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The American Asylum in the 1700s and its Haunting legacy


“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, 

whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence

whether much that is glorious, whether all that is profound 

does not spring from disease of thought

from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.” 

- Edgar Allen Poe

Subtle and sub rosa in its discussion, the Asylum is one of the most infamous American institutional projects. While Thomas Jefferson wrote on his Notes on the State of Virginia, while Benjamin Franklin wrote his own autobiographical account, while Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote excerpts found within the The Federalist Papers, and while Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, psychiatric dungeons were constructed and maintained to keep the most violent and disturbed patients driven by madness. Up until the end of the 18th century, institutions and developmental care for the medically insane just did not exist. Doctors and families alike always dealt with the cases, but there was no written account or discipline, like psychiatry today, that would deal specifically with this individuals. They were not permitted to walk among the “normal” as it were however, because of the divine livelihood that drove many of the people who had an absolute horror of those who were abnormal or considered a lunatic. Since no one cared for this sick, they were forced to become beggars, flooding the streets of villages and homes in Europe and the United States. They became known as the “village idiots” who were primarily cared for by their parents, or left out in the cold as described in King Lear:

“Poor naked wretched, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these?”                        

                 (King Lear, Act III, Scene IV)

These men and women were often kept chained or locked up in their homes. Beatings and malnutrition were common among them, if they weren’t locked up at home, sometimes the more violent mentally handicapped were tied to the stake at their local workhouse or poorhouse. Dr. William Perfect, a doctor in England who cared for this “unfortunates” as they were called, remembered being called in 1776 by English Officers to see, “a maniacal man they had confined in their workhouse...He was secured to the floor by means of a staple and an iron ring, which was fastened to a pair of fetters about his legs, and he was handcuffed. Continual visitors were pointing at, ridiculing and irritating the patient, who was thus made a spectacle of modern several feats of dexterity, such as threading a needle with his toes,” Such was the treatment of these unfortunates, and thus remained with the formation of the Asylum. The Asylum is defined as a dated institution offering shelter and support to the mentally ill. 

However this early institutions were far from providing the support and care that these individuals needed. They beat, experimented, and learned from the mentally insane, causing one of the most formalized and institutionalized forms of patient treatment available that this world has ever seen. Once these institutions were  abolished for more civilized and educated forms of treatment and containment in the 20th century, the memory and spirits of the criminally and medically insane were left to rome the empty corridors and halls of the Asylum. This gave birth to the American Haunting, and gave rise to the most well known haunted sites in the world. 

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In the United States, the first established medical Asylum was Eastern State Hospital, in Williamsburg, Virginia. Virginia State legislature decided that with the increasing number of maniacal men and women throughout the state, that it would be better if their was a specific institution, or hospital that would afford the care an d charge of the unfortunates. After the signing of there specific plan, the legislature released a statement saying, that the cause was to “make provisions for the support for and maintenance of ideots, lunaticks, and other persons of unsound minds,” These plans were to be overseen by a court of directors that would supervise secondarily the hospital’s operations and admissions. The state hired Benjamin Powell in 1771 to be the head of construction. This building would be located on Francis street near the College of William and Mary, and would be suitable and large enough to house up to 24 patients. It was designed by the famous Robert Hall, whose work on the Carpenter’s Hall, a key political center during the American Revolution, was known throughout the Nation. 

The initial contracts and provisions for the building included chambers of confinement and a lower level experimental quarter. It included in the center a Spanish influenced middle sanction, or courtyard, that would serve as the recess center for patients to see the daylight and have a place to enjoy the fresh air. However this center was quicker shutdown and used only as a quicker means of traveling from building to building due to the level of violence displayed by the patients. The furnishings and final provisions were completed on October 12, 1773, but allowed only for mentally insane that were of the dangerous sort. Serving as the head physician of the facility was Dr. John de Sequeyra, a local doctor who practiced medicine in Williamsburg, Virginia. James Galt served as head director, and his wife worked as the hospital matron, or was in charge of “domestic and medical arrangements” In 1792, New York Hospital opened its own ward for those patients that they considered curable. 

In Europe, Asylum’s did not rise until the work of Philipe Pinel. In 1793 Philipe the  head director of the Asylum de Bicetre, in Paris France. While it is widely considered that his work in France was the first to introduce more humane ways of dealing with patient treatment, the truth of the matter was that he employed the same tactics that the English and the Americans were using on their patients. The tactics in truth were barbaric in nature. It was not until 1840 in Europe that Robert Gardiner Hill introduced a clinic for all patients of mental handicap and employed elements of pure institutionalization, with moral treatment. 

It is an ironic twist in the United States to consider how far it came to be in an innovational sense and otherwise, yet its methods in curing the insane were far from educated, and was left up to the religious and the considered, scientific, to decide their own methods of treatment of these patients. The doctors presumed that the patients were simply in a state of trance, or that it was all in their minds what was going on with them and nothing physiological, or chemical. There methods included forms of torture and humiliation on patients that were used by the executioners and the government on criminals and those accused of crimes. There was the Cucking stool or Ducking stool, in which a patient was strapped to a stool and plunged underwater. It was a punishment used originally on adulterous wifes, which is why the name is Cucking which comes from the old English term, “cuckold” which was a name given to men whose wife’s were unfaithful. 

Another technique widely used throughout the United States was cold plunge baths, a form of torture in that the victim, or patient was strapped down and dunked repeatedly by the doctors until freezing cold water. The procedure often killed many of the patients from hypothermia and was used only to soften the more violent patients. Another technique widely used was bloodletting, in this procedure a doctor would have the patient strapped down or otherwise held down, and the doctor would puncture the patient in various places and let blood run from him. It was considered to be a religious and scientific procedure in that the blood being let out was considered to have “demonic” powers and in the other sense, considered to have disease. Thus, the bad blood was let out and perhaps would cure the patients of their insanity. Oddly enough in most of the cases this form of treatment worked in curing the patients of their insanity. It was assumed that the patients themselves were not actually mentally disabled but instead suffering from stress or extreme paranoia. The problem became when they encountered patients that were genuinely insane due to biological reasons, and in most cases died because of over exposure to the torture techniques that cured the other patients. 

Patients were often in chains or shackles and locked in corrosive cells that was used as a bathroom as well. In most of the Asylums there was little or poor sanitation throughout and secondary disease contributed to the deaths of patients. This was basically a place for the abandonment of the “village idiots” that plagued each town and a way to sanctify there own nation. A small demographic of these individuals were actually not mentally ill, but in fact simply social misfits. They were a public nuisance and were admitted into the institution to convey them to a place other than prison. 

This was the most commonly used tactics of treatment and admittance in the United States until the death of Hannah Mills in 1790. Hannah Mills was a good friend and fellow quaker to William Tuke. Willaim Tuke was appalled at the level of care and sanitation that patients at the hospital that he took it upon himself to take lead in the Quaker efforts to develop a more humane alternative treatment. He spent two years discussing his plans for a new mental hospital with “York Monthly Meeting”, a local quaker group that would fund the project, and opened his institution in 1796, called “York Retreat” 

The institution was located in Lamell Hill, New York, and served as the first institution to propose and ultilize Moral Treatment in its patients. Moral Treatment was “an approach to mental disorder based on humane psychosocial care or moral discipline that emerged in the 18th century and came to the fore for much of the 19th century, deriving partly from psychiatry or psychology and partly from religious or moral concerns,” There moral approach to treatment was revolutionary in the United States. They began the use of straightjackets to calm patients and keep them from hurting themselves in a way that the restraint would not hurt him either. Tuke explored techniques like changing the patients diet, hydrotherapy, conversation, and padded walls and windows to keep the patients from self injury. They banished all types of physical punishment, and instead used encouragement and patience for their treatment. Moral treatment would set the framework for all Psychiatric institutions later on, but during the 1700s, these types of institutions with their level of care were drastically small in number, and most were the traditional, painful, and unsanitary institutions previously mentioned. 

Thus most patients were killed or died in their confinement, and will some tried to escape, they were always caught and dragged into the deep circle of maddening hell found within the confines of their respective institution. Politically, these places were poorly funded and loosely regulated. The cities main purpose in creating such places was to simply “throw out the trash” and forget about it like a secret affair. 

Charles Dickens once told of his visit to one of the these locations, and his description clearly reiterates the feeling of madness in the place, and how these patients were taken care of:

“One day, during my stay in New York, I paid a visit to the different public institutions on Long Island, or Rhode Island: I forget which. One of them is a Lunatic Asylum. The building is handsome; and is remarkable for a spacious and elegant staircase. The whole structure is not yet finished, but it is already one of considerable size and extent, and is capable of accommodating a very large number of patients.I cannot say that I derived much comfort from the inspection of this charity.The different wards might have been cleaner and better ordered; I saw nothing of that salutary system which had impressed me so favourably elsewhere; and everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long dishevelled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror. In the dining room, a bare, dull, dreary place, with nothing for the eye to rest on but the empty walls, a woman was locked up alone. She was bent, they told me, on committing suicide. If anything could have strengthened her in her resolution, it would certainly have been the insupportable monotony of such an existence. The terrible crowd with which these halls and galleries were filled, so shocked me, that I abridged my stay within the shortest limits, and declined to see that portion of the building in which the refractory and violent were under closer restraint. I have no doubt that the gentleman who presided over this establishment at the time I write of, was competent to manage it, and had done all in his power to promote its usefulness: but will lit be believed that the miserable strife of Party feeling is carried even into this sad refuge of afflicted and degraded humanity? Will it be believed that the eyes which are to watch over and control the wanderings of minds on which the most dreadful visitation to which our nature is exposed has fallen, must wear the glasses of some wretched side in Politics? Will it be believed that the governor of such a house as this, is appointed, and deposed, and changed perpetually, as Parties fluctuate and vary, and as their despicable weathercocks are blown this way or that? A hundred times in every week, some new most paltry exhibition of that narrow-minded and injurious Party Spirit, which is the Simoom of America, sickening and blighting everything of wholesome life within its reach, was forced upon my notice; but I never turned my back upon it with feelings of such deep disgust and measureless contempt, as when I crossed the threshold of this madhouse.”              - Charles Dickens, (Rogers, 2009)

It is said that the abandoned institutions are still haunted today, by the forgotten spirits of the deranged and insane. It could be that they haunt the chambers and dungeons of these places because of their want for justice against their cruel punishments and treatment sessions. The most infamous Insane Asylums that are haunted are Danvers State Hospital, The Ridges, ByBerry Mental Hospital, and Waverly Hills Sanatorium. Some examples of these hauntings are, “a former mentally, violent patient who reportedly still lurks the tunnel below, hiding in wait, wielding a large knife, to slice the throats of any unsuspecting explorer that should cross his path.” and in other places where  “People have reported flickering lights, full body apparitions, hearing invisible footsteps and doors that open and close on their own”  Most hear voices within their walls at night, as if saying get out, or other recognizable threats. Whether true, or all in the insanity of one’s mind, these haunted locals remain to be one of the historical sites of American history, that began in the 1700s with the cruel and unusual punishments citizens are now covered by the United States Constitution. Whether it is in a drift of view, or fear or political socioideology, America has always had a little madness in her, its what drives our country to do great, and terrible things. 


nerissa on October 21, 2016:

Poe's name is spelled "Edgar Allan Poe," not "Allen."

KT on May 19, 2015:

York Retreat was in York, New England; not New York, USA.

amybradley77 on January 19, 2011:

This is well written and very informative too, good work very nice page thanks for sharing I am and always have been a true believer of ghosts. I have a series of short stories here on ghosts and hauntings based on true events. I put it under creative writtings however, because I am painfully aware of just how many people do not truly believe. More people need to shed light on the truth of things, thank you for sharing again. A.B.

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