Mental asylums served a much different purpose in the Victorian Era - specifically as entertainment for the public. Tourists visited them for amusement, entertained by patients who were incarcerated for mental illness. The practice was one of the many strange pastimes and rituals from the Victorian era, a time when unwrapping mummies at parties was considered a fun thing to do.
However, as the times changed and increasing awareness and sensitivity around mental health grew, asylum tourism became more about viewing medicine in action and observing the treatment and care of patients. This later tourism helped the public view patients as people, removed some of the stigma of mental illness at the time, and ushered a change in the treatment of patients.
Despite some of the positive changes that occurred over time, asylums in this period were still extremely harsh and cruel by modern standards, but the changing attitudes and the associated tourism did affect how people thought about mental illness at the time.
Before the 1770s, mental institutions welcomed visitors to observe the patients as a form of voyeuristic entertainment.
Bethlem Royal Hospital of London - or Bedlam, as it came to be known - charged a shilling to see the ravings of "the beasts," and the patients were put on display like a human zoo.
Cultural historian Mike Jay has described it thus:
Particularly on Sundays and holidays, the scene in the galleries could be boisterous and rowdy. Like a ghost train or a freak show, or indeed the surgery and autopsy, demonstrations that were also on offer to the London public – it offered an extreme but safely contained experience, and a stage on which high-spirited visitors could perform acts of daring or display their wit.
Eventually, patients were displayed as a tactic to secure donations. Governors encouraged high-class sightseers to help fund the asylum by paying to see "the beasts." The asylum entertained visitors with spectacle - a common tactic in charity of the time. This voyeuristic tactic came from the hope that the wealthy onlookers would donate money to the asylum. According to Mary Chapman:
The oldest psychiatric asylum in Britain, Bethlem, began opening its doors from the early modern period as a way of courting donations from an entertained public, and access to the asylum and its patients continued- in one form or another- until the Victorian era. The story of these prying eyes, and what exactly it was that they looked for, tells us much about changing popular attitudes to mental illness. These visits also reveal the intensity of citizen interest in medicine during the nineteenth century, and the ways in which this interest was encouraged or curtailed by physicians...
Early asylums began in England as a form of imprisonment. They were for those who were "raving and furious and capable of cure, or if not yet are likely to do mischief to themselves or others." Until 1619, they were not even run by medical professionals.
In the 1700s, conditions improved little. The mentally ill were considered "beings that, without their reason, had descended to the level of animals." Even when King George III developed a mental illness, he was retrained, sedated, and treated with many harsh procedures of the time, including bleeding, blistering, and purging.
At the time, mental asylums served as a site where the poor and disenfranchised could be locked away when they developed any perceived mental issues. Those with money were usually cared for at home or in private asylums established for the better care of their wealthy patients.
Not everyone with a mental illness was sent to the asylum. Even among the poor, some people were still cared for at home, and others were left on the streets as beggars - nicknamed Tom O'Bedlams.