In the early 20th century, asylums were everywhere.
Psychiatry didn’t really exist, at least in a modern sense. If you had any sort of mental condition, you’d probably end up in an asylum, where doctors would try their best to help you (and by “try their best” we mean “subject you to all sorts of medieval treatments and physical torture”).
The most alarming part? You could end up in an asylum for just about anything. You didn’t have to walk down the street acting like a chicken—just walking down the street was usually enough.
Back in the day, you could be committed
1. Having your own religious beliefs (if you were a woman).
Elizabeth Packard was a Jacksonville teacher who disagreed with the religious beliefs of her husband, a pastor. Naturally, that resulted in a two-year commitment to a state mental hospital, which only ended when she proved her sanity at a trial. Her husband had argued that his wife was “slightly insane,” possibly due to “excessive application of the body and mind.”
Packard spent the rest of her life fighting for women’s rights, becoming a lobbyist and authoring several books, including the aptly titled Three Years Imprisonment for Religious Beliefs. She passed away in 1897.
2. Putting on men’s clothing (if you were a woman).
On December 29, 1916, a Chicago newspaper mentioned Mrs. Emma Miller, 32, who was sent to an insane asylum. Her transgression? “Put on pants and worked as a man.”
We don’t know what happened to Mrs. Miller, but at the time, if you wanted to work, you pretty much had to look like a man (or a child, since child labor laws were still a bit lax).
3. Suffering from epilepsy.
In 1895, Mrs. Mary Brown was judged of “unsound mind” and sent to an asylum for having epilepsy. During a seizure, she fell into a fire and was badly burned; not wanting to risk another incident, her family had her committed.
Remember, though, that there wasn’t really much else that doctors could do. Asylums were for everyone suffering from mental conditions—whether you were a paranoid schizophrenic, an epileptic, or simply poor, you’d probably end up there.
Wait, what was that last thing?
4. Running out of money.
In 1913, newspapers reported the “pitiful story” of Mrs. May McCash, a stenographer who was unable to work at a “critical period of her life.”
She quickly worked her way through her savings and turned to United Charities for help. The charity helped Mrs. McCash by committing her to an asylum for five years.
“At the end of the five years, Mrs. McCash was released as cured, and is now suing for false imprisonment,” the newspaper reads.
There’s one important thing to keep in mind.
Some newspapers and hospitals published the apparent cause of mental illness rather than the actual actions that resulted in commitment. This was because the doctors of the day were interested in figuring out the primary cause of conditions—and, not knowing much about the human brain, they tried to trace that cause to some sort of original incident.
One document from the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum appears to show reasons for admission ranging from “fell from