The Rare, Salvaged History Of The Central Lunatic Asylum

“A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.” —Nietzsche, paraphrased

In A Nutshell

Documents from the Central State Hospital in Virginia, established in 1870 as the Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane, have given researchers an incredibly rare and incredibly complete glimpse into the world of late 19th-century mental health care in the African-American community. Because hospital records were barely kept at the time—especially for African-Americans—the 800,000 documents are filling in a gaping hole in our history of mental health sciences. And some of the stories that are coming to light are pretty tragic, like the one of Edith Smith, who was admitted to the asylum simply because she didn’t have anywhere else to go.

The Whole Bushel

Mankind has always had something of a strange relationship with mental illness, and the stories of how our species has dealt with it over the centuries have some pretty dismal episodes.

Some of those episodes are pretty shadowy, too, as many of the institutions and asylums that were tasked with handling people society deemed too disturbed to be out in public lacked considerably in their record-keeping methods. And nowhere is that more noticeable than with the treatment of the world’s minorities.

That’s changed, though, with the discovery of a wealth of records from what’s now known as the Central State Hospital. Established in Virginia in 1870, it was originally called the Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane, and researchers at the University of Texas are taking on a massive project: digitizing and preserving tens of thousands of records, documenting the lives of more than a century’s worth of patients.

There are more than 800,000 individual documents, from mental health records and photographs to index cards (half a million of those) that tell the stories of lives once lived behind the walls of the Virginia building.

While the university is cataloging the records in such a way that they’re hoping people will be able to do family and ancestral research, they’re also being cautious of privacy issues. Many of the stories told are dark, and they’re being respectful not only of the patients, but of their descendants.

The records are a heartbreaking look into the state of mental health facilities at the turn of the century. They’re finding that many, many of the people who were admitted definitely didn’t belong there. The first patient ever admitted to the asylum was named Edith Smith, and the only reason she was there is because she had nowhere else to go.

Some people were there because the courts ordered them there, and others were there because their families could no longer care for them.

The building started out as a Civil War–era hospital, overhauled into a mental health facility. Eventually, the state took control of the asylum, and when they did, records indicate that there were “123 insane persons and 100 paupers, not insane” living on the grounds. In the first decade of the hospital’s existence, the term “hospital” was a pretty generous one. People were divided into groups based on their mental states, there was no sanitation or sewage system, and the only light was provided by kerosene lanterns. By 1890, the facility got another overhaul, and it was deemed “humane.”

Photos show people working in the gardens, watching concerts and musical performances, and being tended to by nurses. There’s also a wealth of information in the stacks of personal letters, board minutes, operating and staff policies, and even in psychiatry books from the different eras of the hospital’s operation. And while it shows a definite shift in the quality of care people received, it also shows that it was a chilling part of our often overlooked history.

That’s particularly true in the case of African-American history; records of their stories are few and far between, but the ones we do have aren’t pretty.

The hospital was integrated in 1970, and the full horrors of what went on behind the doors of the institution have yet to come to light. One thing that we do know is that it was the scene for a number of forced sterilizations during the period of American eugenics.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Davis Bottom
Alcade: UT Scholar Tells Forgotten Story of African-American Psychiatric Patients
Church Hill People’s News: A short history of the Central Lunatic Asylum
Crowley: Saving Black History: Digitizing Records Of The Central Lunatic Asylum For Colored Insane
University of Vermont: Virginia Eugenics

  • Hillyard

    The way these people were treated was insane.

  • Raphael

    Interesting stuff.

  • Poor people.

  • Crockettman

    Well that ended abruptly. I expected there to be at least one example of something that happened to a patient…