At one time there were large public mental institutions serving every part of the state of Ohio. Asylums existed in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, Akron, and Dayton. Southeastern Ohio’s hospital was established in Athens, near the campus of Ohio University. Today the only one of the Ohio mental hospitals which still stands in anything resembling original condition is the Athens Mental Health Center—also known as The Ridges.
Originally monikered the Athens Asylum for the Insane, this massive institution first opened its doors on January 9, 1874. The state and federal government had purchased the more than 1000 acres of land from the Coates family, whose farm had previously occupied the spot, and spent six years building the hospital. Giant asylums in the Kirkbride style were going up all over America at this time because of the number of Civil War veterans suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. If you visit the cemeteries behind the building you will find a large number of the nameless graves marked with metal veterans’ plaques from the Civil War. The first patient at the Ridges is believed to have been Thomas Armstrong from Belmont County, followed by Daniel Fremau. Fremau apparently thought he was the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The Athens building had 544 patient rooms. When it opened it housed around 200 patients. The more sedate among them participated in recreational activities like boating, painting, dances, and picnics. They were offered church services and plays, and were often free to roam the grounds.The downside of the progress accomplished by the Kirkbride plan was the increasing popularity of the asylums. In Athens, as elsewhere, it was common for families to drop elderly relatives off at the hospital when they could no longer afford to care for them. Parents committed teenagers for insignificant acts of rebellion. The homeless would use the hospital for temporary shelter. The population of the Athens Asylum shot up from 200 to nearly 2000 in the early 1900s. Overcrowding led to the sharing of patient rooms and a severe decline in the quality of treatment administered by a staff which had barely been increased in size since 1874.
This decrease in individualized care and attention led to a renaissance of many of the primitive treatments of Colonial days—with a few new tortures thrown in for good measure. What sorts of things were done to human beings at the Ridges? Well, to name just a few…
1. Water Treatment
Patients were submerged in ice-cold water for extended periods of time. Sometimes they were wrapped in sheets which had been soaked in icewater and restrained.
2. Shock Therapy
Electric shocks were administered to patients submerged in water tanks or, more commonly, directly to the temples by the application of brine-soaked electrodes. A patient held a rubber piece in his mouth to prevent him from biting his tongue off during the convulsions which followed a treatment. (See One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for a painful example of electroshock therapy.)
3. Lobotomy (Original)
Patients had their skulls opened and their neural passages separated midway through the brain. This difficult and arduous procedure killed many people, but those who survived did in fact forget many of their depressive or psychotic tendencies. They also forgot a lot of other things, like how not to shit down your leg at dinner time, but with such an abundance of patients the only thing most doctors worried about was how to streamline the process. Open-skull brain surgery is a tricky business no matter how you slice it.
4. Lobotomy (Trans-Orbital)
Developed by Dr. Walter J. Freeman in the early 1950s, this simpler lobotomy became something of a craze in mental health circles up through the 60s. Dr. Freeman’s method involved knocking the patient unconscious with electric shocks, then rolling an eyelid back and inserting a thin metal icepick-like instrument called a leucotome through a tear duct. A mallet was used to tap the instrument the proper depth into the brain. Next it was sawed back and forth to sever the neural receptors. Sometimes this was done in both eyes. There is some evidence that this method actually helped some people with very severe conditions, but much more often the patient had horrible side effects and in many cases ended up nearly catatonic. It also killed a whole bunch of people, too.
This of course leaves out any extra cruelties which might have been given without the justification of therapy. Patients were often restrained and were forced to sleep in group bunks in rooms intended for one person. One nurse was sometimes responsible for as many as fifty patients. In these conditions some restricted patients would carve messages on the sandstone windowsills of their rooms, reaching through the ornate bars to leave an anonymous word or sentence. One poignant carving still reads, “I was never crazy.”