10 Horrifying Mental Asylums

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Despite their original benevolent intent, mental asylums have become synonymous with abuse and malpractice. For one, the practice of lobotomy originates in the world of psychotherapy and institutionalization. Egas Moniz performed the first lobotomy in Portugal in 1935 and it was soon after adapted by American physicians Walter Freeman and James W. Watts, who popularized the operation. From 1949 to 1951, the amount of lobotomies grew from 5,074 to 18,608 people. John F. Kennedy’s sister is one of the many who were victims of the controversial procedure.

During the same period, American reformers became to investigate the mental institutions system and made light of the inhuman treatment of patients. Currently, we have seen efforts of deinstitutionalization with jail system being used as a primary housing for sick men and women. And while the prison system is certainly rife with abuse, it’s hard to compare with the mental asylums of the yester years. Here are the 10 most horrifying mental asylums in the United States.

10. Topeka State Hospital

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Where: Topeka, Kansas
Years of Operation: 1872 to 1997

It’s hard to come to grips with the medical justification for castration, but somehow the practitioners at Topeka State Hospital found the practice suitable. After Kansas law saw it fit to administer castrations for “habitual criminals, idiots, epileptics, imbeciles, and insane” in 1931, Topeka State Hospital went on to perform 54 castrations. If castrations were not enough to frighten you, accounts detail stories of a patient who had been strapped down so long that his skin began to grow over the straps. In addition, patients were victims of rape and other forms of abuse.

What makes the abuse of patients at this hospital so disconcerting is that it was later revealed that many of the identities and illnesses of the patients were unknown, with the hospital lacking the proper paperwork for them to be committed. Somehow, the Topeka State Hospital remained open until 1997.

9. Waverly Hills Sanatorium

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Where: Louisville, Kentucky
Years of Operation:
1910 to 1961

The Waverly Hills Sanatorium is another case that demonstrates man’s willingness to experiment on his fellowman with little regard or concern for his well-being. While not exactly deemed a mental asylum, the Kentucky hospital housed tuberculosis patients during an era of medical uncertainty on the subject. Without a prevailing paradigm for medical treatment of tuberculosis, doctors resorted to barbaric methods. Cases of doctors’ removing ribs and muscles, and even having inserted balloons into the lungs to help them expand more are well-documented.

The death rate at Waverly Hills Sanatorium has come under fire with independent researchers and medical personnel at the sanatorium claiming different figures. According to Assistant Medical Director Dr. J. Frank W. Stewart, the highest number of deaths in a single year at Waverly Hills was 152. Independent researchers have argued that number is closer to 162, and have extrapolated that over 50 years Waverly Hills Sanatorium was open, approximately 8,212 died in their care.

8. Overbrook Insane Asylum

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Where: Cedar Grove, New Jersey
Years of Operation: 1896 to 1975

Operations began in 1896, with Essex County officials designating 325 acres of land as the new location of the County Asylum for the mentally ill. Specifically chosen for its scenic view, officials believed its remote location and high altitude location would provide a healthy, peaceful setting for patients to rehabilitate in. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Soon after opening, the patient-to-staff ratio became unbalanced, leaving too many patients in need of care that they weren’t getting from an overworked staff.

The results were frightening. Conditions were so bad that 24 patients froze to death in their own beds in the early 20th century while more than 150 patients went missing and were never found. Despite all of this, Overbrook remained open for nearly a century, eventually closing in the 1970s.

7. Willowbrook State School

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Where: Staten Island, New York
Years of Operation: 1947 to 1987

One of the most important cases on our list is the Willowbrook State School – a state sponsored institution for children who were intellectually disabled that became the catalyst for reform of mental health institutions. Things were so bad at Willowbrook that during the 1960s, Robert Kennedy referred to it as “zoo-like” and a “snake-pit.” Initially designed for 4,000 children, by 1965 Willowbrook contained a population of 6,000 people. First-hand accounts claimed that patients were left to wander around the facility covered in their own urine and feces. However, what’s more troubling is the experiments that the doctors carried out on the very children they were supposed to care for.

Struggling to find answers about the outbreak of Hepatitis, medical researcher Saul Krugman “used the children of Willowbrook to answer those questions. One of his studies involved feeding live hepatitis virus to sixty healthy children,” according to researcher and author Paul Offit. “Krugman watched as their skin and eyes turned yellow and their livers got bigger. He watched them vomit and refuse to eat. All the children fed hepatitis virus became ill, some severely. Krugman reasoned that it was justifiable to inoculate retarded children at Willowbrook with hepatitis virus because most of them would get hepatitis anyway. But by purposefully giving the children hepatitis, Krugman increased that chance to 100 percent.”

The great horrors of Willowbrook led to the passage of a federal law — the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980

6. Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

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Where: Weston, West Virginia
Years of Operation: 1864 to 1994

An amalgamation of many of our other cases, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum had it all. Built to house only 250 patients, by 1949, the hospital had over 2,400 people in its care.  A 1938 report by a survey committee organized by a group of North American medical organizations found that the hospital housed “epilepticsalcoholicsdrug addicts and non-educable mental defectives” among its population.

Those that they were not able to control were locked in cages with others even being lobotomized with rudimentary instruments such as ice picks. All in all, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum’s horrible treatment of patients undoubtedly contributed to the tens of thousands of lives the asylum claimed during its surprisingly long years of operation.

5. Byberry Mental Hospital

Where: Byberry, Pennsylvania
Years of Operation: 1907 to 1987

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Civil disobedience seems to have gotten a bad reputation in our current political climate, but it’s certainly effective. When Charlie Lord, a conscientious objector, was assigned to duty at the hospital, he took 36 black-and-white photographs which was enough to shut down Byberry Mental Hospital. The photos led to mass outrage with even First Lady Eleanor Rossevelt pledging her support to combat the issue. Other reformers compared the conditions to “nazi concentration camps,” and described the overcrowded conditions where patients were sleeping in their own feces and urine.

Multiple first-hand accounts describe the overwhelming filth of the facility and the patients’ ability to roam the facility naked. Lord’s images of the inhumane conditions were published in a 1946 issue of Life magazine, and sparked widespread reforms of mental health facilities. With public pressure growing, the facility was force to downsize and eventually close its doors.

4. Bloomingdale Insane Asylum

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Where: Morningside Heights, New York City
Years of Operation: 1821 to 1880

Established in 1821, the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum was formed with the intention of morally rehabilitated mentally ill patients. However, the hospital’s practices strayed greatly from its “moral” principles. Journalist Julius Chambers managed to expose its revolting practices in 1872 by taking extraordinary measures. With the help of a senior editor of the New York Tribune, Chambers managed to have himself committed to the Asylum for ten days.

After exiting the institution, “he published a story detailing the inhuman practices at the asylum, including patients who were kicked and choked until they bled, and, in some cases, “driven to suicide by systematic cruelties.” As a result of his muckraking, the Bloomindagle’s Insane Asylum was forced to release twelve patients at the facility who were not mentally ill. In addition, Chambers’ subsequent book, A Mad World and Its People, led to reform for the rights of the mentally ill.

3. Pilgrim Psychiatric Center

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Where: Brentwood, New York
Years of Operation: 1941 to Present

In the case of Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, the gross misconduct of a single patient is more telling than the rampant abuse of its populace. In the 1940s, Belulah Jones was taken to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, at the time the largest hospital/asylum in the world. Belulah was admitted by her husband after her pregnancy with her last child, resulted in psychosis. Familly members state that her husband consented to the leukotomy only because doctors said it would work and was the only alternative.

There, Beulah Jones had 15 rounds of electroshock over 10 weeks, despite her delusions continuing. Later, a lobotomy was performed where doctors drilled holes into her brain and swiped at the frontal lobes. Belulah Jones’s story led Christine Johnson, her grand-daughter, to pour over her file and demand answers on the use of the medieval practices and why a Nobel peace prize would be awarded to a man that legitimized lobotomy and made it into a public practice, Dr. Egais Moniz. After spending decades in the facility, in 1972, Belulah Jones was released. Somehow Pilgrim Psychiatric center is still open today.

2. Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital

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Where: Morris Plains, New Jersey
Years of Operation: 1876 to present

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital does not differ greatly from many of the other wards on this list. It was guilty of overpopulation – squeezing 2,412 patients in a space meant to hold no more than 1,600. Additionally, Greystone administered Insulin shock therapy, electroconvulsive therapy on veterans suffering from PTSD. However, what makes Greystone unique is the fact that it housed one of the legends of folk music, Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie had a stint at Greystone from 1956 to 1961; he was suffering from Huntington’s disease, a hereditary, degenerative nervous disorder which would eventual prove terminal. During his stay there, Woody referred to Greystone as “Gravestone.” Guthrie wrote hundreds of letters from “Wardy Forty”, the nickname of his hospital wing, which goes to show that patients who are diagnosed with mental illness still need the human contact and interaction that we all do.

1. Pennhurst Insane Asylum

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Where: Spring City, Pennsylvania
Years of Operation: 1908 to 1987

While abuse to any patient is reprehensible, Pennhurst Insane Asylum’s treatment of children puts it in a league of its own. Built to educate and care for the mentally disabled, Pennhurst soon came to be identified for just the opposite. As a result of investigative reporter Bill Baldini, in 1968, the public learned of the horrible conditions in the asylum. The news report, titled “Suffer the Little Children, showed neglected children’s screams filling the air, large scale physical and sexual abuse and a general lack of empathy towards patients.

The report also revealed that children who bit one another got a warning, with a second warning leading to a child’s teeth being pulled out. After a second report by former resident Terry Lee Halderman, the courts found that over 3,000 of the institution’s patients were not receiving adequate care, and the institution was closed.

Bonus: Athens Lunatic Asylum

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Where: Athens, Ohio
Years of Operation: 1874 to 1993

Having nominated our first female candidate to a major party, we thought it’d be appropriate to add the Athens Lunatic Asylum to our list. A testament to how far we’ve come, in the 19th century, women who exhibited sexual desire and strong emotions were diagnosed with the “hysteria.” Female patients were deemed insane due to “sicknesses” termed “menstrual derangements.”

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According to reports, “the asylum’s treatment for these women included freezing, shocking, kicking, and in some cases, lobotomizing said patients to rid them of their sickness.” Although at times it may seem like we’re going backwards, our overall trajectory is forward, leaving the lobotomies, teeth pulling, and electrotherapy behind us.


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