One scene from my novel is set in an insane asylum. Yeah, I know. Scary stuff, right?
Just hearing the words “insane asylum” conjures up images of tortured souls and inhumane treatments: mutilations, lobotomies, electroshock therapy and even castration. In fact, the insane asylum in my novel–the Essex County Hospital for the Insane (also known as Overbrook)–has been featured on several reality ghost-hunting shows. Today, most of its buildings have been demolished to make room for a public park, but home videos such as the following still capture the haunting beauty of the place.
So, am I writing a horror story? Well, no. In fact, the scene in my novel, while sad, is not at all scary. It’s set in 1900, when the first and (at that time) only building at Overbrook had been in use less than two years. Built on 300 farm acres in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, the hospital housed 244 patients at that time, 102 male and 142 female. Its main purpose was to ease the overcrowded conditions of the original Essex County Hospital for the Insane located on South Orange Avenue in Newark. The history that became fodder for its ghost tales had yet to happen.
Instead, during the 1890s, the hospital had gained a reputation as a model for other county asylums across the country. Its superintendent, Dr. Livingston Hinckley, had incorporated many innovative practices to keep his patients amused and occupied, including a day school for the patients and a monthly newspaper, edited by patients. He clearly subscribed to the common theory of the Victorian time period that the best way to treat insanity was to keep the patients busy. Overbrook, with its rural setting, offered opportunities for outdoor activity and plenty of fresh air and sunshine—all benefits that would have been considered ideal for treating the insane.
That’s not to say that all treatments for the patients at that time were benign. Dr. Hinckley was also an advocate of mechanical restraints, such as canvas muffs or padded leather straps, for his more violent and agitated patients.
Another treatment gaining popularity among asylums was hydrotherapy. Used extensively in Europe to calm aggressive patients, doctors championed this method in medical journals as a more humane alternative to chains and handcuffs. Hydrotherapy treatments were varied, with some as simple as an icepack to the head or feet. More extensive treatments included continuous warm baths where a patient was suspended on a canvas hammock in a tub of warm water for several hours or sometimes overnight. Probably most uncomfortable was the practice of wrapping the patient in a cocoon of wet sheets for extended periods of time. Some patients were kept restrained in this manner for days. Another that was often misused was spraying a patient’s spine and legs with jets of cold water.
Still, though unsettling, a trip to the insane asylum in the late 19th century would probably have been no more horrifying than a visit to a psychiatric ward would today.