Tragic Twisted and True:

The Horrific History of Asylums


It’s October, and Haunted Houses are opening to scare those ‘brave enough to enter.’ Enter one and you’ll see many themes from the early movies dealing with the “insane” and “mentally ill.”

The hands reaching from behind bars, lunging ‘patients’ barbarous ‘treatment’ and mass murder.

Many of these themes were based on some reality of the early Asylums. So, let’s look at the tragic history of Asylums.

Photo Credit: Bedlam // Boris Karloff & Mark Robson 1946

Historical Asylums

Bedlam, a word synonymous with confusion, madness and insanity. Its history stretches back to the infamous asylum, Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckingham.

Much like Bedlam, the word Lunatic has a link to early western civilation before the causes of these aliments were fully understood. Luna of course meaning ‘moon’ and ‘atic’ being the root of the word and meaning the prefix is the problem.

There for the problem for these people was the influence of the moon. Which explains the ‘treatments’ the mentally ill suffered at Asylums.

Photo Credit: Madhouse by Francis Goya // 1812–1819

In the early years of their existence Asylums, almshouses, and workhouses they were a place for the ill, or destitute to take refuge.

As the decades passed the population of these “safehouses” began to include gay people, those with deformities, syphilis, mercury poisoning, and epileptics.

The Asylums, alms and workhouses, though initially intended for short stays became dumping grounds for those that were burdens on their families.

As time went on and the populations swelled, more severe treatments to be applied.

Cures & “Treatments”

Even today we struggle to treat mental illnesses; since its creation the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual has been revised 5 times.

And we are still learning the best way to care for the diagnosed.

8 centuries ago, it wasn’t better. But the field has taken large strides away from its origins in spirituality and…



Alexandra Henning The Hysterical Historian

I write about politics, science, among other topics as the mood strikes through a historical lense.