to Shutter Island, asylums, particularly scary, fabled
ones, are big news right now.
On the other hand, there has always been something
fascinating and horrible about these places with their intimidating
size and intricate architecture. It turns out, that’s not
just a coincidence. There really is something about
those 19th-century mental hospitals.
This morning I read a story in the Los Angeles Times
about the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, W.V.
The name alone sends the creepy-crawlies up your spine.
Like so many other 19th-century institutions built to house
the mentally ill—as well as the tubercular—the Trans-Allegheny
Lunatic Asylum has been closed as a hospital since 1994, as
new therapies for treating mental illness were developed.
Now the building is serving a tourist population, offering
themed tours throughout the year, including an Overnight at
the Asylum Ghost Hunt. Sign me up.
Docent Andrea Lamb, dressed in 19th-century nursing garb and
wearing a shawl for warmth—the building is deteriorating and
unheated—showed visitors around the four-story, rambling-winged
structure. And just as Shutter Island, The Jacket
and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tell stories of
abuses and excesses, real life stories of abuses happened
here many times over.
Children were kept in cages. Shock treatment and lobotomies
were regularly performed, with lobotomized patients living
at the asylum as late as the 1980s.
1872,” Lamb said, “if a [married woman’s] husband had a mistress
or she inherited money . . . he could sign her in and leave
her until he decided to come back and get her—or until she
died, whichever came first.”
Curiously, though, the advent of the 19th-century “asylum”
for treating—or at least housing—the mentally ill was meant
to be a step forward from how they had previously been dealt
with, which was almost invariably barbaric: chaining them
in prisons, stashing them away in attics and sheds.
A curiously-worded quotation on the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic
Asylum Web site, seems more optimistic than accurate: “The
1800s brought much-needed change to the world of the insane.”
Reformers, notably Dorothea Dix, campaigned for more humane
treatment of the mentally ill. The era of the asylum began
when the first state mental hospital built according to “the
Kirkbride Plan” opened in Trenton, N.J., in 1848—this ironically
was the place where, late in life, Dix became a resident and
But a big part of the reason that 19th-century asylums for
the mentally ill remain fascinating—and frightening—is because
of their architecture.
Most were built according to the aforementioned Kirkbride
Plan. In keeping with the then-prominent notion that architecture
was integral to curing mental illness, Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride
developed principles of asylum construction and operation
that he believed to be central components in treating patients.
His envisioned asylums which housed about 250 patients, with
central administration buildings flanked by wings within which
were tiered wards. This allowed for a hierarchical segregation
of patients according to sex and symptoms of illness. The
genders were housed separately and more “excitable” patients
were placed on the lower floors, farthest from the central
administrative structure, and the better-behaved, more rational
patients situated in the upper floors and closer to the administrative
As the popularity of the asylum grew in the middle-to-late
19th century, these huge buildings were constructed according
to the Kirkbride plan. Over time deteriorating patient care
and overcrowding led to the frightening stigma that these
buildings carry today.
For example, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was built
between 1858 and 1881 and is, next to the Kremlin, the largest
hand-cut stone building in the world. Originally designed
to house 250 patients, by the 1950s conditions and care at
the institution had gravely deteriorated even as the patient
populations swelled to 2400.
And that was largely the trajectory of the asylum: early reputations
for good care later marred by overcrowding and abuses.
At the Kirkbride Buildings Web site are a trove of photographs
of these massive edifices, some demolished, some still standing,
but in disrepair. Besides their size, they have in common
both their florid architectural design and a genuine an air
Dr. Kirkbride may have had the best of intentions, but it’s
hard to look at images of Buffalo State Hospital or Dixmont
State Hospital in Pennsylvania or Greystone Park Hospital
in Morristown, N.J. (built to offset overcrowding at the Trenton),
and imagine these as welcoming havens for the unbalanced.
If anything, these buildings would seem to worsen insanity.
So it’s little wonder that an asylum practically counts as
a main character on lots of movies. Shutter Island
was partially filmed at the Medford State Hospital.
The atmospheric and lurid 2001 cult film, Session 9,
was filmed at the now-demolished Danvers State Hospital in
Massachusetts. The Jacket, released in 2005,
was shot in Bangour Village Hospital in Scotland (this hospital,
as were many others, was built according to “the Cottage Plan”
which differed significantly from the Kirkbride Plan).
And the ultimate iconic asylum movie, One Flew Over the
Cuckoo’s Nest? It was filmed at Oregon State Hospital–built
in 1883, according to the Kirkbride Plan. Its story is the
same as most asylums: Though parts of it have deteriorated,
it remains in operation with a continuing reputation of overcrowding
and sub- standard medical care.