44 Disturbing Photos Of Mental Asylums From Decades Past That Are Like Something Out Of A Horror Movie

Published August 2, 2023
Updated November 9, 2023

From children being chained up to women being lobotomized, the conditions in these insane asylums were truly harrowing.

Bench In A Mental Asylum
Chair Straps In A Mental Asylum
Children Tied To A Radiator
Bed On The Floor
44 Disturbing Photos Of Mental Asylums From Decades Past That Are Like Something Out Of A Horror Movie
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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 centuries, mental asylums emerged in Europe and the United States as places where the mentally ill could receive care. But "care" is perhaps not the right word, as early insane asylums often used chains, straitjackets, and isolation to keep their patients in check.

During the reform-minded 19th century, these practices eventually 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 there. But this period was brief. As mental asylums became overcrowded, patients were increasingly mistreated by staff members.

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

All in all, the history of mental asylums is a harrowing one. Above, look through some of the most shocking photos of asylums and their patients through the ages, and, below, see how these institutions changed over time.

The Rise Of Mental Asylums

Mental Asylum

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

The first British mental asylum — Bethlem Royal Hospital — opened in 1247. Though palatial and grand, Bethlem was a grim place for patients. People entered the asylum for different reasons, from "acute melancholy" to homicide. There, they were often subjected to isolation or "rotating therapy," in which they were spun in a chair that was hanging from the ceiling.

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 in the U.K. reports that they would often 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 often relied on restraints to "treat" their patients, which fostered a 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 said after visiting mental asylums, according to the Science Museum in the U.K.

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

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

The Short-Lived Era Of Asylum Reform

Hanwell Mental Asylum

Public DomainAn illustration of Hanwell Mental Asylum in London in 1843. This institution used a kinder "moral treatment" on its patients, but overcrowding and understaffing soon created dire conditions.

As New Scientist reports, the 19th century saw a concerted effort to improve the conditions in mental asylums. Palatial hospitals were built across the United States and Europe, where patients were given "moral 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.

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

Though patients started spending their lives at mental asylums, more kept arriving. Overpopulated, understaffed, and underfunded, these insane 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

Straitjacket

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

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

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

In the 1970s and 1980s, most mental asylums began to shut down. There was no longer any widespread financial support for them, and outpatient solutions like medications and modernizing mental health care 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 insane asylums across the U.S. 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.

author
Kaleena Fraga
author
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
editor
Jaclyn Anglis
editor
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "44 Disturbing Photos Of Mental Asylums From Decades Past That Are Like Something Out Of A Horror Movie." AllThatsInteresting.com, August 2, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/mental-asylums. Accessed June 14, 2024.