Between 1800 and 1914, no western country was spared the rapid construction of asylums and an apparently insatiable demand for institutional accommodation. Three hundred thousand persons were committed to asylums in England and Wales in the nineteenth-century; by the Great War, close to one-quarter of a million Americans occupied state mental hospitals.
The history of psychiatry and institutional mental asylums has attracted considerable attention during recent decades from both social historians and psychiatrists. Each group has contributed to the narrative of the rise of the lunatic asylum and the professionalisation of “psychiatry.” The historical inquiries and the methodological approaches adopted by the two fields have led to interpretations that often question, and conflict with, each other. Social historians have emphasised the need to place “alienists” and the asylum in their social context. This enables changes in social structures and relationships to be determined and their influence on professional interests to be assessed. Psychiatrists, or amateur historians as they are sometimes labelled, have tended to construct their work within a medical model that attempts to legitimise the activities of present day psychiatry.
The literary journals produced by patients were perhaps the most public form of expression from within the asylums. Periodicals could reach a wider audience than tourism, which was a popular practice at the time. The optimism that surrounded the asylums was infectious, and public sentiment in these early years was overwhelmingly positive toward the asylum system. Many people were initially confident that the hospitals could fulfil all of the society’s religious and moral obligations to the insane, through reason, understanding and science. Periodicals and tours helped to expose the inside of the asylum to the public so that there would be no suspicion of internal corruption. Much of what was presented to the public, however, was a sanitized version of the truth.
Nineteenth-century asylums evoke terrible images of dark and dirty cells, shrieking lunatics, horrible experiments, and abusive doctors. The disturbing nature of these impressions is not unfounded. Abuse and poor conditions in the United States of America mental institutions have been well documented. Former patients often published sensational exposés to reveal the dark and horrid nature of these secret places. However, for most of the nineteenth-century, the asylum was also conceived of as a beacon of human rights, an enlightened institution to protect and cure the mentally ill. This saintly image was occasionally upheld by the patients themselves, through periodical literature published from within the asylums. The most prolific of these, ‘The Opal’ was written, edited, and printed by patients in the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica, and sold to the public for a profit.
It is not difficult to appreciate why insane asylums are such a commonly used Gothic motif in both written and filmed narratives. While many have been demolished, the few asylums that remain in the western world today, whether derelict or repurposed for such uses as hotels, apartments, aged care homes, educational facilities, galleries, museums, or other affable purposes, still convey a powerful sense of foreboding. Their size alone is daunting and it is unsettling to remember how many people have raved, suffered, lived, and died there. These places are also sites of secrets including the torment endured by many who were therein incarcerated. Although once a common feature of cities and the surrounding countryside, only a few physical examples of past asylums still stand and, although their functions have changed, they remain haunted and haunting places. Many are, indeed, the locus for such activities as ghost tours, and ghost hunting.