Crazy asylum people

Inside 9 Terrifying Insane Asylums Of The 19th Century

By Natasha Ishak | Checked By Jaclyn Anglis

Published September 30, 2020

Updated October 5, 2020

Insane asylums were once seen as symbols of progress for people with mental health issues. But by the 19th and 20th centuries, these institutions had become overcrowded torture chambers.

Stock Montage/Getty ImagesAn engraving depicts a scene at Bedlam, the first asylum in England founded in 1247.

Insane asylums have a long, unsavory history — but they weren’t originally intended as sites of horror.

The origins of mental asylums — an antiquated and loaded term that is now retired from the field of mental health medicine — came from a wave of reforms that professionals tried to enact in the 19th century.

These facilities catered to mentally ill people with treatments that were supposed to be more humane than what was previously available. But mental health stigmatization coupled with an increase in diagnoses led to severely overcrowded hospitals and increasingly cruel behavior toward patients.

These “insane asylums” subsequently turned into prisons where society’s “undesirable citizens” — the “incurables,” criminals, and those with disabilities — were put together as a way to isolate them from the public.

Patients endured horrifying “treatments” like ice baths, electric shock therapy, purging, bloodletting, straitjackets, forced drugging, and even lobotomies — all of which were considered legitimate medical practices at the time. It wasn’t until the terrifying conditions at these mental health facilities were revealed through undercover investigations and patient witnesses that they were brought to light.

In 1851, Isaac Hunt — a former patient at the Maine Insane Hospital — sued the facility, describing it as the “most iniquitous, villainous system of inhumanity, that would more than match the bloodiest, darkest days of the Inquisition or the tragedies of the Bastille.”

But not all former patients were lucky enough to get out, as Hunt did. Take a look at the most infamous insane asylums from centuries past and the horrors that once took place inside their walls.

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum: Mental Health Haven-Turned-Lobotomy Lab

Barbara Nitke/Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty ImagesThe Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was meant to be a sanctuary for those with mental health conditions.

From the outside, the facade of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum looks almost magnificent, with tall brick walls and an elegant belltower on top. But the remnants of its abusive past still linger inside.

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum first opened in 1863 in West Virginia. It was the brainchild of Thomas Kirkbride, an American mental health reformist working to improve patient treatments. Kirkbride had advocated for more holistic treatment of mental health patients, which included access to fresh air and sunlight within a healthy and sustainable environment.

Thus, a number of hospitals based on Kirkbride’s progressive treatment philosophy were opened across the country, including the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

Viv Lynch/FlickrAt its peak, the hospital housed over 2,600 patients — ten times its intended population size.

The 250-bed facility was a sanctuary when it first began operating. It featured long spacious hallways, clean private rooms, and high windows and ceilings. The grounds had a sustainable dairy, a working farm, waterworks, a gas well, and a cemetery. But its idyllic days didn’t last very long.

About 20 years after it opened, the facility began to become overwhelmed by patients. An increase in both mental health diagnoses and stigma surrounding those conditions led to a major uptick. By 1938, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was six times over capacity.

Given the severe overcrowding, patients were no longer given private rooms of their own and shared a single bedroom with five to six other patients. There were not enough beds and there was no heating system. Patients deemed unruly were locked in cages in the open halls, a cruel means to regain order by the staff while freeing up space in the bedrooms for less troublesome patients.

Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images
Patients at the hospital were locked up, neglected, and lobotomized.

The staff was vastly outnumbered and overworked, which led to chaos in the halls as patients roamed free with little supervision. The facilities were overrun with squalor, the wallpaper was torn, and the furniture was grimy and dusty. Much like the facilities, the patients were no longer cared for frequently and sometimes even went without treatment or food.

At its peak in the 1950s, the hospital housed 2,600 patients — ten times the number it was intended to serve.

In addition to the facility’s declined sanitation and patient care, a new horror reared its head: an experimental lobotomy laboratory run by Walter Freeman, the infamous surgeon who was a top proponent of the controversial practice.

His “ice pick” method involved slipping a thin pointed rod into the patient’s eye socket and using a hammer to force it to sever the connective tissue in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

Viv Lynch/FlickrThe abandoned hospital now hosts ghost tours, which have drawn ghost hunters and fans of the supernatural.

It’s unclear exactly how many victims suffered at Freeman’s hands, but it’s estimated that he carried out a total of 4,000 lobotomies in his lifetime. His lobotomies left many patients with lasting physical and cognitive damage — and some even died on the operating table.

The abuse and neglect of patients inside the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum remained largely unknown to the public until 1949, when The Charleston Gazette reported on the terrifying conditions. Shockingly, it continued its operations until 1994 when the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was finally shut down forever.

Today, the manor-like facility is a museum of sorts. Exhibits in the Kirkbride — the main building of the asylum — include art made by patients in the art therapy program, treatments of the past including straitjackets, and even a room dedicated to restraints. Visitors can also take a so-called “paranormal tour” where devout ghost hunters swear they can hear echos of terrors gone by.

18 Abandoned Psychiatric Hospitals, and Why They Were Left Behind

Ovid, New York

Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane

An abandoned asylum where patients have been forgotten but their possessions remain.

42.6792, -76.8794

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Added by Molly McBride Jacobson

Beacon, New York

Zelda Fitzgerald's Abandoned Sanatorium

The abandoned husk of a mental institution that failed to save a Jazz Age icon still sits nearly unchanged.

41.4888, -73.9679

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Added by Luke J Spencer

Gwangju-si, South Korea

Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital

The abandoned hospital whose elaborate ghost stories cover up the dirty truth - an uneventful sanitation issue and other mundane reasons for its demise.

37.3624, 127.3347

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Added by Shannon Ohaire

Wingdale, New York

Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center

An abandoned asylum once on the cutting edge of lobotomies may be reborn as a Christian college.

41.6355, -73.5700

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Added by cgrant7692

Ruthin, Wales

Pool Park Asylum

This abandoned asylum in Wales might look haunted, but it's still beautiful.

53.1004, -3.3350

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Added by Catherine

Glendale, California

Rockhaven Sanitarium

Once a place of peaceful repose, this sanitarium now faces an uncertain future.

34.2113, -118.2384

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Added by littlebrumble


Medfield, Massachusetts

Medfield State Hospital

Unlike other abandoned asylums this empty institution welcomes visitors, just don't go in the buildings.

42.2133, -71.3361

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Added by kendrawashere

Thiells, New York

Letchworth Village

Decades after testing the polio vaccine on unwitting patients, this historic mental hospital sits in ruin.

41.2124, -74.0235

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Added by fleshxharvest

Laurel, Maryland

Forest Haven Asylum

This abandoned asylum was once a state of the art facility before devolving into one of the most deadly mental institutions in American history.

39.0988, -76.7864

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Added by EricGrundhauser

Volterra, Italy

Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra

This real life asylum of horrors is now an abandoned ruin that hides the unbreakable code to one patient's insanity.

43.4000, 10.8756

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Added by CQ


Severalls Asylum

This abandoned house of horrors had a "trial-and-error" philosophy regarding mental health care.

51.9185, 0.8937

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Added by Rachel

Queens Village, New York

Creedmoor Psychiatric Center's Building 25

A long abandoned hospital building on the outskirts of NYC.

40.7415, -73.7315

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Added by Hannah Frishberg

Denbigh, Wales

Denbigh Insane Asylum

The decaying ruins of Wales' first asylum for the mentally ill.

53.1746, -3.4212

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Added by Annetta Black

Weston, West Virginia

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

A particularly creepy abandoned hospital that sparks interest for lovers of the supernatural.

39.0388, -80.4712

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Added by cinapelayo

Coquitlam, British Columbia

Riverview Hospital

Historic psychiatric asylum and most-filmed location in the Great White North.

49.2455, -122.8089

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Added by morinaga

Bronx, New York

Hart Island

The loneliest island in New York.

40.8536, -73.7704

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Added by Oliver Hong

Waltham, Massachusetts

Fernald State School

Run by a eugenics advocate, this aging institution conducted secret radiation experiments sponsored by Quaker Oats.

42.3911, -71.2106

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Added by jrginsbe

Staten Island, New York

The New York City Farm Colony

This former institution is slated to be converted into upscale retirement housing this year.

40.5959, -74.1378

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Added by Hannah Frishberg

History: Science and technology:

After the insanity law was adopted in 1845, each county of Great Britain was obliged to acquire its own asylum for the indigent mentally ill. Insanity was understood as any deviant behavior: from vegetative and helpless to violent and dangerous. In such institutions, including juvenile patients. Why they ended up in British asylums for the mentally ill, says historian Stephen Taylor in an article published in the journal History.

Most of the children were diagnosed as imbecility or idiocy, although now they would be classified as having learning difficulties. In shelter journals, their condition was described as "chronic and incurable", acquired from birth or infancy. The French psychologist Edouard Seguin wrote of such patients: "They know nothing, they can do nothing, they cannot even desire anything." Some, however, were identified as maniacs, morons, melancholics and epileptics.

The Insanity Act of 1845 did not specify an age limit for individuals held within the walls of asylums for the insane. Public service workers working with the poor were paid little, worked hard, and had little understanding of how a patient's condition was determined.


First of all, children who allegedly posed a danger to their peers ended up in the hospital. For example, on August 28, 1872, Caroline Halsey, five years old, was placed in the Three Counties Orphanage. The direction read: “If she is not restrained, she will cripple the children in the ward. She hits and bites children, and this morning she knocked one of them to the floor, as a result of which the child received a head injury.

In the case of Alfred Souter the situation is different. According to the documents, he was a danger to his mother, not to his peers. Entries on the medical certificate read: “The child is morally deficient. He admits that he tried to poison his mother because she refused to go to the hospital. Terrible bully, constantly wants to fight. Souter himself confessed to his misdeeds, and this was enough for him to be sent to an asylum for the mentally ill.

Ten-year-old William Rickard was admitted to Coulney Hatch on October 8, 1898, as a mentally ill criminal. Documents on his case state: “He struck a six-year-old boy on the head with a cleaver, as a result of which he received serious injuries. Often threatens and, when agitated, tries to hurt other people. According to the records, Rickard experienced "manic joy" at being restrained from aggressive behavior or from banging his head against a wall.

West Riding Asylum Patient

Photo: Wellcome Library, London

A newspaper article attached to the case, titled "Crazy Ten-Year-Old Criminal", describes "a strange-looking fellow with a hideous bare of teeth, perhaps the youngest defendant to face trial." The correspondent shows Ricard as a monster that poses a physical and moral danger, and emphasizes his threat to society. The phrase that this is the youngest criminal is also interesting, which presents his case as sensational and abnormal and at the same time fixes an extremely negative image of a mental patient in the public mind.

Finally, in the case of David Walford, imprisoned in the Birmingham Orphanage, the patient's danger to other children is again mentioned. According to the medical certificate, the boy "was cruel to his sister, rushed at her and beat her, then tried to build a fire from a pile of papers, put rods into the fire and ran with them after other children."

Walford's danger is confirmed by his mother, who says that the son "tried to suffocate the baby with a pillow and also burn it." According to her, the child plays with fire and tries to set other children on fire, is reckless with dangerous objects, walks by himself and is a hooligan. It was obvious to the family that Walford should be taken to an orphanage.

In all four cases, children are shown in such a way that their dangerous tendencies become apparent, despite the fact that ideas about mental illness have changed several times over this period of time.

But there are other, not so unambiguous precedents. In 1875, ten-year-old Rose Doughty was sent to the Three Counties Asylum on the grounds that she "is an idiot," and of late began to say "dangerous things. " “I have never observed her commit any wrongdoing, but I am confident in the veracity of the information received,” writes a medical officer in her file. It is not known who gave him this information - the family, the manager of the workhouse, or some other third party.

A nurse testified that Doughty "swears obscenely, is dirty in her habits, misbehaves, makes noise, is annoying and disturbing" and throws forks and knives at the patients with whom she lives in the ward.


It may seem that the above examples indicate that only children dangerous to themselves and to society were placed in orphanages. But if you take a closer look, another reason is obvious.

Some time later, David Walford was taken to another shelter in Birmingham, where he stayed for a week. During his stay there was not a single episode of aggression. The records contain only evidence that the boy is restless and excitable. “He does not speak like a child of his age should speak, and generally appears to be retarded,” the health worker adds to the picture.

West Riding Asylum for the Indigent

Photo: public domain

The boy may not have had time to display all of the traits reported by the previous asylum, but it appears that he was an ordinary child with difficulty with communication.

Caroline Halsey was sent to an orphanage because she was a danger to other children, but after a while, a record appears in the documents of her case that the girl looks much better, behaves well, she likes everything. So was she really crazy, getting better instantly in an asylum?

Halsey died in the asylum on March 8, 1874, 18 months later, from acute tuberculosis, from which she had already suffered when she entered the institution. So the placement in the shelter is unlikely to have anything to do with the character of the girl. She was presented as a danger to society in order to be placed in a hospital: her parents knew that she needed constant supervision by a doctor, which meant that she would be a burden on the family. Sending her to an orphanage meant giving her a chance to survive.

The situation is similar with Alfred Souter. He was sent to Coulney Hatch because he was a burden on his mother, but soon his file says: "Behaves quite well, jovially and cheerfully." March 189For 7 years he was redirected to the Darent school for children with learning difficulties.

A newspaper article describes William Rickard as evil in the flesh, but after six months in an orphanage, during which he behaved very well, he was released with the wording "recovered."

Rosa Doughty is the only child patient to live up to her reputation. In the first three years at the shelter, according to the documents, there were no changes in her behavior. Only after 11 years of being in an institution, her character became softer, she began to follow the daily routine. Doughty stayed at the orphanage until 1914 years after which there are no more records of her.

It can be assumed that adults often invented an image for a child that did not correspond to reality in order to achieve the only goal: to throw off the burden of caring for him.

"Dirty" children

The symptoms of childhood insanity were not defined, so the little patients were not a homogeneous group. In addition to children who allegedly posed a physical danger to society, there were also those who were isolated from society for moral reasons.

On May 10, 1893, ten-year-old Cathy Agnes Jones was admitted to the Three Counties Orphanage. She "showed herself to have no concept of decency": her mother claimed that the girl tore off her clothes whenever they tried to dress her.

However, this behavior was not observed in the shelter behind her. All this repeats the already known scheme: the child was sick, and the parents decided to place him in a shelter, as in a hospice. Katie felt worse and worse, and in 1900 she died of tuberculosis.

Seven-year-old Albert Stanley was sent to the Birmingham Orphanage on November 24, 1895. The medical certificate stated that the boy "rips off his clothes, masturbates and has dirty habits. " According to the medical history, he appeared to be "blunt, but playful and restless." And, of course, one can doubt that a seven-year-old child was interested in masturbation. Subsequently, he was transferred to another shelter, where he also did not show deviant behavior.

The case of Harriet Meadows differs from the above. In 1884, a five-year-old girl who was accused of indecent behavior was identified in one of the Northampton orphanages. Her medical history stated: "She was a healthy child until the age of two, after which she became an imbecile."

Meadows was placed in a ward in the women's wing of the orphanage, where she "behaved disgustingly and beat old women." However, what follows are entries where the one who was previously called the "little demon" is characterized as a "very obedient idiot" and "the favorite of the establishment." It's not about the girl's mood swings: the magazine was kept by two caretakers - day and night. The day one saw a little angel, and the night one saw a demon who does not obey and causes chaos at a time when everyone should be sleeping.

Bound boy holding a glass on his head, about 1890 year

Photo: public domain

In an entry for 1889, the caretaker writes of Harriet Meadows: "She is an incorrigible masturbator, thrusting her whole hand into her wide vagina, which looks fully formed." Early grown-up Meadows died of pneumonia in the walls of the orphanage at the age of 31.

* * *

Case histories of mentally ill children placed in asylums during the Victorian era describe different cases. Some little patients show more deviant behavior than others, although they often only appear to be what adults wanted them to be. Sexually precocious children looked like demons in the eyes of medical workers - creatures on the verge of innocence and frightening insanity. For a family, a sick or simply difficult child became a burden, from which relatives tried to get rid of in every possible way.


Vanyusha was born with a heart defect. Needless to say, what a blow it was for the parents and parents of his parents? But when the boy grew up a little and he was thoroughly examined, the doctors said: it's okay, everything will be fine, Vanya will grow and develop like all children, you just need to protect him from all sorts of diseases. And when the tiny heart becomes bigger and stronger, it will be possible to perform the necessary operation, and then our guy will generally become a hero.

And while Vanyushka was slowly turning from a baby into a real person, all his big relatives were shaking over him. Because he was their first son, grandson and even great-grandson, and in no case should have let them down. That's the responsibility that fell on this little fair-haired peasant with two front teeth sticking out now, like a rabbit's.

He dutifully did everything he was supposed to: gurgle, blow bubbles, cry and laugh. But he did not speak. Here he is already one and a half, now two years, the third went. And Vanyushka still gets off with some kind of indistinct interjections, often expressing his desires and moods with a piercing cry.

The family was alarmed: what kind of Mowgli has appeared in their family? To him as to a person, but he still only: “Aaaaa!”, “Uuuuu!” yes "Yyyy!" Abyrvalg, in a word.

They were already thinking about hiring a tutor or something like that. Suddenly Vanyusha spoke. So much so that his vocabulary was enriched every day, well, just at an unprecedented pace. And the speed of pronunciation could be the envy of both grandmothers with great-grandmothers in addition.

When mom and dad got tired of communicating with him, the ancestors came to the rescue, not yet tired of being touched by the reincarnation of their grandson into a young Cicero. Communication - what is there! - with educated people, it quickly began to bear fruit: soon Vanyusha began to gather "for work at the university," and when he was dissuaded from this undertaking, he agreed to "underhand". But - certainly in one of the best ties of his father, which he now and then tries on himself at the "zeikal".

And then he completely retrained from a humanitarian into a techie - it turned out that the guy just loves technology! And the entire nursery very soon and quickly turned into an impromptu hangar with a wide variety of equipment.

When I see this assortment of self-propelled vehicles, excavators, timber trucks, tanks, and some other fantastic monsters - rattling, growling, ringing, flashing and shooting, I almost burst with envy, in my childhood there was none of this , and all the toys were made by my father, and then by myself. And here everything is ready, moreover, as real, only smaller in size. That is why I do not miss the opportunity to play with his wonderful bells and whistles under the jealous panting of my grandson.

Well, when we can't come to visit our grandson or he can't come to us, the miracle of modern technology comes into play - Skype, but more often the phone. Mom Oksana or dad Vlad dials a number, hands Vanyushka the phone, and a meaningful and sedate conversation begins, first with Baba Sveta, then with me. There were attempts to connect the cat Tyoma to these secular conversations, but he only irritably waved his fluffy tail: “They themselves gave birth, and toil yourself. And I have not forgotten how this two-toothed little animal chased me all over the apartment. So dismiss me…”

But just the other day, the order of this distance communication was turned on its head. Early in the morning, my wife and I were thrown out of bed by a persistent phone call.

“Something, God forbid, happened to someone, or, God forbid, someone needed us at such an early hour” - was the first thought. The phone rang in the living room. I slapped there, picked up the phone:

- I'm listening ...

- Grandpa, what are you doing? - I heard a clear voice from her. Vanyushka! I love my grandson. But much more I love him after sleeping.

- I'm sleeping... Or rather, I was sleeping, - I say with some annoyance. And I add: - Who helped you call us so early?

- I myself, - Vanyushka proudly declared. - What are you doing?

- Well, I myself, - I did not believe it. The guy is not yet four, how could he remember a combination of seven numbers? - It's not good to deceive your grandfather. So who called us?

- Me! Myself!! - Vanyushka is already starting to get angry, but then he remembers a more pleasant thing:

- And my dad bought me a faggot!

- What other ebzik? - I did not understand. The wife has been there for a long time. He chokes with laughter and explains that the other day, dad brought Vanya a toy electric jigsaw.

- Baba Sveta! Vanyusha shouts happily, apparently hearing her voice. - What are you doing?

“He says he called himself,” I inform my wife, discouraged, handing over the phone. - That's a dreamer!

And then mother Oksana stands up for her son. She tells her mother-in-law that last night this tomboy himself got through to Baba Ira, and this morning he got to us. After all, he watched when he was connected with us or his other ancestors, how our numbers were dialed, and remembered them.

Svetlana really wants to believe in such an unheard-of success of her beloved grandson - just six months ago, he could not even connect two words in the most natural way, and here it is!

- Vanyusha, - she says in a firm teacher's voice. - Well, tell me, what are the numbers on our phone?

- At the woman Sveta? - clarifies the newly-minted genius. And lists all seven digits in exact sequence! If his mother had told him, we would have heard.

- Well, one more time! - Baba Sveta shouts jubilantly. Vanyusha repeats. And immediately seizes the moment:

- Baba Sveta, buy me si-lo-fa-za-tiyon!

Wow! Here's a guy wrapped it up like this - from a jigsaw to a synchrophasotron! Who told him such a tricky word? Probably one of the parents - for linguistic exercises, but he already sniffed out somehow that there is a cool thing behind this hard-to-pronounce word.

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