as the study of mental illness evolved. However, it was uncovered that patients who were uncontrollable were routinely being locked in cages. Upon this grim discovery, the state governor elected to build a new and modern facility. It was intended that the Trans-Allegheny become a prison, but the facility closed in 1994. The building remains largely abandoned and subject to decay and vandalism.
Location: Vienna, Austria.
Austria is renowned its art, food, and culture, but one dark secret it boasts is that of a defunct mental institution in Vienna. One of the first asylums ever built, from outside the Narrenturm, Austrian German for “Fool’s Tower”, looks more like a medieval prison than a place of treatment. Dating back to 1784, the construction was overseen by Emperor Joseph II, who purposely designed it like a fortress. Built over the site of a former Capuchin monastery, where, in the basement, the monks hid away their mentally unbalanced brethren.
The circular stone building held 139 cells, each was equipped with chains for restraining inmates. The building, however, was soon obsolete as medical science quickly advanced to the idea of treating the mentally ill rather than confining them in prison-like conditions. Thereafter, the tower served as a housing building for medical staff and eventually a museum. Today the museum boasts a large collection of medical anomalies, such as syphilitic skulls that resemble Swiss cheese, jars of disfigured fetuses, and graphic wax displays of untreatable diseases.
9. Waverly Hills Sanatorium
Location: Kentucky, America.
The complex has its beginnings as a humble one-room schoolhouse named the Waverly School, so named after novels by Walter Scott. The surrounding area was later changed to Waverly Hill and the name remained when the land was purchased to build a much larger sanatorium in the late 19th century. The Board of Tuberculosis Hospital took ownership of the land after an outbreak swept the area in the early 1900s. Soon, rumors were rife of patient mistreatment and human experimentation. Reports of bloody surgeries that involved opening chest cavities to insert balloons into lungs, and the removal of ribs to allow the damaged lungs to expand were rife. It’s believed as many as 64,000 people who were admitted to Waverly Hills died there over the years.
It closed under the name Waverly Hills in 1964 and reopened the following year under the name Woodhaven Geriatric Center as a nursing home and place for the elderly, mentally handicapped citizens. It was closed again in the 1980s due to neglect. In 1983 the buildings were purchased with the intent of converting it into a minimum-security prison but members of the community protested and the project was abandoned. The property was purchased in 2001 by the Mattingly family who turned it into a haunted attraction and has since been a venue for music festivals and featured by paranormal investigators on Ghost Adventures, Most Haunted, and Ghost Hunters.
Location: London, England.
Easily the most famous mental asylum in the world, the name of this building has become a euphemism for chaos and confusion in the modern lexicon. Originally located in Bishopsgate just outside the walls of the City of London, the Bethlehem Royal Hospital, more commonly known as Bedlam, is one of the world’s oldest hospitals to specialize in mental illnesses. Founded in the 13th century under the reign of Henry III. Historians are unsure of the exact date when it officially became an asylum, but records show that it was accepting mentally ill patients in large populations by the 15th century.
With a name that has literally become synonymous with madness in modern slang, the conditions of Bedlam are famously among the worst in history. The scandalous reputation of the facility began in 1403 when the hospital treasurer, Peter Taverner, was found guilty of embezzling hospital funds. This was around the same time the hospital began formally accepting mentally ill patients through its doors. The hospital had a reputation as a shabby, rundown place for some time before it was relocated to Moorfields in the 17th century. There, it installed two statues outside, where “Melancholy” and “Raving Madness” greeted incoming patients at the front gates.
The horrific “treatments” for patients include being hung from the ceiling and spun at the direction of a doctor until the patient vomited or was beset with severe vertigo. Patients were routinely beaten and starved, routinely dunked in ice baths and held in straitjackets. Bloodletting, cupping, and inducing blisters was also routine. The facility opened its doors to the public in the hopes of encouraging patronage from visitors but instead received wealthy Londoners taking in the sights like an attraction. In the 20th century, Bethlehem was moved to its current location at Monks Orchard in West Wickham. Modern archaeological projects at the Bishopsgate site uncovered mass graves of patients who died under the care of the hospital. The facility remains open to this day where it has taken on modern, safe practices for treating patients, but its dark and enduring legacy lingers on.
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