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Eastern State Hospital: America’s First Insane Asylum

Enter into a historical nightmare.


On October 12, 1773, the first insane asylum in the United States opened its doors. Located in Williamsburg, Virginia, the “Publick Hospital” had been chartered three years prior, using land bequeathed by the House of Burgesses, Virginia’s legislative assembly. By its own admission, the hospital was established “for the support and maintenance of Ideots, Lunaticks, and Other Persons of Unsound Minds” who threatened society.

Realistically, there was little support for these unfortunates. Before the establishment of the hospital, insane individuals were actually judged by a jury, not a doctor, and classified as a criminal, a lunatic, or an idiot. They were regarded as collateral damage in the quest for colonial normalcy.

Related: A Living Nightmare: The History of Pennhurst Asylum

Almost two and a half centuries later, their anguish can still be felt in the walls of the–later named–Eastern State Hospital.

Mental disorders were poorly understood in the 18th century. Most ailments were considered to be either conscious decisions on the sufferer’s part, or a moral failure. In other words, these people were not believed to be insane as much as irresponsible. Though only two diagnoses were legitimately recognized, mania and melancholia, the treatments were varied. By modern standards, these “treatments” were extremely gruesome and cruel.

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  • A scarificator.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To begin, “inmates” had their bodies evacuated through a strong mixture of drugs meant to cause vomiting and/or diarrhea. Restraint was also used extensively, mostly with manacles and straightjackets. Patients were then given plunge baths: a sudden repeated exposure to cold water meant to result in shock. Also called the “bath of surprise,” it was believed that such fear would essentially snap the person out of their lunacy. Additionally, Shocks were administered through an electricity machine, and scarificators–small devices with between 4 and 16 sharp steel blades–were used to “bleed” patients.

Related: 6 Haunted Asylums You Can Actually Visit

The patients’ only reprieve was being allowed to fraternize in the “mad yard,” which was constructed in 1790. But nine years later, two cells were dug under the hospital’s first floor, to imprison patients who were in a “state of raving phrenzy.” The true purpose of the asylum, far from providing patients with any quality of life, was to segregate the mentally unfit population from the rest of humanity.

In the mid-19th century, conditions began to improve. Patients were allowed to go into town by day, but had to return in the evening. This continued for around 20 years, until the asylum returned to older, darker practices in the aftermath of the Civil War.

On June 7, 1885, an electrical fire burned the asylum to the ground: it was replaced by what is today known as the Eastern State Hospital.

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  • Civil War surgeons in Virginia, 1865.

    Photo Credit: Buyenlarge / Getty Images

The ghosts of the original asylum, however, remained: specifically that of Dr. John Galt. In 1841, Dr. Galt had taken over as the facility’s superintendent. He was distraught over how the patients were treated, and pushed for reform. When the Civil War devastated the area, the Union Army took control of the hospital, and neglected most of the patients. Dr. Galt became so devastated that he slipped into a severe depression and overdosed on Laudanum. The high dosage made the blood vessels in his head rupture; he was found dead in a pool of blood.

Related: The Restless Spirits of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

Dr. Galt’s spirit is said to roam the hospital grounds at night, presumably in search of his mishandled patients. There are also reports of muffled voices and knocking on the walls, usually in the evenings and on weekends. On one occasion, a maintenance worker vehemently claimed to have seen the shadow of a wheelchair.

In 1985, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation reconstructed the original 1773 hospital. It is now a small museum, containing six patient cells modeled after the first iterations. Eastern State Hospital, relocated to a new spot just outside Williamsburg, remains an active psychiatric hospital with 300 beds and a staff of over 900.

[via: Wikipediaesh.dbhds.virginia.gov]

Feature photo: Wikimedia Commons