Haunting Photos Taken Inside Mental Asylums Of Decades Past

Published May 8, 2017
Updated January 31, 2020

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 deathless 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.

And for centuries — right up until the present day, in some places — the quality of most mental asylums, at least those in the European tradition, revealed little degree of civilization at all.

It wasn't until the very end of the 18th century that just a few doctors in France and England, including Philippe Pinel and William Tuke, first brought forth the then-revolutionary notion of doing away with chains and corporal punishment.

It wasn't until England's Lunacy Act of 1845 that a government first officially designated the mentally ill as actual patients in need of treatment.

And it wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that France, England, and the United States first established public, state-run asylums with government oversight and committees in place to investigate abuses — the full extent of which will never be truly known.

Of course, abuse, neglect, and mistreatment inside mental asylums hardly ended in the middle of the 19th century — on the contrary. While facilities for the mentally ill had now become institutionalized, the late 19th and 20th centuries brought many new problems.

For one, the growth of psychiatry as a discipline meant more diagnoses and thus patients to fit into facilities that were growing ever more overcrowded. Likewise, the growth of psychiatry meant more doctors developing more procedures that seemed increasingly radical throughout the early and mid-20th century, which gave us electroshock therapy and the lobotomy, among others.

At the same time, the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in Europe gave rise to a wave of politically-motivated abuses in mental asylums, with powerful regimes including those in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Bloc, and apartheid-era South Africa summarily institutionalizing suspected enemies of the state and/or creating eugenics programs to weed out those who truly were mentally ill.

But even in cases not nearly so extreme, even in the garden-variety mental asylums (a term itself that has now fallen out of favor) of 20th century Europe and America, the institutional conditions were often startling by today's standards: lobotomies performed with repurposed ice picks, patients chained to concrete slabs, children in straight jackets tied to radiators, and worse.

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. Then, step inside one of the most infamous mental asylums of all time with this look at Bethlem Royal Hospital, more commonly known as "Bedlam."

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society of history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.