On January 16th of 1843, the New York State Lunatic Asylum opened its doors. 380 single rooms for patients, 24 for their attendants, 20 dormitories each accommodating from 5 to 12 persons, 16 parlors or day rooms, 12 dining rooms, 24 bathing rooms, 24 closets and 24 water closets. What happened behind these doors is still a semi-mystery. But it is known that until Amariah Brigham took over as the hospital’s first director, the conditions were incredibly inhumane. Brigham did a lot of good in the progression of caring for mentally unstable patients. He introduced the notion that it was healthy for patients to exercise, work, and go outdoors. He also introduced an annual fair at the hospital to sell patient’s art work to renovate the building. Some of the patients also helped Brigham create a newsletter called The Opal which contained passages from the patients. In 1844, Brigham created the first English language medical journal dedicated to the study of mental illness titled, The American Journal of Insanity, which was later dubbed, The American Journal of Psychiatry.
The New York State Lunatic Asylum, now known as The Old Main, was indeed one of the most progressive mental institutions of its time. However, so many things did go wrong. When family members were sent away to the institution, doctors would recommend to cut ties and forget about them. This soon became a way for men to rid of their wives if they didn’t want to be with them any longer because divorce was so frowned upon. The history of Lunatic Asylums is usually a brutal one and most definitely a hot spot for activity.
I recently went on a tour of The Old Main to get an idea of what it must’ve been like years ago. The parts I was able to see were renovated and set up specifically for tours. I was not able to see the basement, where a lot of remains still reside today, and this was because of led paint or other hazards to human health. None the less, the history during the tour was rich and absolutely interesting.
If you are interested in touring The Old Main, follow their Facebook Page to see any announcements of tours. Their tours are usually held in the summer for no cost and require a reservation through email.