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