Strange Sideline of Asylums of the 1800s

It might be hard to imagine, but during the mid to late 1800s, in America and in England, it once quite the form of entertainment of many middle-class and upper-class Americans during the 1800s, to tour the grounds and even the facilities for the insane – asylums. There were created stereoscopic cards announcing the glory of newly-built grounds which were considered attractions to be seen on vacation. Many of the most picturesque asylums resembled universities or manors, an attempt at dispelling the myths of over-crowded and dirty asylums. They became ‘tourist attractions’.

The facilities were of fine architecture, zoological therapies, and meticulously-kept grounds were some of the offerings for patients whose families could afford the cost. For those who could not, conditions often reflected the jails of medieval Europe more than hospitals. Indeed areas without asylums often kept the insane in prisons with criminals or in almshouses (workhouses) until a place could be found for them.

The numbers were a bit surprising. In the U.S. in 1880 there were 232,473 people in asylums, workhouses, juvenile detention centers, and homes for the blind and deaf. Despite well-intended methods of treatment (which included restraints and hydrotherapy), even improvements made around the turn of the century (1900) left segments of asylum populations vulnerable to mistreatment and misdiagnosis.

The range of health conditions for patients ranged from suffering from diseases (like syphilis, epilepsy, or alcoholism) or even from extreme grief. Sometimes the elderly and those with senility ended up in insane asylums. The lack of successful treatments and knowledge of diseases meant that in many cases patients/inmates would have been incarcerated for life. Some facilities offered little to no treatment or discussion of care.

So to see that tourist attractions having suggested places to visit such as ‘Visit the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane in Manhattan, NY’. It was a way for the public to see that an asylum didn’t have to be a bad place. Admiring the material side effects of this shift toward treatment: with beautiful gardens, manicured lawns, interesting architecture and proportions that rivaled most cities’ greatest wonders. In short, the change in thinking about insanity made the change in asylum tourism possible.

So as you do your family history research and you can not locate a specific ancestor, it might do well to check the listing of census records for nearby asylums. There were all across the country.

Photos: Insane asylum in Binghamton, NY in 1890s; Insane asylum of Wyoming State Hospital and Utica State Lunatic Asylum.

Related Blogs:

The Unspoken Side of the Family

Insane Hospitals and Asylums

1880 Census–DDD

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