Home / History / The Lunatics, Mentally Ill, and Ghosts of the State Lunatic Hospital in Taunton

The Lunatics, Mentally Ill, and Ghosts of the State Lunatic Hospital in Taunton


Evolution of Mental Illness from Lunatics to Health Patient; How America looked at the Mentally Ill

At the time the campus was erected the world and America had a pretty medieval perception on who was considered mentally and how it could be cured, if at all. Society generally wanted nothing to do with them and just wanted the mentally ill, children with birth defects or even learning disabilities to disappear. Either hiding them in a “Disappointments Room” – a practice still found in some countries today – or sending them off to a lunatic asylum were the two choices.

People in that time period were ashamed to have a mentally ill, or even a disfigured or disabled person in their family. They felt it reflected on them and their status. Kind of who some people in their political cults will look at their relatives who are in opposing political cult – they are ashamed of them, have no problem avoiding them or disowning them. They definitely want them to go away.

Another aspect for this hiding or sending off was that most people just felt that doing this was for the good of the family and community. No one really cared much for what the “lunatic” thought or felt. Off you went.

The problem here was that the doctors, friends, family, local community and society dehumanized these people and devalued them. Once they had little value or humanity and were simply objects it would be easy to mistreat and abuse them, often in the name “scientific progress” but just as often in the name of “who cares?”

Like prisons and jails, once you were admitted you were locked up and not allowed to leave. All manner of abuse, cruelty and inhumanity were committed – pardon the pun. To be placed in these mental homes meant a life of floggings, beatings, solitary confinement, dietary neglect, being bound to shackles, the use of cures like electrical shock therapy, lobotomies and even some would consider sound therapy – using visiting Opera singers – to be especially inhumane and cruel. At one time injecting a person with malaria-tainted blood to induce a fever was even considered effective. Science has sure had its idiotic moments.

Sadly, innocent people like many Civil War veterans who sustained brain injuries or were shell-shocked (PTSD), those with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, Tourette Syndrome, alcoholics, even epilepsy and those with eating disorders would be confined to these types of mental asylums. Even women who had panic attacks, bouts of post-Partum Blues, anxiety, Menstruation-related anger, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and get this one: “disobedience.” You’re not off the hook guys: you could be sent to an asylum for excessive masturbation.

Some of the absurd science used to cure people was extended to the methods of diagnosis which included pseudo sciences like Phrenology – the measuring of a person’s skulls, dead and alive to find patterns the mentally ill shared. A particularly popular form of “cure” was named the Utica Crib after the asylum in Utica, New York that first utilized the marriage of solitary confinement and…babies.

This sort of pseudo-science, barbarity and ironically craziness that was used to diagnose and cure the mentally ill was continued well into the 1940s when many of these abuses which general society didn’t know about, were exposed leading to widespread reform on the psychiatric industry. Sigmund Freud may be considered an eccentric with some odd psychological theories about the mind, but in the 1930s he changed the paradigm on what would be considered mental illness and who should be locked away. The public exposure of cruelty and this shift in paradigms eventually led to deinstitutionalization in the 1950s and then again in the 1970s and ended the “locking away and throwing away the key” style of admission along with the inhumane practices.

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About Joe Silvia

When Joe isn't writing, he's coaching people to punch each other in the face. He enjoys ancient cultures, dead and living languages, cooking, benching 999#s, and saving the elderly, babies and puppies from burning buildings. While he enjoys long walks on the beach, he will not be your alarm clock, because he's no ding-a-ling.

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One comment

  1. Thanks. That was a great article, Joe. Well written and informative.

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