Haunting Photos Taken Inside Mental Asylums Of Decades Past

Published May 8, 2017
Updated August 23, 2023

These harrowing photos look inside mental asylums of the 19th and 20th centuries and reveal just how disturbing their conditions once were.

Mental Asylums Bench
Mental Asylums Chair Straps
Children Tied To Radiator
Bed On Floor
Haunting Photos Taken Inside Mental Asylums Of Decades Past
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"The degree of civilization in a society," goes Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's immortal phrase, "can be judged by entering its prisons." But perhaps that phrase also applies to another class of institutions meant to house those deemed unfit for society: mental asylums.

Starting in the 18th and 19th century, mental asylums began to emerge in Europe and the United States as places to care for the mentally ill. "Care" is perhaps not the right word, as these early asylums used chains, straightjackets, and isolation to keep their patients in check.

In the reform-minded 19th-century, this began to change as attitudes about mental health shifted. Well-to-do reformers gave money to build palatial asylums and patients were treated more humanely. But this period was brief. As asylums became overcrowded, patients were increasingly mistreated.

In the 20th century, the mentally ill were sent to asylums simply to keep them away from the general population. There, new techniques like electroshock therapy, lobotomies, and drugs became the norm.

All in all, the history of mental asylums is a harrowing one. Above, look through photos of asylums and patients through the ages and, below, see how asylums have changed over time.

The Birth Of Mental Asylums

The history of mental asylums dates back to the 13th century, when the first asylum — Bethlem Royal Hospital — opened in Great Britain. Though palatial and grand, life for patients at Bethlem was often grim. People entered the asylum for different reasons, from "acute melancholy" to homicide. There, they were often subjected to "treatments" like isolation or "rotating therapy" in which they were spun in a chair hanging from the ceiling.

Bedlam Mental Asylum

Public DomainAn etching of a ward at Bethlem Royal Hospital by William Hogarth. 1735.

Bethlem was an outlier, however. Most people who were mentally ill at the time were cared for by their families. If they didn't have a family, the Science Museum U.K. reports that they would be forced into destitution.

By the start of the 18th century, more mental asylums had emerged. The rich could send their mentally ill relatives to private institutions but the poor had to rely on publicly-funded asylums. These asylums relied on restraints to "treat" their patients, which fostered an often violent atmosphere.

"In pauper asylums we see chains and strait-waistcoats, three or four half-naked creatures thrust into a chamber filled with straw, to exasperate each other with their clamour and attempts at violence; or else gibbering in idleness or moping in solitude," social reformer Harriet Martineau observed of the conditions in mental asylums, according to Science Museum U.K.

At the time, Atlas Obscura notes that there was little difference between "squalid" public asylums, poorhouses, and jails.

But in the 19th century, this started to change.

The Short-Lived Era Of Asylum Reform

As New Scientist reports, the 19th-century saw a concerted effort to improve mental asylums. Palatial hospitals were built across the United States and Europe where patients were given "mortal treatment." This meant a calm environment, fresh air, good food, and jobs.

"In the bakehouse... are a company of patients, kneading their dough; and in the wash-house and laundry, many more, equally busy, who would be tearing their clothes to pieces if there was not the mangle to be turned," Martineau wrote approvingly after visiting the Hanwell Mental Asylum in 1834.

Hanwell Mental Asylum

Public DomainHanwell Mental Asylum in 1843. The asylum used a kinder "moral treatment" on its patients, but overcrowding and understaffing soon created dire conditions.

That said, asylums in the 19th-century were hardly paradise. And they served an insidious purpose. As the Washington Post notes, theories about eugenics gave asylums leeway to keep the "feebleminded," "mental defectives," and "lunatics" away from the general population. And most never left.

Though patients started spending their lives at mental asylums, more kept arriving. Overpopulated, understaffed, and underfunded, these mental asylums soon became "bywords for squalor and negligence, and often run by inept, corrupt or sadistic bureaucrats," per neurologist Oliver Sacks.

An inspector who visited Hanwell Mental Asylum in 1893, almost 60 years after Martineau penned her glowing review, found the institution sorely lacking. He described "gloomy corridors and wards" and remarked "It would be astonishing to find that any cures are ever made there."

The Decline Of Mental Asylums

By the 20th century, mental asylums had turned away from "moral treatment" and started to treat patients with sedatives, electroshock therapy, and lobotomies, among other new methods.


Science Museum Group CollectionA 20th century straightjacket used to restrain patients at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol.

New drugs aided mental asylums, which were teetering under ballooning costs, as they helped patients live normal lives. But people subjected to terrifying treatments like electroshock therapy and lobotomies were severely traumatized, as depicted in 20th century books like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey (1962) The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath.

In the 1970s and 1980s, mental asylums began to shut down. There was no longer any financial support for them, and outpatient solutions like mental health care and medications had removed some need for longstanding asylums. Many patients, however, were simply released into their communities without much of a safety net.

This has left a swath of abandoned mental asylums across the country. They stand as eerie reminders of a time when people were thrown in padded rooms, restrained to their beds, or subjected to electroshock therapy.

Let the harrowing photos above return you to a comparatively benighted era in psychiatric care — one that wasn't actually all that long ago.

Next, see 37 haunting portraits of life inside Victorian mental asylums. Or, discover stories from some of the most infamous insane asylums in history.

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