Insane asylums were once the purview of experiments, neglect, and even a sideshow atmosphere – the latter attained when the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London accepted admittance fees for the public to tour the grounds and chambers of inmates, observing the horrors of the untreated insane who were often in chains.

Conditions at the pre-reform Bethlem. Via/ Wellcome Images
Bethlem Royal Hospital, circa 1810. Via/ Wellcome Images

Lest we be quick to judge it should be noted that asylum tourism was once quite the fancy of many middle class Americans during the 1800s, too. Stereoscopic cards announced the glory of newly-built grounds which were considered attractions to be seen on vacation. Many of the most picturesque asylums resembled universities or manors, an attempt at dispelling the myths of over crowded and dirty asylums.

Via/ Flickr
Insane asylum, Binghamton, N.Y., 1890s. Via/ Library of Congress
The spectacular Hartford Insane Asylum grounds, 1875. Via/ NYPL

Fine architecture, zoological therapies, and meticulously-kept grounds were some of the offerings for patients whose families could afford the cost. For those who could not, conditions often reflected the jails of medieval Europe more than hospitals. Indeed areas without asylums often held the insane in jails or almshouses (workhouses) until a place could be found for them.