With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice looming on the horizon I thought I'd take some time to dive into the origins of another part of the Batman Universe, because if you think Batman villains are crazy, they are nothing compared to the monster that once roamed the halls of the real Arkham Asylum.
Disclaimer: This article does contain some graphic description of medical procedures, in case that kind of thing makes you uncomfortable.
Yes, Arkham Asylum was a real place.. sort of. While wasn’t an Ultra-max prison for the criminally insane, you may be able to argue the patients there were prisoners of the criminally insane. It didn’t start that way though and it wasn’t actually called Arkham Asylum.
The Early History of Asylums
Back in 1874 treating people with mental health problems wasn’t always a very humane practice, especially in Danvers, Massachusetts (or most of the greater New England area for that matter). People with mental illness were literally auctioned off to the community either to be cared for, or for their service as a worker. "Cared for," is a lenient term though as this often involved people being beaten, caged, lashed or worse just to keep them under control.
Terrible as it sounds those people were considered the lucky ones because if they were not purchased at auction the town released them to fend for themselves, which of course they couldn’t do because of their condition. Typically this would end in their death.
Thankfully a woman named Dorothea Dix recognized the sheer awfulness of the situation and began rallying for a more humane system where the government played and active role in caring for these people. Her hard work paid off and the result was Danvers State Mental Hospital.
I’m not sure if I should call it a hospital or a castle though, this thing IS MASSIVE and SO ORNATE! It consisted of 17 separate buildings and cost 1.5 million to make (which in todays’ money is about 37 million).
The goal was to house up to 500 patients and initially they had good success. They wanted to cure people, not just hide them, they encouraged exercise, there were relaxing gardens, big rooms, wide hallways. All these things are standard these days, but at the time were considered luxurious and ground breaking.
Danvers was considered a leader in humane treatment and they rapidly expanded, with over 40 building being built on the property. They had gyms and an auditorium and they even grew their own food for the kitchens!
Decline of Danvers and Rise of Lobotomies
With such space and success the hospital began attracting A LOT of patients, many of whom should not have been there including drug abusers and ex-criminals. As a result overcrowding became a massive issue.
Remember the max number of patients they could handle was 500, so when that number rose to over 2,300 things were not looking so good. Danvers was severely understaffed and quality of care began dropping quickly. Just as a means of control patients were subjected to shock therapy, hydro therapy and straitjackets. The rooms became filthy and untended and screams could be heard at any hour emanating from the building.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so when Dr. Walter Jackson Freeman II, showed up and claimed to have such a measure, a fix, a way to control the population, well its easy to see why they jumped at the opportunity without many questions.
Alas, we meet our monster: Dr. Freeman was a specialist and the developer of a procedure known as the transorbital lobotomy.
A regular lobotomy consists of severing the frontal lobe of the brain from the rest of the brain. Early 1900 medicine though, not super advanced, so a this would involve drilling into a persons skull which was incredibly dangerous, time consuming and expensive. Plus since the procedure was being done at psychiatric hospitals, they didn’t typically have surgical operating rooms, or high budgets, SO Freeman developed a new way to do it, the transorbital Lobotomy.
This involved using an ICE PICK, the first of which he used came from his kitchen, and going through your eye socket, hammering through a small bone, sticking the pick into your brain and basically… uh... stirring.
Plus for extra fun, this was before anesthesia was around so you would be awake for the whole procedure!
Sounds awful right?! But hey, he performed over 3,400 of these, so as painful as it sounds it must have been working to seem degree right?
Well, in the broadest sense of the term, "working," would just mean reduced symptoms of mental illness, so lets look at the results because they are indeed mixed. All the way from death to, brain damage, to reduced self control and awareness, disabling impairments, or even eventual suicide.
To be fair some people were actually able to return to work, but often even if the desired effect did occur.. it also came at the cost of the persons intellect and personality, but hey who needs those right?
To make matters worse this procedure wasn't even limited to just the one hospital. Freeman took his business on the road, traveling around the country to teach doctors all around this procedure
In any case, it's easy to see why after this guy wrapped up his work at Danvers, the hospital really lost a lot of public support and continued to suffer financially, closing building after building until finally closing in 1992.
Influence of Danvers
It’s also easy to see how the Danvers State Mental Hospital and Dr. Freeman inspired the entire Insane Asylum section of of the Horror Genre. Once upon a time asylums were not thought of as a creepy place, but now they are always that one haunted house you always avoid at Halloween.
One of the people who first started pioneering this creepy new aspect the asylum was celebrated horror writer HP Lovecraft. If you have never read his work you can pretty much check out all of his short stories here.
The one I think will interest you the most is “The Thing on the Doorstep.” It's actually considered one of he worse stories, but introduces the Arkham Sanitorium, which Lovecraft based directly on Danvers State Hospital and is the sanitarium being referenced by Batman’s Arkham Asylum.
Truly the perfect name for a place to house the criminally insane.