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A Look at What Really Went on Inside Victorian Insane Asylums

Insane asylums were once the purview of experiments, neglect, and even a sideshow atmosphere – the latter attained when the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London accepted admittance fees for the public to tour the grounds and chambers of inmates, observing the horrors of the untreated insane who were often in chains.

Conditions at the pre-reform Bethlem. Via/ Wellcome Images

Bethlem Royal Hospital, circa 1810. Via/ Wellcome Images

Lest we be quick to judge it should be noted that asylum tourism was once quite the fancy of many middle class Americans during the 1800s, too. Stereoscopic cards announced the glory of newly-built grounds which were considered attractions to be seen on vacation. Many of the most picturesque asylums resembled universities or manors, an attempt at dispelling the myths of over crowded and dirty asylums.

Insane asylum, Binghamton, N.Y., 1890s. Via/ Library of Congress

The spectacular Hartford Insane Asylum grounds, 1875. Via/ NYPL

Fine architecture, zoological therapies, and meticulously-kept grounds were some of the offerings for patients whose families could afford the cost. For those who could not, conditions often reflected the jails of medieval Europe more than hospitals. Indeed areas without asylums often held the insane in jails or almshouses (workhouses) until a place could be found for them.

Medical illustration from 1838 shows restraints in use in France, something which sadly did not change much over the years. Via/ Wellcome Images

Oregon State Hospital courtyard, 1905. Via/ Wiki Commons

Mental patient with depressive catalepsy. Via/ Wellcome Images

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