The Dark Past: The Most Horrific Crimes in American Asylums

by | May 2, 2024 | history | 0 comments

Photo by Jon Butterworth

Asylum Scandals by Patricia Lubeck gives readers a glimpse of the horrific atrocities that occurred within asylums, showcasing their dark past and the ways people suffered inside them.

The dark past of asylums in the United States is full of neglect and abuse, which all stem from some pretty horrific practices. Asylums quickly became notorious for the very acts they were meant to prevent, despite the fact they were intended to provide care for the mentally ill.

While many asylums have closed or undergone significant reform, the crimes of the dark past remain a stark reminder of the ethical failings within these institutions. This bleak history also offers a space for moving forward when it comes to modern asylums.

The Dark Past of Asylums

Understanding the worst asylum crimes requires acknowledging the common threads that run through many institutions. The government chronically underfunded plenty of asylums. This leads to constant overcrowding and a persistent lack of essential resources. This resulted in dire living conditions, inadequate hygiene, and a breeding ground for disease.

Asylums were often understaffed, with overworked and underqualified personnel. This created an environment ripe for abuse, neglect, and a lack of accountability. Because of this, mental illness was also very poorly understood at that time. Maladies of the mind were often attributed to demonic possession or moral failings. This fueled a lack of empathy and a focus on punishment rather than treatment. This led to a lot of misdiagnoses and even deaths.

Because of this poor understanding and very warped perspectives, treatments in early asylums were often barbaric and more focused on control than cure. Practices like bloodletting, restraint chairs, and even lobotomies were employed, causing immense suffering and even death.

While not a direct crime within asylums themselves, it’s necessary to understand that asylums contributed to the horrors of slavery. Many enslaved people who resisted or exhibited signs of mental distress were deemed “lunatics” and sent to asylums, where they faced additional and unspeakable suffering. 

The Most Horrific Crimes in American Asylums

American asylums, initially intended for reform, devolved into horrific nightmares. Patients, often with a vast array of mental illnesses, were crammed into overcrowded facilities. Inhumane treatments like straitjackets, ice baths, and even lobotomies were commonplace. Basic hygiene and proper care were neglected, leaving many to suffer from malnutrition and disease. These asylums became warehouses of despair, far from the havens they were envisioned to be.

  • Dr. Samuel Cartwright was a 19th-century physician who created the fictitious illness of “drapetomania,” the desire for freedom among slaves. This was cruelly weaponized to keep slaves docile, with those diagnosed often subjected to brutal “treatments” in asylums.
  • The practice of the “Spinning Chair” involved violently spinning patients in a chair for extended periods, causing dizziness, nausea, and even severe injuries. It was a prime example of the brutal and ineffective treatments employed in many asylums.
  • Lobotomy was a barbaric procedure where doctors would cut or sever connections in the brain. It was believed to be a cure for a variety of mental illnesses, but it often left patients worse off, causing brain damage, personality changes, and even death.
  • Patients were subjected to hydrotherapy, which was exposure to extreme hot or cold water baths, often for long periods of time. This was thought to be therapeutic, but it could cause burns, hypothermia, and even death.

Where to Go Forward?

The legacy of asylum crimes extends far beyond the walls of these institutions. These practices resulted in immense physical and psychological trauma for countless individuals. Furthermore, they instilled a deep fear and mistrust of mental health treatment within society, hindering progress in care and access.

The exposure and awareness of these crimes played a crucial role in the asylum reform movement. The 20th century saw a shift towards more humane practices, the development of new medications, and a growing understanding of mental illness. 

However, the fight for adequate mental health resources and treatment continues today.

For more about the dark past of asylums, grab a copy of Asylum Scandals by Patricia Lubeck.


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