The Dark History And Lore Of America's First Mental Asylum, The Eastern State Hospital

Abandoned asylums, haunted hospitals, and ghost-infested sanatoriums are some of the spookiest places to get your urban-exploring fix. A plethora of haunted places are open for visitation all over the world, including the very first "insane asylum" in the United States - Eastern State Hospital, located in Williamsburg, VA.

First built in 1773, the hospital was originally known as the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds. It only featured 24 rooms total, many of which remained unfilled for a number of years. The facility also suffered numerous fires and was even occupied for a time during the Civil War.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many centuries-old institutions, this hospital wasn't entirely concerned with healing its patients; instead, it focused on keeping them jailed and sequestering them from "normal" members of society. The history of Eastern State Hospital - while conducive to spooky tales and ghost stories - is also a blot on the nation's record of mental health treatment, rife with human rights violations and tragic testimonials of mistreatment.

  • Patients Were Treated As Inmates

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hospital was created not necessarily to help the unstable, but rather to protect everyone else from those whom doctors considered "mentally deranged." During the 18th and 19th centuries, sanity was determined through legal trials rather than professional medical observation.

    In the mid-1700s, Francis Fauquier, the governor of Virginia, proposed a hospital meant to house "a poor, unhappy set of People who are deprived of their senses and wander about the Country, terrifying the Rest of their Fellow Creatures."

    In 1773 - the same year as the Boston Tea Party - the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds first opened its doors, admitting America’s first mental patient. The hospital was hardly comparable to the clinical centers of today and was more akin to a prison. The facility contained 24 cells, each with barred windows and reinforced doors. Inside these cells were straw-filled mattresses, chamber pots, and iron shackles attached to the walls.

  • Tranquilizer Chairs Used Terror To 'Cleanse' Patients' Bodies And Minds
    Photo: David Becker / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Tranquilizer Chairs Used Terror To 'Cleanse' Patients' Bodies And Minds

    Among the many morbid devices on display at the museum which now stands in the hospital's former facility, none are quite as gruesome as the tranquilizer chair. Dr. Benjamin Rush - who incorrectly believed mental imbalances were caused by brain inflammation - created the chair under the notion that fear was the best means to induce sanity. According to Rush, "Terror acts powerfully upon the body, through the medium of the mind, and should be employed in the cure of madness."

    Rush designed the chair to not only restrain the patient but to deprive them of sight and slow the blood flow to their brains. A bucket was also placed beneath the seat - subjects were injected with laxatives, believed to release any bodily impurities.

  • 'Raving' Patients Were Sequestered In Dungeon Cells

    Hospital patients were forced to wear straight jackets, remain chained and confined in solitude, and even lay in coffin-like Utica cribs stacked on top of one another.

    In 1799, two dungeon-like cells were constructed beneath the first floor of the hospital for those prone to “raving phrenzy.” 

  • Most Treatments Were Cruel And Inhumane

    Prevailing 18th-century beliefs claimed that mental instability was a chosen state - restraints, electric shocks, or bleedings were perceived cures for unsound minds. Not only were straight jackets and manacles employed to keep patients in order, but iron chains attached near their bedsides were frequently used, as well.

    Substances were also administered to evacuate patients' digestive tracts, and devices such as lancers and scarificators were used to bleed out “harmful fluids.” Patients were plunged into ice-cold water in an attempt to jar them from their mental states.

    Many medical professionals believed fear was the key element in these cures, leading inhumane doctors to torment their own patients for decades.

  • Patients Were Allowed Outside - But Only In The 'Mad Yards'

    When the institution was first built, its grounds featured a large yard where patients could enjoy the sun and fresh air, but this yard was torn down shortly after for the staff's convenience. Not until 1790 were two new yards made, one on each side of the hospital. These new, significantly smaller areas featured enormous fences that were 10 feet high and 80 feet long. 

    No furniture or other such perceived luxuries were provided for the patients - restriction was still the primary method of care. These outdoor areas were dubbed the “mad yards” and are heavily reminiscent of modern-day prison yards.

  • Patients Were Buried In Unmarked Graves

    The hospital frequently used unmarked graves to dispose of patients when they passed, a common practice among many hospitals at the time. The Eastern State Hospital does, however, maintain a reminder of the patients and their struggles. Four granite slabs have patients' names etched into them, while a fifth simply holds a memorial reading,

    We erect this monument in memory of those persons whom we have known, loved and served through the years. While living they knew the suffering of inner pain, confusion and despair. Now they are at peace in the hands of God where no torment will ever touch them again.